Fair share of business pie

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In the male dominated entrepreneurship arena in Kashmir few women had made their mark. Aliya Bashir talks to some, who have braved odds and set up successful ventures.

In the past few years a number of women in mostly conservative Kashmir have successfully ventured into business and created a niche for themselves. They are flourishing as designers, interior decorators, exporters, publishers, florists and some of them running small businesses. From establishing boutiques to cultivation of flowers to setting up manufacturing units, the women are trying their luck in the male dominated world of entrepreneurship.

A smile appears across Rahila’s face when she recalls the old days and the unbelievably little money she would earn slogging all day at her sewing machine. “People will pay as little as ten rupees for fixing or altering their clothes and sometimes they would not even pay that,” she says. Setting up a business should have been unimaginable. But 33-year-old Rahila Samad braved odds and resisted family pressure to turn her dream into reality.

She worked tirelessly to open a boutique where she can both design and sew the clothes. Today her boutique, located nearby her home in old city area of Srinagar, has many stylish dresses and fabrics on display.

“Initially our family were against the idea (of opening a boutique) fearing that a woman venturing into the trade might not get social acceptability in our conservative culture. But over the years when my business started growing and I maintained my family decorum, they too supported my work,” Rahila says.
She says one of the major benefits for a woman running a boutique is that she already has a liking for garments which helps her to have a clear idea of the customers demand.

“I am very passionate about my work and that helps me choose better products and evolve good designs. Besides I take orders of various designs and fabrics which I get done from outside (Kashmir),” says Rahila. With her family’s support she has roped in a few boutiques from outside the state to stay in touch with latest fashion trends, she adds.

Rahila has come along way from fixing old clothes as she designs, sews and sells dresses to a reasonably large clientele.

In south Kashmir’s Dadoora area of Pulwama district, a woman quit a good government job to pursue a dream. She wanted to set up a business that was not much popular in Kashmir. She wanted to become a florist, and grow and export flowers. Nusrat Jahan owns the state franchise of Petals and Ferns- a major retail chain of flowers in India.

Nusrat who is in early 30’s, runs two floriculture farms where she grows flowers for both domestic consumption and export.

She has been awarded the Women Leadership Award in 2009 by the Rotary Club. She was also awarded the Tata Stree Shakti Award in Mumbai by the Tata group.

In 2000, Nusrat started the business by procuring flowers from wholesale dealers in Delhi on credit and sold them in a weeklong exhibition. She managed to pay the dealers and earn a good profit.

As the demand for her flowers started growing, she started to produce flowers and export outside the state. “Initially many people were very sceptical in doing flower business but today they give my examples to step into floriculture business,” Nusrat said.

To elevate her business, she purchased 25 kanals of land in Amod at Pahalgam and set up a flower farm on it. “When people outside (the state) saw the quality of Kashmiri flower they were quite impressed and the demand increased,” says Nusrat who rented another 30 kanals of land at Wanihama, Beerwah and set up a flower farm on it.

Her farms produce various varieties of flowers like Gladiolus, Carnecium Lilium, roses and tulips. She is planning to export flowers to international markets such as the Gulf.

There are many women-owned business ventures in Kashmir. Most of them pursued it as their dream. But Shamima had no such dreams. Or ambitions. Or imagination. She was a content housewife, happy to spend her days, caring for and looking after her family.

When a tragedy left her husband incapacitated 19 years ago, she was forced to fend for her new born baby and an ailing husband.

She sold her jewellery to pay for the treatment of her husband. When a square meal became a luxury she turned to spinning Pashmina.

Shamima, now runs a small cottage enterprise which helps more than 2000 women earn a living. She operates her Wani Pashmina Katayee Centre from a room in her home at Awantipora. “I earn 30,000 per month and the women who work under me earn 3000-6000 rupees each,” she says.

Having seen very terrible days, when she turned to spinning Pashmina, she would save every penny she could. With those savings, she got a 2-kilogram bag of Pashmina wool procured from Leh.

“A 2kg bag would cost Rs 800 there and Rs 4,000 here,” she says.  “Due to time-consuming spinning work, I hired many women which helped them to earn a living and, I some profits.”

The more than 2000 women workers she outsources her work to, live in different villages of Pulwama and its adjoining districts. With the expansion in business Shamima has appointed agents in each village to manage them. “The agents collect the Pashmina yarn spun by women for me,” she says.

