Frequented with a number of disruptions due to several reasons, the locals of Kashmir have been living lives of uncertainties. Families have been facing a severe financial crisis due to unrest and recurring shutdowns. The situation deteriorated especially since the abrogation of Article 370, and later, due to the COVID-19 lockdown which forced people to stay indoors.
The local traders and retailers have been impacted the most. With physical stores being shut and internet connectivity cut off, it was difficult for people to make ends meet.
Taking the matter into their hands, three entrepreneurs from Srinagar and Anantnag - Ahmed Nabeel Wani, Naveed Qadir Wani and Arif Ahmed Najar - set up an e-commerce platform to bridge the gap between the local traders and the potential buyers. Called the 'Jhelum Cart', it aims to work as a digital space to facilitate online shopping to boost the economy of the valley.
Speaking exclusively with The Logical Indian, one of the co-founders, Ahmed Nabeel Wani, explained the reason for creating an online marketplace for the people of Kashmir and the process of overcoming several challenges including limited internet connectivity.
TLI: What was the idea behind setting up an e-commerce platform?
Ahmed Nabeel: In 2018, we had come up with the idea of an online platform. The three of us, the co-founders, were sitting on the bank of river Jhelum and discussing how the people in Kashmir had been suffering for decades. Whether it is a curfew or a total shutdown. Generally, the people of Kashmir do not use the internet as a tool to thrive, it is rather seen as a tool for recreation and entertainment.
We wanted to use the internet to build an e-commerce platform that would cater to our local sellers. A retailer only makes sales when his shop shutter is open and there are people on the streets! To build something that strengthens the local economy and becomes a pillar for them was the idea behind all efforts.
TLI: What were the challenges faced during the entire transition from ideation to execution of the project?
Ahmed Nabeel: The biggest challenge was internet bandwidth. The locals are unable to afford systems like Wifi to get access to continuous hi-speed internet. A substantial portion depends on the mobile internet, the speed of which, most of the time fluctuates and is extremely slow. It has only been a while when hi-speed internet has been restored in the valley after two years.
The challenge was to develop technology that would work especially under low internet bandwidth and also offer the mainstream benefits to the users. The research and development was the most significant phase and it took at least six months to come up with such a mechanism. Over the next two years, the website and the app were designed and redesigned; we experimented with several codes to make it 2G compatible.
Eventually, with the abrogation of Article 370 and the COVID-19 pandemic, challenges grew but we were able to work towards the goal dedicatedly. Towards the end of 2020, we were assured of the mechanism, the website and the app after testing it on a micro-level. We, then, started engaging the local sellers to get them on-board.
Building a user-friendly interface was the second big challenge. We had to build a platform that has a simple seller portal, a user-friendly dashboard and end-to-end smooth transactions processes— with limited resources. Additionally, to retain the visual appeal of the platform while working on limited bandwidth was a struggle. The process of optimising and refining the processes is still going on.
TLI: Who are your target audience and what does a seller have to do to get his products featured on Jhelum Cart?
Ahmed Nabeel: Currently, as many as 70-80 different kinds of sellers are on the platform. These range from local artists, local-Instagram based businesses, small-sized social media-based businesses, local shopkeepers, retailers, manufacturers and even street vendors. Street vendors making handcrafted souvenirs are also on the platform. Even our dry fruit sellers, the ones selling shawls and handicraft products and all those who depend on tourism have been left hanging on a lurch for the past two years.
We are growing in numbers as well as reaching out to local trading bodies to spread the word. Now, the platform is not where a seller's products are just featured like an Amazon or Flipkart. We make a mini-website unique to each seller, equipped with its own page, search bar, display banner, customisation options and transaction process. Jhelum Cart acts like a hyper-local app, an umbrella platform, with several brands under it.
Most importantly, we are not a commission-based platform. We have a subscription-based business model. An amount of ₹600-700 is charged as a subscription fee, every month, only when a seller makes sales. The intent is to support and empower the local people and not to capitalise on them. However, he necessary checkpoints have to be ticked once we get a request which includes getting the team to inspect the products as well as the documents.
We offer an array of services such as content writing, product photography and graphic designing free of cost. Also, logistics services for some sellers have also been provided for free.
TLI: What is it that would make 'Jhelum Cart' stand out from other competitors in the digital space?
Ahmed Nabeel: Jhelum Cart has 'real-time bargaining', a feature that we believe no other e-commerce platform in the world supports. If a product is bargainable, an automated system has been put in place that will take the consumer's reduced price options and if the seller accepts it, the transaction is processed. The approval happens in real-time. Buyers can bookmark and follow their favourite online stores. We have incorporated the social media strategies into the interface.