Kashmir, by most metrics, isn’t the ideal location to launch a startup. Between frequent curfews and internet shutdowns, Kashmiri businesses have lost over $5 billion in revenue in one year after August 2019, when the Indian government declared the once semi-autonomous region a part of India. After the move, the Indian authorities restricted internet access in Kashmir for seven consecutive months, and only restored 4G internet in February this year.
The prolonged shutdown rendered many businesses, including international and Indian delivery companies like DHL, Ecom Express, and Blue Dart, unable to provide services. That left small Kashmiri businesses of all stripes without many options to make deliveries, sending the region’s economy into a tailspin it has yet to recover from. But throughout 2019’s internet shutdown, and then into ongoing Covid-19 lockdowns, one homegrown Kashmiri startup has kept its delivery service afloat.
FastBeetle, a two-year-old app-based courier and parcel startup based in Srinagar, launched just months before Kashmir went into the 2019 internet blackout. The company’s founders, Abid Rashid and Sheikh Samiullah, both Srinagar natives, built a parcel delivery system primarily serviced by delivery workers on motorbikes. While their business model is simple, their ability to adapt to Kashmir’s volatile conditions has helped them beat out international competition as the contested region opens to foreign and domestic business.
“We were yet to even float before the first tsunami hit us,” said 29-year-old Rashid, who worked at a tech company in Dubai before founding FastBeetle, describing when Indian authorities shut down internet and phone services across the region. For many months after, only a few government locations with landlines were available to make phone calls. As phone service was slowly restored, FastBeetle adapted to a phone-based system. When 2G services returned in May 2020, Rashid optimized their application for users to be able to use it on low-speed internet.
FastBeetle’s delivery service was one of the few operating into the far reaches of the region at the time; they saw their courier operation expand into a large variety of businesses as a result. “During 2019’s months-long curfew, we spoke to farmers and got their produce delivered to people in packets,” said Rashid, explaining how the company tackled produce delivery while many were unable to leave their homes due to government-imposed curfews. “And we did all of this without the internet.”
Prior to the region’s change in political status vis-à-vis India, companies from outside Kashmir — including Indian companies — were unable to purchase property in the state. This made it difficult for outside companies to set up shop. After the Indian government’s decision to revoke the region’s semi-autonomous status in 2019, that changed, and the floodgates for international business and investment opened. Prime Minister Narendra Modi heralded the change as an opportunity for companies to invest in Kashmir, to the benefit of locals.
But the prolonged internet shutdown made it difficult for Indian and international companies to operate in Kashmir. Swiggy and Zomato, which had just entered the region, shut down completely. Almost two years later, few foreign companies are able to provide consistent services here, and often only within the main city of Srinagar. “In the past, several Indian competitors couldn’t survive here because of the constant shutdowns and lack of connectivity,” said Rashid. “Navigation in a place like Kashmir has always been hard for those who do not understand the sensitivity of our conflict.”
Two years of operations during an especially volatile period has paid off for the Srinagar founders. This week, the company raised an undisclosed amount from Indian angel investors Kartik Desai and Anuj Sharma of Alsisar Impact. And last month, FastBeetle announced that it would take on last-mile delivery for e-commerce giant Amazon for orders outside of Kashmir’s capital. Walmart-owned Flipkart has been utilizing FastBeetle’s delivery services for four months.
FastBeetle has also been one of the few functional couriers during India and Kashmir’s deadly second wave of Covid-19 cases. Workers have been delivering oxygen, medicine, and other equipment to frontline workers and NGOs. “Our workload has increased since the Covid-19 lockdown, especially the latest one,” said Samiullah.
Still, their success hangs in the balance. Since August 2019, Kashmir’s economy has been in a continuous decline. Sheikh Aashiq, head of Kashmir’s leading business body, said he’s encouraged to see a new startup in the region, but is concerned about sustainability. “There are many young people who are in debt now after their startups failed to survive,” he told Rest of World. “But there is a huge scope for initiatives like FastBeetle.”
FastBeetle couriers, many of whom are young men on motorcycles, are also frequently stopped at the many military checkpoints in Srinagar and around the region. Although the company negotiated travel passes for its workers, the stops can get contentious. “There were times when our delivery boys were beaten by the police,” said Rashid.
Shakir Muzaffar, a 22-year-old FastBeetle delivery worker, joined the company in 2019 after leaving a job in sales. Muzaffar told Rest of World that he picks up 12–15 orders daily in Srinagar. “I could do more, but there are a lot of hurdles,” he explained. “Oftentimes, the police would stop us and check our parcels. Sometimes they let us move ahead,” he said, “and sometimes we struggle.”