Thursday, September 10, 2009

Earning a living in Dhaka slums

by: Nicola Banks

Having spent much of the last three years working in various “slums” across Dhaka, I have come to resent the use of the word “slum” – too often it has been used as a term that instantaneously strips the dignity from the millions of people who live in these areas, and who regardless of their living conditions live proud and humble lives living in circumstances in which we ourselves would never be able to survive. We can help overcome by not thinking of “slums” as an entity, but to take a deeper look at the lives, struggles and successes of their residents.

From the outside, low-income settlements look primarily like residential areas, row upon row of corrugated iron shacks squeezed tightly together on top of poorly-serviced land. It is near impossible, however, to find a low-income settlement that is entirely residential, with even the smallest of settlements having a few tea shops and grocery stalls to serve the local residents. A deeper investigation into employment among the urban poor in four low-income settlements of Dhaka, however, revealed the number and variety of businesses and enterprises through which people forge their livelihoods and struggle to improve their households. Here I take a brief look at some of the entrepreneurs and their businesses that I came across during my fieldwork.

The more expected businesses to come across in urban poor communities are the stalls and shops serving the communities with all their daily needs. The size and variety of market shops in Karail, the biggest low-income settlement in Dhaka, was surprising, however. A huge and bustling market lies at the centre of the settlement, selling not only fresh and dry foods, flours and rice, but also saris and lungis, jewellery, make-up, and even some electronics goods. Even amongst the more residential sections of the settlement, housing is interspersed with tea stalls and grocery shops and shops selling firewood, and in some busy areas this stretches to pharmacies, tailors, rickshaw garages, restaurants, and more.

(Rhuma, another of our respondents, sits in her tailor’s shop, through which she supports her family. Her husband is ill and unable to work regularly, so she is the main-income earner in her household)

The most unexpected businesses however, are not visible walking up and down the main footpaths of the settlements, and you only find them when you set foot in some of the houses off the beaten track. Walking through a gate in our first settlement we came across our first such business, greeted by the sight of a small courtyard, or uthan, taken up by three large cows calmly chewing their cud as they inspected the new visitors. We discovered dairy farmers like this in three of the settlements, who supported their households by rearing and breeding cows, and by regular sales of milk and dung, which can be used as fuel.

(Saddam Hussein (yes, really!) stands beside the cows which provide the household income. His father bought these loans with an initial NGO loan, which is now fully repaid. Now they are earning a good monthly income from these cows)

In two of the settlements, a regular sight was seeing women outside of their rooms embroidering salwar kameez, a flexible job which allows them to supplement their household income at the same time as looking after their children and household duties. It was still a surprise, however, to step into one room and to see large-scale embroidery businesses to be running in two adjacent rooms of one settlement. Stepping through the door we could not miss the large sari stretched across a large embroidery frame with around 10 or 15 children sitting around it and adorning it with sequins and other embroideries. In this settlement there were three such businesses through which households were slowly improving their household income and integrating with the outside economy where they sold their saris.

(Ibrahim (back right) displays one of his finished saris, which he sells outside the settlement to middle-income commercial areas. He has ten boys living and working with him in his house here. He has been running the business for the last year, and has improved his household in this time)

In a nearby settlement, we came across an even more unexpected sight, walking into a room in which 15 or 20 women were sitting around baskets of human hair, untangling it and sorting it into different lengths. The businessman, Mustak Ahmed, bought hair from beauty parlours across the city, sorted and cleaned it, and then sold it on to national and international buyers, for up to 10,000 taka a kilogram. Not only had he reinvested and expanded his business greatly, in the process making a healthy income for his household, he was also providing employment – and relatively good wages – for a large number of women in the community, close to their home and with relatively flexible hours.
(One of Mustak Ahmed’s cul baccha (or hair selectors), who refine and sort lengths of hair. He employs 15 women permanently, who are better for this kind of work with their small fingers)

Unfortunately these success stories do not extend to all, however. The majority of poor households cannot save the capital required to start-up and run a small business. In other cases, rising costs were destroying people’s business prospects. Walking into one room we saw an elderly man crouched over a wooden slab making tiny sandals. Abdul Rashid has made children’s sandals for the last 9 years. He used to be able to support his household through this enterprise, but now he can only manage around 1,000 taka (around $15) a month and must rely on the incomes from other household members. Recent price increases have been devastating to his business, with all of his raw materials – brightly coloured plastic, glue, cardboard and plastic piping -having more than doubled. Meanwhile, he is unable to increase the price of a finished pair of sandals as this would make them unaffordable to the income of his customers – poor urban residents whose incomes have also been squeezed by price increases in household essentials.

What lessons can we learn from both these successes and obstacles faced by businesses run by the urban poor? While I have focused here on small businesses, my wider research has also focused on two other main employment categories, namely unskilled labour and formal sector jobs. In all categories you can find households who have been able to improve their household situation through the income generated by this employment, and those who have not. It is only by trying to understand the ways in which poor urban citizens make their livings, and the barriers that they face to improving their household situation, that development interventions can start to help turn more of these livelihoods into success stories.


  1. Amazing. Helped alot with my case study. Thanks!

  2. Very informative read, very lucid indeed. Can these people actually get out of poverty permanently by remaining in the SME sector or the only way out is through the growth of labor intensive industrial sector?

    The plastic industry (mostly sme) in lalbagh islambagh employs a lot of people but offer very little upward mobility, whereas furniture industry (with sizable large enterprises), also labor intensive, offers much more scope for upward mobility. So I am confused in this regard. Loved reading your essay.

  3. Amazing one! I really want to go visit them myself! Thanks for this great compilation!! Loved it!

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