Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad, President Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) tells Saima Bhat that the recently concluded 6th international buyer-seller meet is aimed at making long term business contacts with buyers.
Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad (SAA): Started in 2007 with 17 buyers from 5 countries, this annual international buyer-seller meet has come a long way. However the journey was not always smooth as it might look now. Initially, it took us lot of time to convince people associated with the sector to understand the merits of this meet. This year (2015), we had 70 international buyers from 21 different countries.
I admit progress is slow, but in handicrafts business just 10 solid and genuine customers mean your job is done. You need to understand that these buyers represent big companies and import houses.
We are not here to sell one or two shawls; the meet is aimed at developing long term business relations with the buyers.
If they take samples now, maybe they will place big orders in future too. This is how I started my career. The main aim of the meet is to help sellers get familiar with the buyers, orders follow automatically.
KL: What should be the state government’s role in promoting Kashmir’s ailing handicrafts sector?
SAA: After this international meet here, government should help in organizing similar expos at various other countries where we can reach out to the people and see how good our products are.
And at the same time we have to be competitive because world economy is very slow. There should be clusters in every district where artisans and weavers will make societies, where they will develop infrastructure and weave carpets themselves. But for that they need the support of government in terms of soft loans.
KL: Has this year’s buyer-seller meet yielded results as per your expectations?
SAA: Yes Alhamdullilah! Let me tell you frankly, we had kept our expectations to minimum. A business of USD 700,000 in just two days was way beyond our expectations. However, in handicrafts business, even a single client can place an order of USD 500,000. It is an initiative by Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI) and everybody should appreciate it. We should encourage people for maximum participation. I know those who got big orders must be happy, but those who don’t should not lose heart. They should try to sell their products more vigorously next year. There is no limit once we get things streamlined.
KL: Most of the delegates say that Kashmiri carpets are not so popular as compared to Persian ones. Is there a plan to promote Kashmiri carpets at the international level?
SAA: Persian carpets are almost 1200 years old industry and ours is about 700 year old. We (Kashmiris) have learned the art of weaving carpets from Persians. They are our masters in this particular field. Besides, Iranians have a dedicated ministry for carpet industry. In Kashmir even handicrafts sector falls under ministry of Commerce and Industries. We need to have exclusive ministry for the promotion of handicrafts. Then only we can grow and promote our products effectively. We can at least have handicrafts board. You know, handicrafts sector annually earns state a foreign exchange of around Rs 2000 crore. There should be transport subsidy for this sector.
Ironically all big Kashmiri exporters have their offices in New Delhi and Mumbai from where they do all the exports. As a result we are losing around 80 percent of exports to these stations. And when it comes to schemes from GoI for infrastructure development, it goes to these places as Srinagar ends up registering fewer exports.
We don’t have to follow Gujarat model, we should make our own model.
KL: How these events are beneficial for artisans?
SAA: Artisans are connected to manufacturers, so when one gets benefited, ultimately other is benefitted too. It is a chain. But it is the job of government to scrutinize a manufacturer and see if an artisan is getting perfect wages as per his work.
We must empower our artisans if we want our handicrafts sector to grow.
KL: After the success of this year’s buyer-seller meet what are your plans for the next one. Are there going to be more participant countries?
SAA: Next we are targeting around 100 buyers next year. If we get them that means we have achieved something for our trade.
But one thing is there, it is the time to go for branding of our Kashmiri products for which I have already talked to the chief minister of the state. It is the need of hour.
We should at least participate in 6 exhibitions for the first year to see the response.
Products like Papier-mâché are for European and American markets; shawls sell in Turkey and Tunisia markets. Turkey gets around 70 million tourists every year and it is the best market for our products. This year we had more buyers from Turkey because of the demand there.
Our business exporters make annual turnover between Rs 20 to 25 crores. I myself export silk carpets and my turnover is Rs 22 crores. And there are many star exporters; government recognized export houses, who have achieved a turnover between Rs 45 to 70 crores in just three years.
My goal has always remained to follow my customer then the profit will follow itself. This is my practical experience.