The Motherhouse Story Part 1: Making Bags In Bangladesh

You have to witness poverty firsthand, to solve it.

The seeds of Motherhouse first began to sprout in the spring of founder, Eriko Yamaguchi's senior year at college. It all started when Eriko was selected as an intern for an international organisation — an opportunity that she was initially apprehensive about. 

It was her dream to work for an international organisation dealing with developmental aid in Washington. Once there, Eriko met and worked with admirable people from all over the world, whom all spoke different languages yet had one attribute in common — they were hardworkers. 

When she first started her stint at her new internship, her initial thoughts were that she found it extremely new and cool. However, there was always a nagging feeling within her that did not sit right. While working there, it was tough to find a smiling face amongst those in developing countries who were the beneficiaries of the monetary aid.

Eriko soon returned to Japan from Washington, and set off to one of the poorest countries in Asia, Bangladesh. 


Hit with the reality of a developing country

Coming from a first-world country, Eriko was dealt with numerous unfamiliar situations upon her arrival in Bangladesh. Immediately at the airport, she had scented a smell that she had never experienced before in her life. Out on the streets, she came across countless beggars, people with disabilities stranded outside, and even naked babies crying ceaselessly. 

"I didn't know this world existed."

Astonished by the scene that unfolded before her eyes, one thought surfaced to the top of Eriko's mind, "Is there something I can do to help these people, even if I am merely one person in this world of billions?" With that mindset, she made up her mind to stay in Bangladesh for a while, to figure out a solution to the problem she met. 


Onward to graduate school in Bangladesh

Despite immense worrying from her family and friends, Eriko was well on her way to Bangladesh for graduate school soon after graduating from college in Japan. She found an apartment by herself, and while living there, had experienced numerous unfamiliar situations including monthly strikes, birthday bombings, and even floods that affected 33 million people in the country. Due to all the anxiety formed from such unexpected events, she had difficulty sleeping at night. This constant worrying about her own safety led to her carrying tear gas in her pants for extra precaution on her way home from graduate school. 

The things that she encountered in Bangladesh further solidified her belief that the monetary aid and donations from developed countries were not reaching the people who needed it the most.

"If only there was a new way to help these people through more sustainable, healthy methods," Eriko thought. 


Her first encounter with the material known as golden thread

One day, along the streets of Dhaka, Eriko encountered a bag that was sitting forgotten in a corner of a store. Although it was torn and tattered, she was nevertheless drawn to it because of its unique texture. A sign next to it displayed the words, "Jute bag". She knew that jute was a type of linen, but the desire to learn more about this new material burned within her. 

After researching around, she discovered that jute was an attractive material. It absorbed 5 to 6 times more carbon dioxide as compared to other plants during photosynthesis, and did not emit toxic fumes when disposed of. That's not all! It was even an environmentally-friendly material that could be crushed and used as a fertiliser. 


The beginnings of Motherhouse

"This is it! Let's make the best quality bags out of jute and sell them in Japan!"

Eriko thought of a solution that did not have its foundation in aids and donations built on the intentions of self-sacrifice. Rather, with her solution, she wanted to focus on establishing a bridge between developing and developed countries, by cooperating in a sustainable manner with a solid economic foundation. 

She eventually decided to leverage on the abundant resources available in developing countries to create products that are deemed attractive in developed countries, promoting exports throughout the entire process. The hard work of skilled individuals based in Bangladesh would be rewarded in the form of legitimate business profits, while individuals in Japan could enjoy quality, stylish bags.


The search for a local supplier

With a roughly drawn bag design in a simple sketchbook and funds saved up over the course of her part-time job, Eriko visited dozens of bag factories in Bangladesh, with her dream in mind.

"What can a little girl do? Don't make me laugh."

Unfortunately, she was dealt with a lot of negative responses. Her attempts to explain her dream to the local suppliers failed miserably. For those who agreed to create a sample, she paid the necessary fee but failed to hear back from them ever again. Eventually, the consecutive failures wore Eriko down. She was discouraged by her lack of experience and money. 

Just as she was about to give up and return to Japan, Eriko met a young plant manager in Bangladesh. The words that came out of his mouth were ones she longed to hear for ages, "Let's bet on your dream."


Desire to bring high quality products to Japan

Tears of joy soon turned to tears of despair and frustration the day after production began. It was more difficult than Eriko imagined, to create a product that would be attractive in Japan, in Bangladesh. Her bag design had to be made with an attention to detail and quality level that was never instilled in the workers in Bangladesh before. 

"Let's make something that the Japanese customers really want, not something that they'll feel pity for." With this attitude, Eriko began to slowly change the mindset of workers in the factory. 

The hardest part of the production experience was no doubt when her workers came smiling and running to her calling, "Madam, madam!" with the products they had crafted, and Eriko had no choice but to reply with "Sorry" and request them to craft the products over and over again. There was once she had 5 or 6 sleepless nights in a row because of issues she faced. 

After what seemed like a never-ending cycle, all 160 bags were finally completed. While packing the bags into boxes to be shipped out to Japan, the plant manager said to Eriko, "I think we did our best." Upon hearing those words, Eriko could not help but burst into tears due to overwhelming feelings of hope for the future. 


Continue to Part 2 here.



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