The SAARC Business Association for Home Based Women (SABAH) is a unique initiative that is working towards strengthening the economic base of Pakistan through harnessing and empowering home based women workers. Saad A Khan, Chief Operating Officer SABAH talks to Blue Chipabout the initiation and future of this project that promises economic and social empowerment for the women belonging to the rural areas of Pakistan.
What is the background and philosophy behind SABAH?
Saad A Khan: “SABAH stands for SAARC Business Association for Home Based Women Workers. SAARC Development Fund conceived this project with the primary objective of empowering home based women workers. The project focuses on economic and social empowerment that encompasses many aspects of their lives such as income opportunities, self esteem and provides a sense of belonging. In Pakistan, traditional embroidery has long been passed on from generation to generation, but due to lack of profitability in this industry, there has been a gradual decline in the transfer of this skill. In recent years, especially in India, artisan industry has contributed quite significantly to their overall export revenue. This comes under the skilled worker category. SABAH aims to bring the work of such workers to the mainstream market in a form that is consumer friendly and marketable both locally and internationally. The project stems out of Fair Trade practices and reversing certain economic trends by creating revenue streams for these women.”
Whose idea was it and when was it initiated?
SAK: “SABAH Pakistan was launched in 2009. Phase I was building a membership base with infrastructure to bring everything under one regional umbrella. SABAH remains distinct from other organisations and platforms because the SAARC platform opens up a vast field of opportunity for the artisans. In Pakistan SUNGI Development Foundation has been supporting and nurturing this project in terms of ground support. SUNGI has extensive experience in advocacy of women’s rights in the rural areas. Samina Khan, who heads SUNGI, is also the chairperson of SABAH. Besides SUNGI, SABAH works with partner organisation in Sindh, Baluchistan and KPK to increase its membership base. SAARC Development Fund is the primary donor for this project. Phase II starts from Jan 1st 2012.”
You personally have a background in banking. How did you choose to make the change to working in the development sector?
SAK: “Banking is business and this project has business development, brand management and marketing requirements so when I discovered the job opportunity, I applied for it. The development sector is in dire need of the operational efficiency of the private sector. We are working towards sustainability and hope to breakeven before 2015. Our membership base is 600 at the moment and we want to expand to near 2000 members across Pakistan. Therefore, all efforts are focused towards building this enterprise and brand for the welfare of HBWWs. I like the tangible nature of our efforts. We aren’t promising anything long term that we can’t deliver on short term.”
Which provinces does SABAH operate in and how many home based working women are involved with creating SABAH crafts?
SAK: “It is a national and a regional organisation. SABAH Pakistan has 600 members currently and we aim to increase it to nearly 2000 members across Pakistan. Members being home based women workers. They are the stakeholders in this social enterprise and we prefer calling them members instead of workers.”
What makes you different from projects like behbud and Sungi?
SAK: “Sungi is a diverse organisation that works on many different social and economic projects. Their expertise is in advocacy of women rights, health programs and social welfare on a broad spectrum. We differ from Behbud in terms of the nature of the product. SABAH outlets are a lifestyle shop, not just apparel. We are blending tradition and trend and coming up with a product line that is consumer friendly and utility based. You can visit our retail outlet in Islamabad and buy a wide range of household items such as cushions, laundry hampers, shoe organisers, blue art pottery and apparel. We are trying to project artisan products as trendy and cool. Polly and Me is an inspiration for the venture. For me this is the right direction to be followed in order to empower artisan women workers. It’s time to bring something new to the market. No more peacocks!”
What sort of handicrafts do SABAH members produce?
SAK: “Well, I like to stay away from the handicraft label. I consider it to be a handicap. Our products are regular retail /consumer based products. We have apparel, home textiles and gift accessories. The product is evolving gradually. We have some sought-after items such as shoe organizers and laundry hampers and really funky cushions, all using very traditional embellishments. The consumer response has been great in Islamabad.”
Who is your target market?
SAK: “Everyone. The price points make it a convenient one stop shop. You can buy gifts for friends and family or something for your household. Retail therapy doesn’t have to be costly, our shop is a happy place for consumers to buy something and be proud that almost 40% of what they pay for has already gone to a home based woman worker in some rural area in Pakistan.”
Is this a funded project or self-sustaining?
SAK: “The project is funded by the SAARC Development Fund till December 2014. Our goal is to reach breakeven long before that and become self sustainable. It is a huge challenge, but the last thing I want to do is to let down our members. SABAH has the ability to become successful on its own, along with the support of our own community and consumers. However, we do plan on reaching the international markets with our products sometime in the future.”
Where is SABAH today and what are your long term goals?
SAK: “We recently launched our first retail shop in Islamabad (former SUNGI location). We are planning to launch an outlet in Karachi, currently looking for possible locations. My main focus is to continue working on product development, improve our quality, increase our membership network and engage as many members as possible. We have a very active and strong Board of Directors with industry experts such as Aleema Khan, Nauman Durrani and Mr. Kamran Sadiq, who provides regular guidance and direction to our business plan. We plan to launch an outlet in Lahore next year. We are working with a Latitude PR to initiate unique ventures and shows featuring SABAH and take our product to as many people as possible.”