Indian fashion designer Saira Trumbu has long dreamed of starting her own online brand, but frequent government shutdowns imposed by authorities to suppress dissent in her home state of Kashmir have made it impossible.
When reliable, high-speed connections were finally restored last year, Trumbu began selling her designs on Instagram, joining the many women and startups using the internet to create new business opportunities in the region.
“The Internet means life to me,” said Trumbo, 27, who has more than 40,000 followers on her virtual storefront and employs three women to help process orders for her traditionally embroidered tunics and other items.
“Not only did it help me become independent and earn good money, but it also helped me create job opportunities for others.”
The government revoked Kashmir’s autonomous status in 2019 and split the state into two federal territories, aiming to tighten its grip on the restive Muslim-majority region where separatists have fought Indian rule for decades.
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Anticipating major unrest, the authorities imposed a communications blackout in the region, cutting off telephone and internet connections. The severe restrictions lasted until February 2021, when 4G mobile data services were restored.
The region saw the fewest outages this year since 2017, according to advocacy group Software Freedom Law Center India.
Improved internet access in Kashmir has enabled new online businesses, from influencers to e-commerce.
Many are created by female entrepreneurs who previously had limited opportunities to work outside the home due to conservative cultural norms, and startups funded by a growing number of investors eager to tap into the region’s potential.
“We are used to curfews, snow, and we grew up surrounded by bullets and militants,” said Sheikh Samiullah, 31, co-founder of FastBeetle, Kashmir’s first local courier firm that uses a mobile app to manage deliveries.
“But the Internet is the oxygen of our business.”
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A “deviant” investment
The Kashmir Valley has drawn more than 16 million tourists to its snow-capped mountains and lush scenery this year, the highest since the end of British colonial rule in 1947, following the easing of Covid-19 travel restrictions and an improved security situation.
But unemployment is still a challenge due to the lack of private industry, with the unemployment rate at 24 percent, triple the national average, data from the Indian Economy Monitoring Center showed.
Startup investors and entrepreneurs say the mountainous region brings challenges but also potential for development and growth, especially now that internet connections have improved.
“Startups are coming out of Hyderabad and Bangalore, but it takes enormous courage to identify and solve problems in the Himalayan region,” says Syed Faiz Qadri, 25, co-founder of food logistics business Zarin.
The company works with farmers to supply Kashmiri rainbow trout to restaurants and e-commerce platforms across India. They have faced challenges ranging from encountering militants to a lack of refrigerated supplies needed to keep their food fresh.
The internet recovery meant Zarin’s founders were able to use the Covid-19 lockdown last year to find and sign up new customers, and were ready for their first orders when travel restrictions were lifted.
Both businesses and funders say the new startups can benefit residents by creating jobs, finding new markets for their products and enabling growth in the conflict-torn region.
Some Internet-based companies have found ways to navigate a broken network in the mountains.
FastBeetle, which serves more than 1,200 businesses, including many run by women selling goods online, found poor data connections meant couriers could not look up addresses and often returned to the office with undelivered parcels.
The founders moved from 4G to 2G to launch the app, which now works even without internet.
“We’re making money in an Internet-based company in a region where the Internet is messed up,” Samiullah said.
“People now believe they can invest too if we can.”
While the lion’s share of startup funding still goes to companies in big cities, government incentives and private capital can help correct the “skewed investment dynamics,” says Anuj Sharma, founder of ALSiSAR Impact, a startup incubator in Mumbai.
“The community is very responsive to these startups,” says Vishal Ray at the Jammu and Kashmir Institute for Entrepreneurial Development, which was set up by the regional government to support startups and entrepreneurs.
“They buy and promote these brands. there is a strong affinity,” he said.
Improved internet connectivity has also boosted content creators, including women.
Syed Arej Safvi, 27, has been hailed as the first female performer of ladishah, the history of a traditional Kashmiri music form.
“Being a female content creator is still considered a taboo in a conservative society like Kashmir,” says Safvi, whose income comes mainly from her video content.
He recorded his first ladishah in 2019 amid an internet blackout, describing the situation in Kashmir, and quickly gained a following as internet restrictions eased.
Today, he has more than 69,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 72,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel.
India’s 637 million and growing number of smartphone users is driving a growing market for online content, according to a report by venture capital fund Kalaari Capital.
There are an estimated 80 million creators in the country, including 50,000 professional creators on regional video platforms. However, only a small minority earn a good income from their work, it said.
Despite limited opportunities and an uncertain environment, better Internet access has paved the way for women, Safvi said.
“Access to the Internet has helped me grow my audience and experiment with different online earning opportunities,” he said.
“It helps every woman in Kashmir break patriarchal barriers, overcome taboos and become self-sufficient.”