The 28-year-old Kashmiri who co-founded Kashmir Box—a website that brings together 10,000 of the state’s artisans and farmers—barely understood the meaning of the word “entrepreneur" until he was in his 20s. He operates from India’s toughest state to run an online business—there have been 58 internet shutdowns since 2017—and has managed to retain his customers—50,000 across 40 countries—through the devastating flood of 2014 and the extended curfews of 2016. One employee was injured by a pellet gun.
Just last week, Mehraj’s start-up raised an undisclosed sum of money from a group of angel investors.
Bhairavi Jani, director at supply-chain management firm SCA Group, was one of the investors. Jani works closely with youth in Kashmir and first met Mehraj a few years ago after one of her students said no to a corporate job, opting instead to join Kashmir Box.
“As an investor, I see an organization that has figured out the value chain," says Jani, adding that she likes the way Mehraj sources handcrafted products, adds design and marketing inputs, keeps it affordable, understands quality, knows how to scale up—and does all this in a difficult geography.
Mehraj first learnt how to create a website when he was barely a teenager, in the days when it took an hour to download an audio file. When he uploaded his first photo on the internet, he was blown away by the idea that his image could be seen anywhere in the world. A few years later, while creating an online travel portal for his uncle, he had another eureka moment: A platform is more impactful than a brand.
When you’ve figured out you want to do e-commerce out of Kashmir, selling handicrafts (and other home-grown items) seems like the obvious answer. Kashmir’s silks, carpets, shawls and paper, papier-mache and walnut-wood products have been popular since the Mughal era. More than two dozen trade routes linked this crafts hub to the rest of the world. Exquisitely woven Kashmiri carpets were once easily available at international stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Harrods and Bloomingdale’s.
After the insurgency in the 1990s though, international buyers stopped visiting and entrepreneurial middlemen were forced to move out of the state looking for new domestic markets. Inevitably, mass-produced versions of handcrafted originals flooded every tourist spot in India. For a Kashmiri, becoming a daily-wage worker was soon more profitable than being an artisan.
It was in this milieu that Mehraj founded Kashmir Box with Kashif Khan in 2011. “Vendors used to tell us we cannot trust you. Like everyone else, you will play with our lives," says Mehraj over the phone. They met artisans whose work was displayed in luxury hotels, but who couldn’t afford to fix the broken windowpanes in their homes during winter. When the young founders asked the 60- and 70-year-old craftsmen to sign agreements, they were often told, “You seem to be from the income-tax department."
Co-founder Khan moved on after a couple of years. By then Ishfaq Mir, whose family ran the historic Indo Kashmir Carpet Factory in Srinagar—Asia’s largest—had started investing in the company and later became its chairman. The factory, which once housed 1,000 looms, was burnt down during the insurgency and became an army camp where militants were held. Now it is the Srinagar headquarters of Kashmir Box.
According to the state’s directorate of handicrafts, 250,000 artisans in the state depend on handicrafts and Kashmiri handicrafts earn around ₹ 1,700 crore in foreign exchange every year. Even on Kashmir Box, which hasn’t made any special effort to target other markets, 30% of the buyers are from outside India. The website has grown from a simple aggregator to a champion of Kashmir’s craftspeople and farmers, one that identifies itself as a social impact company.
The craftspeople listed on Kashmir Box now collaborate with leading Indian designers. They do this anonymously, but Mehraj figures that the experience will teach them valuable commercial lessons that will eventually help them popularize indigenous embroidery styles such as ari and sozni.
Pashmina and papier-mache are among the state’s best-known crafts, but Mehraj is now working with people to revive turquoise craft, tapestry, and that mostly forgotten 18th century craft of making reed and rice straw mats called waguv.
Sometimes, in its tireless quest to track down the lost handicrafts of the state, the Kashmir Box team encounters a story that makes them do a double take. When they went looking for the famous Karakul caps (named after an Afghani breed of sheep)—worn by public figures such as the late singer Manna Dey, former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah—they discovered that the artisan slaughters a pregnant ewe and slashes her stomach to remove the foetus. The cap is made from the skinned foetus and its sheen comes from the fact that the skin is soft and unexposed to the elements. After this discovery, the caps were discontinued on Kashmir Box.
Mehraj has big plans. Kashmir Box products will soon be available in stores across the country. He plans to open 200 food stores retailing his Koshur brand of Kashmiri foods, also available on the website; launch two style lines a year, and customize products for other countries (a kimono is just a version of a pheran, after all). Not bad for someone who started with a simple idea: everything from Kashmir, in a box.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramaniTo read more of Cranky Customer, go to livemint.com/priya-ramani