Living Blue and the holistic inclusive business model behind it
Living Blue stems from a very different project to the social enterprise it is today. CARE Bangladesh, the NGO that initiated Living Blue in 2004, was in northern Bangladesh to implement a governance project. The idea was to train villagers as ‘natural leaders’. These leaders would work as a group and engage with local government to ensure their communities had their basic needs met. Whether it be a road or an embankment to stop floods, or building a school or healthcare services, they would work together to make it happen. The empowerment of these people was the key to bringing about change in the community.
By 2005, the villagers, through these groups of local representatives, demanded more income generating activities. The Rangpur belt of northern Bangladesh is an agrarian society, so between harvests, there were few opportunities for further income generation. Back then, the region also suffered from ‘monga’, that is, a seasonal famine. CARE Bangladesh wanted to address these issues, so, Living Blue was born.
Two inter-related income generating activities were identified as viable opportunities in the communities: growing the indigo plant and kantha stitching (quilt work). Shibori (a Japanese dying technique) was added at a later date. The notion was to work with local people, using their traditional skills, and local and national tools and materials. As of now, nothing is imported, except design knowledge.
The brand Living Blue stands for high quality, hand-made products, made by artisans in Bangladesh, meant for high end markets. The enterprise is a social one, where the artisans and dyers come under an umbrella to partner with CARE Enterprise Inc., as owners of Living Blue.
What is significant in the emergence of Living Blue is, first, the company was established by listening to the needs of the villagers. Even more interesting is that after they were trained as 'natural leaders', what they identified as important to meeting their needs was income generating activities.
Another important aspect is the value of local skills, knowledge and materials. This coordinated and well-thought out approach made Living Blue what it is today, a place for local artisans to showcase their skills and market their own products.
There has been enormous work done by CARE with and for the community, to attain certain standards and results. Though it started off as a development project, CARE had to tweak its plan as it went along. For a while, the initiative was fully sponsored, as CARE spent time and resource to build up the business from scratch. Villagers were mobilized and trained to be involved as indigo farmers, indigo processors, dyers and artisans. The trainings were meant to make them world-class and enable them to work with designers from abroad. Additionally, the governance approach was formalized. All the clusters are headed by leaders, and in many cases, they are women.
In 2013, CARE decided to spin off Living Blue as a social enterprise. This started the legal process, a transition to becoming a business. CARE decided to turn it into a business because it did not want to finance the project indefinitely, but wanted it to become self-sustainable. Living Blue’s mandate now states that it has to be self-governed. It has also stayed true to its objective of women's empowerment, as the women centered initiative has meant an alternative income source for communities.
CARE has other experience of setting up social enterprises around the world through its business arm CARE Enterprise Inc. It is working to turn projects that have business potential into self sustaining companies, in countries like Sri Lanka, in a few countries in Africa, India, and Bangladesh, in order to sustain the positive changes that has been made through years of developmental work. Living Blue is part of that process.
This blog is a part of the October 2017 series on NGOs in inclusive business, in partnership with endeva.
Read the full series for insights on what kind of roles NGOs have carved out for themselves, either as partners of companies, as intermediaries, investors, or even as entrepreneurs and their lessons learnt in doing so.