Another day in the beautiful Jammu and Kashmir. Another day of waking up to headlines about your home, of wondering whether anyone you know has been affected, of hoping the curfew doesn’t shut your business down. Another day of overcoming media glares, conflicts, and guns. Another day at home for entrepreneur Muheet Mehraj.
Mehraj wants to change the narrative of his destiny, of his state’s destiny. For him, it’s always the Kashmir of Pashminas and saffrons, of cashmere and dry fruits.
In an interview with Entrepreneur India, Muheet Mehraj, Founder of Kashmir Box, talks about how they are building a brand on the established brand of Kashmir – one that stands for the artisans of the state.
Re-instating Brand Kashmir
In November 2011, Mehraj along with his then Co-founder, went live with Kashmir Box, an online platform for the arts and crafts, curated to present the best of Kashmir, from Kashmir.
Handcrafted products from the state are renowned worldwide, where one can identify the Kashmiri patterns even from far. But in the state, the artisans are struggling.
“The market of the geography is huge. It is the only state to have 10,000 stores across the world in the premium and luxury segment. But there was a time when the Harrods and the Bloomingdale’s of the world used to source products from Kashmir. There was a lot of international design intervention, but the numbers have vastly dropped because of the political turmoil in the state. The products, once considered a luxury, are now being sold in the mass market — the only problem being the wages of artisans have not risen in the past 20 years,” said Mehraj.
Working on his research for Kashmir Box, Mehraj also realized that the problem lies somewhere else — the artisans are completely disconnected from the outside world and, consequently, are not aware of the changing needs of the consumers.
“They have no knowledge of the new styles or the colors, so the product doesn’t end up selling well. The only available channel is the middleman, who again doesn’t give them the money they deserve. There’s also no access to finance,” he said.
Pondering over these difficulties, he hit upon the idea of having multiple channels for the artisans to sell their products. They have developed B2B, B2B2C, and even B2C models, opening up more selling options for the gifted craftsmen.
“We have even tied up with many other online platforms, which store our products. Not just that, we also have built relations with top designers nationally and globally. International luxury retail stores like Anthropologie house our products,” said Mehraj.
Need for New
Mehraj took matters into his own hands as a fresh graduate from college. He started talking to customers and analyzing how brand Kashmir could be revived. “As I spoke to more people, I realized that deducing the authenticity of a product was a problem that all face. The ambiguity in someone’s mind about the genuineness of a product has even cost artisans a lot of buyers,” he added.
To detect the genuineness of a product, the Ministry of Textiles has set up a craft development institute that acts as a geographical indictor, and can test a Pashmina, for example, for its genuineness. “We have also tied up with the government of Jammu and Kashmir to sell these GI-authenticated products,” stressed Mehraj.
But it doesn’t end there. While the love for these products is widespread, they are also considered to be “boring” by some. “There’s no design intervention anymore, no new products. The current product does not match the lifestyle of a customer,” said Mehraj and added, “We are working on the customization of items. The idea is to manufacture articles for the masses, but according to their needs.”
Learning Tricks of the Trade
Attempting to create a global brand, they have built connects with designers and B2B players.
“This will not only give a business portfolio to our artisans but will also help them learn. We aim to utilize our experience and knowledge of what people want and build a brand of our own. For the same, we are also looking to create a design house,” he added.
It’s called the heaven on earth but the heaven today is marred by the scathing effects of terror and scarred by the wounds of its beloved, some that are difficult to heal. The political situation has also cost the jobs of many and hindered the growth of many businesses.
Mehraj wants to help the artisans not just by giving them an audience but also giving them the much-needed financial backup. The idea is to create an impact.
“The money for the product they build is given to them upfront, and it’s 30-40 per cent more than what they would otherwise make. We want to increase the incomes of these artisans. A part of the profits goes directly to their bank accounts. Moreover, we are integrating more value by letting the customer know who actually the artisan is. Ten per cent of our equity is also for a foundation that will be a for-profit venture but will be for the uplift of artisans and the education of their children. It’s all a part of a long-term goal,” he said.
A Long Road Ahead
They have faced many operational challenges along the way, being in a troubled state like Kashmir, but that has never dampened their spirit.
“Like they say, the best of solutions come from the worst of places. There were times when things were terrible for us, but the backend always worked and the production never stopped. Through technology, we have been able to connect so many people and create a valuable change for them,” he said.
He has over 25 employees today with offices in Delhi and Srinagar, a platform that boasts of a network of 2,500 artisans, but for Muheet Mehraj the goal is still the same – Make Kashmir great again.