Behind the ‘Pure Aroma’ of success in business is a fragrance of personal grit and determination
It was a gutsy and graceful blossoming of entrepreneurship. With just six lakh rupees saved from household expenses seven years ago, Dr. Gazalla Amin from Kashmir aspired to do something close to her heart, something fresh and offbeat – the cultivation of aromatic plants.
Now the proud proprietor of Fasiam Agro Farms, she grows lavender, Turkish rose (Rosa damascena) and other plants, harvesting a turnover of more than one crore rupees –four times what it was when she began.
Dr. Gazalla Amin's company makes a wide range of products including lavender oil, lavender water and dry flowers, as well as rose oil, rose water, dry roses and gulkand (Photo: Afsana Rashid)
Already the only woman recipient of J&K’s Progressive Farming Award (in 2011), Dr. Amin, 52, has been awarded the Commonwealth Professional Fellowship for 2015. And for all the right reasons.
Fasiam’s product range now includes lavender oil, lavender water and dry flowers, as well as rose oil, rose water, dry roses and gulkand – both on a larger scale than essential oils of rose-scented geranium, clary sage and rosemary.
In a season Dr Amin’s proprietorship produces around 10-15 kg of rose oil; 150 kg of lavender oil, 10,000 to 15,000 litres of rose water and 10 quintals each of dry flowers and dry rose petals.
Apart from retailing these under the label ‘Pure Aroma’, she sells it to departmental stores and wholesale streams right across India.
The domestic market is ravenous for these products and Dr Amin says that “it is very difficult to meet the market demand. We are not able to supply enough because of the high value of land.” Despite possessing an export license and having exported to the UK earlier, she now prefers the home market.
Home, after all, was also at the origin of her venture. Hailing from Asham-Sumbal in Bandipora district, young Gazalla grew up, one of five siblings, on a farm with vast paddy fields and orchards – and her closeness to nature never left her. Her bureaucrat father and homemaker mother both wanted her to study medicine.
After studying at Srinagar’s Presentation Convent and the Government College for Women, she landed up at the Government Medical College (GMC) Srinagar. After marriage in her fourth year of MBBS, she completed her degree in 1989 and taught Anatomy at the Jhelum Valley Medical College (now SKIMS Medical College).
Three years later, she quit her job to focus on her family and children as her husband, Mohammad Amin, a carpet exporter, travelled for work most of the year. In any case, “Medicine was not my calling,” she says.
Around 2008, Dr. Amin started cultivating lavender on part of her ancestral land in Sumbal
After a gap of nearly 20 years, she decided to start her own initiative, and of course, it was related to green fields and fragrant flowers. She thought about growing strawberries, cherries or tomatoes till an article in a local English daily caught her eye. It was about the Regional Research Laboratory’s (RRL) aromatic farm in Bonera-Pulwama in south Kashmir and pointed Dr Amin off in a new direction. Literally.
Unaware of the route or exact location and despite the risks involved in militancy-threatened areas, she set out for those farms, along with her two kids. She remembers it was raining hard that day.
“My kids were enjoying the trip” she recalls, “but deep inside I was scared. Something within me compelled me to continue driving for nearly two hours till I reached the RRL farm in Pulwama. When I entered, all I could see was a huge CRPF camp, and I began retracing my steps. As I reversed, I saw a man waving to me to stop.”
That was Tej Kumar, in charge of the farm, and he took her around. This farm was one of the tens of RRLs – an initiative of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research – whose work includes research and development in agro-technology, aromatic medicinal plants, biotechnology and botany, among others.
It was lavender season and their sweet, calming scent filled her mind. In one aha moment, she had her plan: flower power.
Around 2008, Dr. Amin started cultivating lavender on part of her ancestral land, almost 500 kanals (62.5 acres), in Sumbal. The RRL, Srinagar, especially the then Director, Dr. Abdul Sami Shawl, played a crucial role in helping her kick-start her venture with the technical expertise she needed.
However, as a novice in this business, she faced difficulties and suffered initial losses, right from commissioning a 1,20,000-rupee project report in Delhi, which was useless in the local conditions in Kashmir, to not knowing that lavender could be cultivated in ‘kandi’ areas (semi-barren and rain-fed farmlands).
To compensate for this and support her first love – lavender - Dr Amin simultaneously started small businesses, trading in dry fruits, pashmina and other items.
Dr. Amin who suffered initial losses learned the business the hard way
“You have to do your homework before starting a new venture,” she advises. “I suffered, learnt, fell and then rose again. But I realized that when you learn something from experience you learn for life. Sometimes lack of knowledge helps in taking risks.”
After all, the business of cultivating flowers is not as easy as it looks. The first four years of planting lavender are crucial, after which it begins to give its produce for almost 20 years. A minimum of 50-100 kanals are needed to start off, and many acres to reap benefits.
“If I had to buy land, I probably wouldn’t have been able to recover my costs,” says Dr Amin. That’s why she proposes that the government could provide land to entrepreneur-cultivators of aromatic and medicinal plants as well as facilities for extraction, distillation, research and development.
As its Board of Management member, Dr. Amin has placed a proposal before the Valley’s premier agricultural university – the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology – to start an Aroma Centre in the Valley, to ensure “a smooth, obstacle-free environment that entrepreneurs need.”
She learnt the hard way, but her distillation plant (where extraction and packaging is carried out), she claims, is the best in northern India. “It is not just a farming activity, it is a processing activity,” she says.
Dr. Amin employs five direct employees such as technicians – her ‘informal partners, with whom she shares profits through incentives – and 150 indirect employees involved in picking flowers among others.
“Mostly housewives pick up roses in the farm before sunrise,” Dr Amin explains, “and they are paid by weight depending on how much they pick whereas others who work longer hours are paid on a daily-wage basis.”
Despite her busy schedule, she spends her ‘my time’ with her family in the evenings. “I would not have done what I have without his support,” she says of her husband.
The children are grown up - Siam (26) is settled in London, Faisal (24) is going to join the family business and Aamir (17) is going to study medicine in Prague.
This Vital Voices fellow and blogger for the Department for International Development (DFID – a UK government department for administering overseas aid), likes to write poetry, travel, listen to music and read (her favourites are religious books, current affairs, finance, economics, retail management and agriculture), and take off on long drives.
A worker at Fasiam's processing plant
A keen lecturer on entrepreneurship, Dr Amin celebrates the spirit of enterprise around her, seeing it in every single woman who hand-spins pashmina, or sells fish on old Amira Kadal bridge.
She is soon going to launch the Women’s Association of Kashmir Entrepreneurs (WAKE), with the aim of “waking up the women of the Valley” and preparing them for entrepreneurship from home or outside, educating them about business prospects, imparting skill development and generating awareness about social issues.
And that is not all. Besides an MBA, and the managing directorship of the newly established Red Impex Private Limited – under which she has combined all her retail and other business units, including the proprietorship of the boutique Gul Noor – since 2013 the indefatigable Dr. Amin also holds the position of Treasurer in the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the Valley’s oldest trade body.
She is the first woman to do hold an office-bearer’s post in the Chamber’s 80-year-history. She hopes to have a women’s wing in the Chamber too.
Despite a schedule straining its seams, Dr. Amin still finds time to plan her next move – into hospitality, and a range of cosmetic creams, lotions, shampoos and soaps.
Her entrepreneurial gene continues to assert itself, but its DNA holds a seed lesson she never forgets: “Do what your heart wants you to do, but use your head while doing it.”
This Article is Part of the 'Amazing Entrepreneurs' Series