At an age when most people look forward to a quiet retirement, 65-year-old Anisa Bilal embarked on a new journey by launching her own food business in Srinagar. After 32 years of teaching at government schools across the city, Anisa decided to turn her passion for cooking into an entrepreneurial venture.
In 2021, the retired school teacher established "Wild Valley Foods," a homegrown brand offering artisanal food products to customers across Kashmir. With no prior business experience, Bilal brought her culinary expertise and educational background to create a range of premium food items that are now winning over local markets. Her determination to start something new in the later years of life highlights how it's never too late to pursue your dreams.
"When I was working as a teacher, I had a straightforward routine—heading out at 10 in the morning and returning by 5 in the evening. However, once I retired, things got a bit confusing as I had too much free time. That's when I thought about starting a business and used my own savings to kick it off," said Anisa.
After serving at Government institutions for 32 years, she began her venture of Wild Valley Foods to share the goodness of Kashmir's organic honey, walnuts, pulses, almonds, cumin, saffron, and other local treats with people worldwide.
Kashmir has lots of natural goodies, like organic wild honey, saffron, fresh and dried fruits, herbs, and various types of beans. Anisa initially decided to find some local farmers and the natural products they are dealing with, she had to go to some places to find the finest, best and pure quality of products available.
"I started going to places on my own like Pampore and Pulwama to find the finest saffron, to Kargil to get the best cumin seeds (zeera), to Ladakh for apricots, and beyond Kamalkote in Baramulla to get Gucchi, the world's most expensive mushroom found in Kashmir," shared Anisa.
Wild Valley Foods offers all dried vegetables and Kashmiri Hund, also known as dandelion greens. These greens are sun-dried and should be soaked in water before cooking. "In Kashmiri cooking, these greens are loved and often paired with mutton. Their slightly bitter taste adds a special flavour to the dish," she added.
Anisa runs this venture single-handedly and regularly collaborates with farmers, buying their crops at prices higher than the market. She also hires local workers. The harvested goods are cleaned, sorted, and stored in glass and steel jars. Her team assists her the with packaging and sending the products out, she also prefers using a local courier service to create more job opportunities in the area.
She shared, "Our venture offers a variety of pure, without preservatives products like honey-soaked nuts, dried rose petals, quince apple slices, Kashmiri broad beans, Afghan black raisins, mabroom dates, cranberries, almond oil, apricot oil, chillies, and Kashmiri Hokh Syun (dried vegetables). Our products have reached places like South India and Dubai, and we have more international orders on the way," she added.
Anisa has local women with her to sew cotton bags for packaging, and she purchases bottles for saffron, honey, nuts, and gulkand from nearby stores. She gets gift boxes and baskets from Valley's artisans. Anisa uses eco-friendly willow wicker baskets made by artisans for gifting, along with paper machie boxes, supporting local craftsmen and showcasing Kashmir's cultural heritage. She simultaneously is preserving Kashmir's culture by using these products for her venture.
"Initially my business faced tough competition, but it became successful because of the good quality, packaging, and quick services we provide. People from outside India also became my customers, recognising the value of what I offer. The praises and love I get from my students keep me going," shared Anisa.
"Parents mostly choose our products because they trust the quality and safety. Our commitment to providing reliable and children-friendly items makes us their preferred choice. They prefer healthy foods for their kids," she added.
Anisa is not stopping here. She's planning to offer new products like spice mixes for Kashmiri wazwan and add more veggies to her dried vegetable collection. With a smile, she says, "I have many plans of expanding this ahead. It's better to stay busy rather than sitting idle." Anisa's work shows that age doesn't limit what you can achieve. She says women should be independent and do whatever they feel like doing. They should not stop achieving their goals.
Anisa shared that her family, especially her son and daughter, provided her with a lot of support throughout her journey. Their constant encouragement has been a significant source of motivation for her and moving on further.