SRINAGAR, INDIA—When Afroza Qadir meets with friends, she's quick to talk about her part-time job as a dressmaker and catch up on day-to-day life in the seductive but tortured region of Kashmir.
But when the 23-year-old is asked how she spends her free time these days, Qadir clams up.
She says it's not cool to discuss her dreams of becoming a beekeeper.
“Maybe when I'm making money then I will talk about it,” Qadir says, adjusting her black hijab and a mustard-coloured scarf for a photo.
An international development agency says the $1 billion global honey industry represents a huge business opportunity here in the heart of the Himalayas — one of India's most economically depressed areas — and wants to change the local perception of beekeeping.
For the past year, as part of an effort to bolster entrepreneurship, U.S. relief organization Mercy Corps has been teaching Qadir and other young people how to manage honeybee colonies.
The payoff, the agency says, could be huge.
Usmaan Ahmad, who oversees the beekeeping program for Mercy Corps in Srinagar, says the agency decided to foster an interest in beekeeping after it considered funding rose oil production and strawberry and St. John's wort cultivation.
Bees made perfect sense in this pastoral expanse of mountain-shadowed meadows and river valley, Ahmad says.
Not only would bees help pollinate plants on local orchards, but there's also the chance to develop ancillary businesses by making bees wax candles and lip balm, perhaps for skiers who visit the powder-covered slopes in nearby Gulmarg.
Also, bees don't require much space or investment of time.
“Some other ideas would have required a significant upgrade of farmland,” Ahmad says.
Shabir Ahmad Rather, 21, who helps manage a general store in Srinagar and also hopes to become a beekeeper, said bees “already have discipline. You don't need to spend money on them. They already know what to do.”
Students have been instructed on how to handle bees and their hives, and have attended classroom sessions to learn about business plans, non-native bee mites that have caused the dramatic and sudden collapse of bee colonies across the U.S., and how to improve supply chains.
“We've been talking about not taking shortcuts, not feeding the bees sugar,” Ahmad says.
The American aid worker has also shown Qadir and others pictures of organic food store shelves in the U.S. stocked with 500-ml honey jars selling for more than $15 apiece.
“It shows them the potential,” he says.
By the third year of operations, the 10 families involved in the pilot project may generate revenue of $5,063 and capture 11 per cent of the market, according to Mercy Corps' projections.
Beekeeping may not be as high profile a venture as opening a new plant, but good news is rare to find these days in Kashmir, part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that has been racked with violence by an independence movement since 1989.
Manufacturers and India's juggernaut service industry have been loath to invest in the area and an estimated 600,000 youths here can't find work.
A recent newspaper ad for four clerical government jobs attracted an estimated 26,000 applicants.
On a recent weekday, Qadir and Rather sat in a boardroom at Mercy Corps' offices and listened to an instructor describe how to widen profits.
Beekeepers here sell their honey for about $2.40 per kg.
But by packaging the honey themselves, which costs only about 7 cents a jar, the selling price jumps to $3.08 for 500-ml packages, a Mercy Corps official explained.
Qadir lives with her parents and three younger siblings in a small village on the outskirts of Srinagar. She says she takes studious notes while she learns about beekeeping. Her family plans to get involved in the business and quizzes her on what she's learned at each lesson.
“It's exciting, yes,” Qadir says. “But it's not something to discuss yet.
“My friends are all in school. They may not understand this.”