Kashmir’s picturesque beauty and cultural heritage needs no introduction. The beautiful state boasts of the most exotic spices, spectacular handloom and its biggest strength is its skilled artisans. Unfortunately, life is not a bed of roses for them.
Artisans and farmers are forced to leave the trade because of the social stigma of not being able to support their families on low incomes – they face immense financial struggle owing to middlemen eating up the profits. Loans are available but at very high interest rates. Non-existence of an equity base or cooperative models makes self-reliance almost impossible. Paucity of avenues and knowledge about market access, requirement logistics and other modern day business necessities are difficult to grasp and adapt, especially when the majority of artisan and producers are not educated. Part of the problem is also that traditional crafts have not moved with the times and are therefore not in line with the demand.
Muheet Mehraj and Kashif Khan decided to give that much needed impetus to the flagging handicraft industry in their state and so was born Kashmir Box (Kashif is not a part of Kashmir Box anymore, he has moved to a venture of his own).
KashmirBox.com is a social enterprise that retails various products from Kashmir. To begin with, they were exclusively online, but gradually they are expanding into brick and mortar stores as well. At Kashmir Box artisans, craftsmen, producers and other creative entrepreneurs showcase their skills and products to a global marketplace.
Back in 2013, when YourStory spoke to them, they wanted to take brand ‘Kashmir’ to the world. In the past two years, Muheet with his team seems to have left no stone unturned.
Muheet talks about the new business model that empowers artisans financially and puts them in the limelight as well. “Kashmir Box has integrated a royalty program through which the artisans, designers, and producers involved in every single product/produce are mapped and royalties are credited into their respective bank accounts in real time at the time of sale/realization. “
To bring a contemporary perspective to the artisans, Kashmir Box is collaborating with Craft development institute, School of Design and Indian Institute of Carpet Technology. Muheet adds, “It would not only help in reviving the crafts but also increase the quality benchmarks of our skilled artisans.”
They are also currently working with many national and international designers from whom they get orders. Through video conferencing calls, they engage the artisans and designers to ensure desired results. Interaction with the designers has helped the artisans in picking up the best practices and has in turn raised the bar in quality and delivery timeline.
They also participated in the International Buyer/Seller meet conducted by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI) and the outcome has exceeded expectations. Exhibitors who at one point were their competition, have now seen value in Kashmir box and are now showcasing their respective collections via the Kashmir Box platform as well!
Kashmir Box has reserved 10% of its equity for “Kashmir Box Foundation” that works for the betterment of the artisan/producer community. The foundation is setup to do its good work once it starts receiving a certain amount of revenue. For now, Kashmir Box would be reinvesting its profits into growth and expansion of its business, and will start sharing a segment of its profits by 2019.
They have recently setup their first store at their headquarters – Shar-e-Khas, Srinagar. The need to setup retail stores came from the fact that the customers would often request to visit a store so they could touch and feel the products. Customers also requested to communicate in person for possible customizations, and contribute towards their social impact initiative.
Kashmir Box is now permeating international markets with their digital strategy. Kashmir Box has also entered the booming market of personalized gifting. A very strategic move indeed. According to an essay on the gifting market, the world gift market represents an industry in excess of $300 billion! Muheet tells us that the ‘Pherans’ (traditional outfit worn by Kashmiris) were a big hit in the Russian market last winter.
To give artisans recognition, Kashmir Box has also started connecting artisans and the customers. With the help of videos, they educate the customer about the craft they purchase and the hands behind the product.
Pilot projects and impact
They have recently partnered with their sister organization myrahat.com to start building tools for information dissemination for farmers, training them throughout rural J&K. For the pilot, the scope is to increase the quality of the produce and ensure that farmers have direct market access for their premium produce.
On the craft side, some of their newer pilot projects for a handful of brands have been working out well. Muheets adds, “Brands such as AMMA, JAN, Koshur Dastakar, Himalayan, Paradise, etc have not only bagged trade orders but their B2C ( business to customer) business has seen unbelievable leaps with an increase that is anywhere between 300% to 2500%!”
The main challenge now is getting skilled artisans, since there are hardly any left in the valley. Muheet hopes to build their own skill development centres for various types of Kashmiri handicrafts. Kashmir Box raised seed capital from Ishfaq Mir(a mentor who actively works with the team on strategy and executions) and is in discussions with a few social impact venture funds to raise series A.
Muheet throws light on another challenge, “The top line is not yet up to our expectations. Currently we are at 400% Compound annual growth rate (CAGR) year on year. Our test models have shown a 7X return on marketing investments with 98% positive feedback. The good news is that this model is scalable and with the infusion of funding, we would be able to ensure fair value pricing and maintain a humane face to business.”
Muheet’s big dream is to make Kashmir Box the spring board that puts Kashmir on the world map for all the right reasons – its indigenous treasure. Social enterprises like Kashmir Box are now challenging the status quo in Kashmir and are trying to give its citizens a stable economic ecosystem, recognition and a chance at skillset upgrade that has breathed life into the age old art.