How An Entrepreneur Is Building An E-Commerce Enterprise In War-Torn Kashmir

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26-year old Muheet Mehraj attended his Master’s course for exactly five days, before realising his heart lay somewhere else. All of 20, and itching for social change, the youngster soon dropped out to start, along with a friend, Kashmir Box, an e-store based out of Kashmir that stocks everything Kashmiri.

Having lived in Kashmir all his life, the youngster knew that starting his own entrepreneurial venture wouldn’t be easy. But the desire and determination to do things for his state, combined with the idea of doing something on his own, made Mehraj take the plunge.

Talking about the idea of starting an all Kashmiri e-commerce site, Mehraj explains, “Kashmir is a brand in itself. When we were researching, we realised there are so many things, from saffron and rugs to Pashmina and handicrafts, that are unique to Kashmir alone, and that people want to buy them. But there was a problem, too. There is a lot of ambiguity on the genuineness of products one gets in cities. And while Kashmir has a strong brand name, its presence in the market, especially when it comes to e-commerce is negligible. But that is also what presented a great opportunity.”

From saffron and pashmina to wazwan feasts and kehwas and even authentic Kashmiri rugs and phirans, Kashmir Box, which started operations in 2010, stocks it all, with several shopkeepers and artisans from the state, selling things through the platform.

The journey of the startup, though, was far from smooth. Apart from the usual challenges facing any startup, Mehraj had to additionally battle the huge odds of setting up an entrepreneurial venture in a state that has been in the shackles of war and conflict for more than a decade. The first problem faced by the organisation was consolidating the increasingly fragmented handicraft industry of the state.

“We realised that for the last 20 years, there has been no intervention, especially when it comes to the Kashmiri handicraft industry. While middlemen were eating away most of the profits, artisans were languishing, worse off than daily wage labourers. Becoming an artisan had become a kind of taboo, and most artisans did not want their children to become artisans,” shares Mehraj. “We understood that just building a marketplace would not suffice, and that it was our responsibility to build a platform that could also enable Kashmir’s artisans, and in the process revive Kashmir’s rich art and crafts,” he adds. So, Mehraj got local artisans to start selling their ware directly on the platform, enabling them to draw maximum profits.

There was, of course, also the difficulty of setting up an enterprise in a conflict area. “The first few years were only about the challenges. From figuring out how to get access to the market to developing a steady supply chain in a hostile zone, from living without electricity and at times even the internet, everything was a challenge. I remember a time when from clicking photos to writing content, I used to do everything. But the passion never dipped, and that is why we are here,” Mehraj says.

The entrepreneur particularly remembers the 2014 floods that ravaged Kashmir and the recent violence that broke out in the valley after Burhan Wani’s death. “During the floods, my entire house was under 20 feet of water. My first instinct, however, was to look out for my teammates.We spent a whole month just involved in relief and rehabilitation. For two whole months, we did not take an order. There was waitlisting for three to four months for products sometimes. Thankfully, our customers didn’t give up on us. They understood what had happened and fully cooperated,” he says.

When curfew was imposed in 2016, his team would work from 5 to 7 am every morning, and then resume work from 6 to 10 pm. “Surely, those days were hard. But if you have started something, you have to get behind it.”

That the government has offered the young in Kashmir little support doesn’t affect Mehraj. “The youth in Kashmir are bright and enterprising. There are many youngsters like me who are trying to change things. We don’t want anything from the government. We only want the government to let us do what we are trying to do, and get out of our way,” he says.

Asked how he manages to stay so positive despite all that he sees, he replies, “It’s because I believe in one simple thing with all my heart – that the best of solutions always come from the worst of places.” Well said!

Dear millennial, we want to hear your story. Tell us about YOUR career aspirations, the struggles and discriminatory practices you want changed, your expectations from your workplace, the skills mismatch and wage gaps, and your unique experiences in starting your own business. Start writing here (and don’t forget to include hashtag #FutureOfWork!)