Interview With Jyotsna Kaur Habibullah

Country Squire India’s (CSI) Kaustav Bhattacharya interviews Jyotsna Kaur Habibullah, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist, about her start-up Lucknow Farmers Market. CEO at Lucknow Farmers Market, Jyotsna Kaur Habibullah created India’s first Sustainable Platform & Community, connecting the largest number of conscious consumers with Farmers, start-ups & Artisans. She is also the founder of FICCI FLO UP, the most widespread Ecosystem for start-ups, rural, and Women Entrepreneurs. Jyotsna is an alumna of Bayes Business School, London & St Stephens College Delhi University.

CSI: Since you attended St. Stephens College, one of the bastions of Anglophone or English-speaking India, can you share some of your reflections from your college days? And touch upon your schooldays- a Lutyens Establishment institution?

JKH: Shakespearean influence is still strong at St Stephen’s; there is an annual play that the college presents every year. While I was at St Stephen’s from 1994-97, I was fortunate to be a part of the production for two years, essaying the role of Goneril in King Lear and Ophelia in a modernised version of the classic Hamlet. It brings Shakespeare to life for the students, many of who may not have read his work and reinforces the fact that the dialogues and central themes remain relevant through time.

Acting has always been my passion, and it was considered an achievement to be a part of the plays. I took interest in organising events which led me to be the Co-curricular Vice-Captain in School and on the Editorial Board in both school and college.

My teachers in college played a profound role in shaping my thought process. I studied Philosophy at the undergraduate level and we were a class of just seven. Often classes were held under a tree and those debates on theology and philosophy really got us all questioning what is important in life and helped clarify how we viewed the world. We have a strong Stephanian Alumni group. We meet regularly for over the last 15 years. Since we moved to Lucknow, we helped revive the Alumni group here as both my husband Amar and I are alumni, and so are our fathers. Koolertalk was an expression of the times when we were in college and it is good to see that freedom of speech and expression is still strong in the students’ magazine though now it’s in a digital avatar.

CSI: Subsequent to the Indian university degree, you studied at the old Cass Business School (renamed as Bayes Business School) and we as a publication are dedicated to the fostering of better Indo-British relationships. It happens to be my alma mater too. How was the experience of being a young Indian MBA student in the UK, especially London?

JKH: My experience as a student in London was very positive. Most of my class was international students. The amount of peer learning with class fellows from across the world has helped me shape my worldview as it is now. Many of our professors like David Edelshain and others really connected with us and made learning fun and interactive.

One of the most beautiful experiences was hearing the Orchestra at the Barbican as our Business School was in the Barbican Centre while the new building was under construction. We frequently sat out to study and could enjoy the music as they prepared for their performances. I remember hearing 4 seasons by Vivaldi and other beautiful renditions of classical pieces. I always felt very safe in London and enjoyed the beautiful parks, the culture, watching Shakespeare at the Globe, shows and Concerts in Central London.

I also made lasting friendships from my days in CASS and over the years many collaborations work-wise and socially have ensued through the CASS and now BAYES alumni. 

CSI: Although you grew up in Delhi, the Capital city of India, you chose to relocate to Lucknow. What was the motivation for this decision?

JKH: As my husband, Amar is from Lucknow we made a decision early on that we would relocate at some point. After working and living in Delhi, Mumbai, Dubai and London, coming back to Lucknow when our children were growing up seemed to be the right decision to give them a concept of roots and put down our own too.

Looking after our own farm in Barabanki led to the connection with farmers and the realisation of the gap between farmers and consumers, and the requirement to connect them to the market. More and more farmers are selling their agricultural land and converting it to commercial areas, shops or plots for sale.

We were lucky enough to move here so the children could stay with their Great-Grandmother, who had been a member of Parliament and could quote Shakespeare as effortlessly as Urdu poetry. She had worked tirelessly for women and children all her life and was a great role model for us. We celebrated her centenary birthday together which was a milestone for all of us.

CSI: What were the driving forces for you to venture into a start-up in the field of sustainability and agribusiness?

JKH: When we relocated to Lucknow, I started looking after my family Mango Orchard. The stark difficulties faced by farmers and the lack of natural produce in the city’s markets sparked this idea. My background in marketing helped me recognise the need in this area. The requirement to find healthy and natural alternatives for my own family also led to a search for these products. I discovered the products are available but are not accessible to the market. I was always interested in sustainability but I was able to develop and act on it with connections to start-ups, artisans and farmers in Lucknow. 

Once I began organising visits to the farms, I witnessed how the local economy could profit from it, and how we could help revive the arts and crafts in the area. It was a turning point.

Lucknow Farmers Market is a one-stop for conscious consumers and producers. It is a platform that offers a wide range of organic and natural products, and services. We have created a community of local farmers, artisans, and entrepreneurs linked with us pan India farmers including rural entrepreneurs. With products and services suited for all ages and all spheres of life, we hope to bring about a health revolution by providing chemical-free and natural goods.

