Srinagar, Mar 07: A 27 year old woman entrepreneur, Shahzada Akhtar, from south Kashmir's Pulwama district has set an example for unemployed youth.
She started her venture at just Rs 25 and after almost seven years now, owns one of the biggest dairy farms in Kashmir. She is undoubtedly the ‘dairy-queen’ of Kashmir.
In 2015, Shahzada Akhtar from Mitrigam village came in contact with Neelofar Jan, who had returned from Andhra Pradesh along with local vocational trainers through the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) department. The encounter changed Shahzada’s life.
“They (the trainers) were motivated local women to create Self-Help Groups (SHGs) consisting of 10 women. They establish small ventures like sewing set-up, dairy farming, poultry farm, bee-keeping, cow farming. Their aim was to motivate rural women to work,” she said.
In the beginning, Shahzada was confused and discouraged due to her financial condition. But then, through the trainers she came to know about the ‘Umeed’ scheme, which gave her hope. Shahzada, along with nine more women, formed a team and then opened an account in a local bank. They completed all the formalities necessary under the ‘Umeed’ scheme.
“Each week we had to submit Rs 25 in the account. It was difficult for me. Each month, we had Rs 100 as saving and with these pennies, I started my journey with the group named ‘Chandani’,” she says.
Shahzada says with lot of difficulty all the members of the group managed to deposit Rs 25 in the account every week. The consistency had a pay-off beyond their expectations. Today, after seven years, each member has more than 65,000 rupees in her account.
For the first six months, Shahzada didn’t take even a penny from the group fund. Soon their group got Community Investment Support Fund (CIF) and other incentives from the government. It improved their financial strength and only after that her group members provided Shahzada a loan of Rs 40,000 for establishing her business.
“It was their trust that I had earned during the first six months that helped and my plan was to put the money in the right direction,” she says.
With this money, Shahzada bought a cow. This was the beginning of her journey. She built a make-shift cowshed outside her house and gradually started earning. Eventually, she was able to return the loan money to the group.
In 2017, Shahzada purchased three more cows and built a concrete shed for them. She now owns 25 cows and has given employment to more than 14 people, including her two brothers on regular basis.
Her dairy farm on average produces 300-350 liters of milk daily and supplies it to all the four districts of south Kashmir and even to Srinagar city.
“One has to take initiative and be on toes to keep the place clean for maintaining the health and hygiene of the animals and ensure the quality of milk,” Shahzada says.
She says she focuses on quality and each day customers from nearby areas come and use the farm milk.
“During the COVID-19, there were some losses. But I am satisfied with dairy farming. It is a lucrative business choice nowadays," she says.
“Milk has a natural quality. It could be used to make butter, ghee, curd, cheese, and other products from it,” Shahzada says.
Recounting her struggle, the young entrepreneur says before 2015, she was unemployed and had no source of income. “Due to the financial crisis at home, I could not even complete my matriculation and left my studies midway,” she says.
“My father had suffered huge losses in business and no one helped us during that time. Even when there was time, we had nothing to eat and were unable to purchase anything from the market,” she says.
Shahzada even worked as a labourer in apple orchards, paddy fields to support her family and didn’t hesitate to do so. Most of these jobs were seasonal and could not meet the family demands, she says.
“We are thankful to Allah and to the government who is supporting the poor families through these welfare schemes. We have to take advantage of these schemes,” she says.
With high hopes, Shahzada wants to get cheese-making equipment, in order to diversify her business.
Although once, cow rearing was very common in Kashmir but gradually, people gave up as educated younger generations felt ashamed to do this. It was considered below dignity and a vocation of illiterates.
“There are taboos in our society regarding rearing cows. We should, rather, encourage youth to invest in the dairy sector as there are many opportunities in it,” she says.
She says many people want to start this business but due to the lack of knowledge and market awareness, they hesitate to put in their efforts and fear losses.
As per Shahzada dairy is an eco-friendly business and could be commenced in all seasons. She calls it one of the best employment generation options for youth in Kashmir.
The 27-year-old entrepreneur says youth should not run after government jobs, rather they should plan to go for their own ventures which will be with them forever.
She aims to help its members achieve better produce prices by having better market linkages. “It will also create employment opportunities and provide a stable market platform for women,” he says.
Her group ‘Chandani’, aims to run this organization on the same pattern as that of Amul in Gujarat.
“Some people got discouraged during the whole process. I did not listen to them and focused on my dream. Now the time has come, that bank can easily provide me with a Rs 10-12 lakhs loan without the support of any government employee’s guarantee,” she says.
She says that her father encouraged her and was her backbone. “Now our condition has improved and we are providing livelihood to others also. We are now satisfied,” she says.
Shahzada is now looking after 175 women in 10 groups in the district who are registered with the self-help groups of the department.
“Our youth shouldn’t lose hope. There are always opportunities. We should not get discouraged. Don’t look back. Taking initiatives is the solution and that works,” she says.