This new-year eve was a special one for Rubeena Tabassum of Yarikalan, Chadoora as she celebrated a decade of being a florist and floriculturist. Tabassum's transition from being a housewife to a successful entrepreneur is a story she has scripted for herself.
At her cut flower unit at Chadoora, exuding silent confidence, Tabassum in her early forties, recounts how the arduous yet gratifying journey began in 2006 when a piece of information on Radio Kashmir regarding 10-day long Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI) programme on commercial floriculture made her tread an unexplored path. After undertaking this programme, Tabassum ventured into the business of cut flowers.
"Soon after completion of the EDI programme, my in-laws helped me to get four kanals of land on lease for setting-up three polyhouses for cultivation of cut flowers. Initially there was no bank support as most financial institutions were not confident in my plan so I had to opt for a consumer loan," says Tabassum.
However, due to her hardwork, soon came a game changer moment for Tabassum as she won J&K Bank's Woman Entrepreneur Award in 2007 after which there was no looking back.
"Soon after this, banks started offering me loans and my ideas found acceptance. This helped me set-up my firm, United Floritech," says Tabassum. Technical assistance was a cornerstone for setting up hi-tech cut flower unit so that cultivation of flowers happens under perfect controlled condition of temperature and humidity by using ultra violet film and modern means of irrigation (drip irrigation).
"The guidance of the EDI consultant for my project was immense and I even attended various programmes on business management and commercial floriculture after my first training. My first project also received support from National Horticulture Board (NHB) in terms of incentives," she says. From three polyhouses, Tabassum added more to her kitty in 2008 and then in 2010.
As she kept increasing number of polyhouses to a total of seven, growing lillium under shade nets was a new addition to Tabassum's venture.
"Growing lilies under a shade net helped to cut out light and this concept was new to me but it grew fast. Last year we also started growing tulips and even marigolds," says Tabassum.
Having found a market for cut flowers in India and abroad, Tabassum made an expansion and began doing open cultivation of Gladiolus. "I used to sell cut flowers in Delhi flower market but with expansion added wholesale dealers in Jammu and nearer locations as well. The trend of cut flowers has increased in our state in last few years. We supply cut flowers to Airports Authority of India at Srinagar, corporates, hotels and flower shops," says Tabassum. Tabassum even runs a retail store at the Srinagar Airport where she sells cut flowers and essential oils.
Thanks to government schemes- last few years have seen mushrooming of florists and growers in Kashmir. What sets Tabassum apart is her business acumen that helped her to diversify in the much booming segment of aromatic and medicinal oils. Along with setting up of greenhouses, Tabassum developed nurseries but in 2010 her stride in the entrepreneurial ladder was big when she took hundreds of kanals of land on lease at Bugroo in Budgam for a new project of essential oils. The Technology Mission of the Floriculture Department had provided initial support to this project, she says.
"Karewas are futile for many crops but more apt for cultivating flowers. I intend to grow essential oil flowers on such land through contract farming where I will provide free of cost planting material and technical help to marginalized farmers living in these areas. They can either sell their produce in the open market or avail the buy back policy where I will purchase their plants," says Tabassum. Such has been the impact of Tabassum's essential oil venture that Indian Institute of Integrated Medicines, Srinagar and SKUAST has provided technical assistance for cultivation of plants and extracting oils for Tabassum's latest venture – Kashmir Aromatics. Among various essential oils from this sister concern firm of United Floritech includes lavender oil, rose oil, rosemary oil, geranium oil, thyme and clary sage oils.
"These oils have a huge demand in domestic as well as international markets as it is used in spas, fragrance industry, edibles: as flavouring agents and also used in aroma therapy. Keeping this in view we have started bottling of these oils," says Tabassum. The biggest unique selling point of extraction oil business at Kashmir Aromatics is the steam distillation/solvent extraction facility available at Tabassum's polyhouse.
"The essential oils are branded as Aroma Pure and Natural and this was only possible because of years of hardwork. I am leaving this distillation facility open for the contract farming which I am hoping to launch soon. After cultivation of essential oil plants, farmers can use this facility for extraction," she says. The road to success has not been all that easy as Tabassum had to overcome hurdles and bottlenecks such as lack of storing and transportation facilities for cut flowers.
"Cut flowers used in ornamental/decorational purposes have more shelf life than lawn flowers. But refrigeration chambers and vans are important for this business which is lacking in Kashmir," says Tabassum.
Such is the misery of the florists here that refrigeration chambers promised in each district of Kashmir are still a distant dream. Refrigeration vans meant for transporting flowers and fruits meant to be operated by the state government have been reportedly lying defunct.
"The only flower mandi we had at Raj Bagh was operational for only a year but floods made it defunct. We even had some refigiration chambers at this mandi, but those are not in use now," says Tabassum.
Tabassum does not only think of herself as a florist but also a responsible representative of this sector. Apart from being registered florists with the Floriculture Department, Tabassum is also registered with the District Industries Center and Government of India's Medium, Small and Micro Enterprises Department, Jammu. She is also a member of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) and co-founder of Women Association of Kashmir Entrepreneurs (WAKE). The biggest hurdle for florists in Kashmir is the high airfares for transporting flowers outside state, she adds. "In order to cut down on this expenditure, I have identified markets such as Jammu and other nearby locations where we can send cut flowers by road. I hope the state government provides more facilities to growers," she said. Tabassum recounts the immense support from her family to help her kickstart the business and hopes that other aspiring entrepreneurs, especially florists and floriculturists take a leaf out of her book. The mantra for success is hardwork and dedication towards work and at the same time to have a strong belief in your business model. "Schemes and subsidies should be taken as an added advantage but we should not completely rely our business on these schemes," Tabassum says.
Tabassum feels thrilled about the fact that her unit is generating employment to more than a dozen people directly and to many more indirectly.
Tabassum signs off saying that she has recently added one more feather to her cap when she was interviewed for BBC Hindi's 100 Women Entrepreneurs from India, a series in which the broadcaster has featurered successful women startups from across India. "This video and the story made by BBC have been included in Wikipedia as well. I also recently took part in BBC Hindi Facebook live programme, which helped boost my confidence. I no more regret not becoming a doctor, which was a dream as a child. I feel contented being an entrepreneur," Tabassum says.