As a lot of women come to her, she has converted a small store room into a shop where she sells various ladies products. Scores of women make purchases at her shop every day.

Rifat had always wanted to be self-reliant. She had put in all her efforts to start a business of her own. A setback pushed her out of business but her resilience won and she created another business venture.

In 1984, Rifat Mushtaq, now 50, started a matchbox manufacturing unit with her personal savings and a bank loan. When the business started to grow she pumped in more money to upgrade to an automated plant.

However, with the onset of armed militancy in early 1990’s, the government cancelled the license to the factory as gunpowder is used as a raw material in the matches industry. She had to sell her jewellery and some fixed assets to clear the debts and repay the bank loan.

In the face of all the odds and a staggering financial loss she did not give up. Eight years later she was again at it, this time setting up a printing press along with manufacturing and printing cardboard boxes for packaging dry and fresh fruits in the Industrial area of Zakura, on the outskirts of Srinagar.

“I had to work hard to handle all the technical and marketing aspects of the business. It would have been never possible without my family support,” she says.

Currently the business is seeing an impressive turnover. Rifat employs about a dozen local women besides some skilled labour from outside the state.

Nuzhat Maqbool, 39, is the only lady distributor of Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) from the valley. Her venture Enn Emm Agencies, is the distributor for Agro-Tech Foods Limited, Halidram Manufacturing Co. Ltd., Cremica, Nutrine, Cadbury’s, Trimurty foods and Nature-fresh oil, Mangal foods.

Nuzhat was working as computer operator on a monthly salary of Rs 7000. But destiny had something else in store for her. She learned the basics of business and started her own enterprise. When the business grew she quit the job in June 2002 and became Halidram’s lone distributor in the state.

“Since I am in this field, I believe business is an ideal profession for women. It makes her to become confident and independent without becoming subservient to anybody,” says Nuzhat, who hails from Pattan.

She is the lone female participant in the various distributors meets organised by Halidram outside the valley. From a mere amount of 150 rupees on the first day of her business in June 2002, the sales have soared to an annual turnover of over two crore rupees.

At present, she pays around Rs 55000 in staff salary and rent, every month. The agency owns four load carriers, which are used to distribute the goods.

Born in a business family, making business a career choice seemed a natural thing for Shahala Shiekh. She carried on her family’s legacy of walnut furniture company. She is the proprietor of ‘Woodfort Walnut Furniture’ and a consultant for interior decorators.

“It is very difficult to get things done in Kashmir. I didn’t have any technical expertise of furniture making,” says 37-year-old Shaikh, who has restored her father’s log and a joinery-mill at Parimpora on the outskirts of Srinagar.

A commerce graduate from Bangalore University, 37-year-old Shahala, wants to bring exquisite furniture her clientele both in Kashmir and outside.

The furniture factory employs around 35 workers. Shahala wants to expand her business but shortage of raw materials is holding her back. “I would have been 10 times more successful outside as I have both national and international clientele. I am a dreamer and want to be content with whatever I do,” she says.

Most of the businesswomen in Kashmir, say that striking a balance between work and family obligations is a tough ask. But not for Salima Jan. The 55-year-old has been in the business of making Namda (wool carpet) and crewel bags with crewel work and chain stitch for the last 25 years. More than 50 women and girls work at her Kirman Namda Embroidery Workers Society at Kutub-ud-din Pora in Nowhatta Srinagar.

She has trained around 2000 girls in these crafts. “I am in this art since childhood. But I have started my own venture when I was 30. Since then both educated and illiterate girls came to learn it,” Salima says, “My parents have taught me this skill and now my children are carrying forward the legacy along with their studies.”

In 1981, she had set up a co-operative society and would sell the handicrafts to Arts Emporium and would show case the work in different exhibitions outside the state.

Salima has been president of various handicrafts artisan associations and also headed Woman welfare society and Women Development Corporation. For Sozni work government emporium has also given her an award and she has also received some awards in Kolkatta for “Gudiya Haat”.

She says there are various government run centres, where girls can learn these crafts. She also heads some of these centres. Salima helps the girls in getting the registration so that they get the raw material. On an average a girl can earn around Rs 1500 a month or more by doing Namda work or making other things at home.

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About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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