Apart from an e-commerce website, it is an interactive online community, teaching enthusiastic learners through online courses, entertaining and educating the audience through blogs (insights, recipes etc), and inspiring all generations through success stories (Phoenix stories).

CSI: One of the primary goals of Country Squire India is the celebration of Indian Heritage, Arts and Crafts, textiles, organic products and offering a platform for enriching conversations, hence I am curious to learn what was the thought process immanent behind developing an ecosystem for Entrepreneurs in Craft, Agriculture and Natural Products?

JKH: It was an organic process that started as I worked closely with farmers, artisans and young entrepreneurs. I began to advise them initially and then connected others as per their requirements. Developing brands, helping them clarify their vision, and connecting them to other organisations or teams as required.

A family strolling in the LFM farm

With time, we are losing a lot of rich traditions because we are not able to make the products relevant to the market. There is a requirement for handmade products worldwide. We have handmade industries that are dying out due to a lack of connection with the market and other factors like product development. Seeing the artisans grow and benefit from this interaction, and the next generation joining them in their work gave me the impetus to carry on.

CSI: Can you share with our readers, both in the UK and India, the impact your work has made on Sustainable Livelihoods in Uttar Pradesh?

JKH: More than 250 farmers, start-up entrepreneurs and artisans are connected with me and my team. I actively work to ensure their products and services can reach consumers. My work includes connecting young people to the farmers, artisans, and entrepreneurs as interns and joining their teams to support them.

We have created awareness about sustainability in general and about organic and natural products, provide a focus on traditional products and their value, document the products, produce and recipes to help preserve them for the future. We help develop brands focused on sustainability and ensure the traditional practices are passed on. For the last 7 years, I have been organising farmers’ markets and connecting interns. This is to create awareness about the issues regarding food security and the problems that farmers face. It also gives them a connection to the rural economy and a better realisation of the circular one.

Two of the women’s groups with who we work, support more than 5000 women in their areas in Uttar Pradesh; providing livelihood to the families and ensuring education for the next generation.

Now we have a dedicated team working for Lucknow Farmers Market showcasing the work that is happening around the country and connecting products pan India. We hope to supply these products to a larger market as we progress. The Farm Experience and Farm Stay concepts give farmers an additional source of income. We plan to list farmers across the country so people can visit and experience how produce grows and build a connection with their local farmers.

CSI: Looking into the future, how do you foresee the Organic and Sustainable sector’s growth and development in India?

JKH: There is a huge potential for growth in this sector. Especially now, people realise the importance of eating healthy and making food your medicine before medicine becomes your food. This sector is still in its nascent stages in India and can be a force to reckon with worldwide, considering our traditional practices in sustainability. 

CSI: You have been an avid Heritage enthusiast and are actively engaged in some of the preservation of an old Estate in Lucknow, can you please enlighten us on this facet of your activity? How is the situation for Heritage enthusiasts in Lucknow?  

JKH: My husband, Amar and I with our two young boys made the decision to move back to Lucknow so that the children would be connected to their roots. We conceptualised and restored our family’s 250-year-old house in Hazratganj. We have restored the front of the house into a boutique retail space, showcasing brands like Ritu Kumar, Anokhi, and Geetanjali Salon, in the verdant environs of the 200-year-old Mango and Ashok Trees, Cherry Tree Cafe.

I am also part of the team that started a citizens’ initiative creative awareness about heritage and the need to preserve and safeguard it. Organising walks, talks and events to help people realise the value of our heritage is another initiative I spearheaded. I started the UP-Mango Festival to promote the famed produce of the state and brought together farmers, entrepreneurs, artisans, media in a public-private partnership which is now a calendar event for the UP Government.

The Lucknow Farmers Market and Diyas made in Sultanpur, UP

As Lucknow is home to a number of historic buildings, public as well as private, there is a lot that Heritage enthusiasts can do. As citizen groups across the world have ensured that historic buildings and structures remain for future generations, this too is important for Lucknow’s future to carry an important part of its past forward.

CSI: We are a publication dedicated to promoting Indo-British relationships 2.0. As someone who studied in the UK and is a part of the global Anglophone world, how do you see this relationship evolving? Do you envisage future generations of young people interested in studying in the UK?

JKH: I think there will always be a need to broaden horizons, understand other cultures. And as India and UK have a shared past, this will continue to draw students to the UK. The excellence of the higher education institutes will also continue to be a decision-maker for the students.

CSI: Last but not the least, how do you see Country Squire India Edition playing an effective role as an online publication in providing support and inspiration for individuals working in the field of Sustainable Farming and Organic food?

JKH: Country Squire India Edition could play an important role by highlighting the work that people are doing in this field. Recognition also leads to promoting their work and helps to connect them with like-minded people, as well as provide a platform to promote their products or services to conscious consumers. The idea is also to help grow these home-grown brands and develop the teams involved. Their core competency is their product, they need support most of the time in the other areas of the business so it’s an ongoing initiative to connect the support required to our partners.

CSI: Thanks so much for your time, Jyotsna, and best of luck for the future.

JKH: Thanks to you, Kaustav. All the best to CSI.