Handlooms, handicrafts and food products are the most vibrant — and visible — aspects of northeast India’s cultural heritage. With an aim to preserve this rich tradition and make it accessible to the present and future generation, a few passionate entrepreneurs from the region are proudly promoting local products across the country. Though starting their entrepreneurial journey at a time when the startup ecosystem was non-existent and the way ahead uncertain, they have flourished and are bullish about the future.
Here are some of the success stories.
Zizira- Shillong (Meghalaya)
Zizira offers herbs, spices, and honey from Meghalaya, considered to be the most bio-diverse region in India.
“Using our knowledge of the local languages, cultures, and drawing from ancient wisdom and folk medicine, we look for the best raw ingredients that Meghalaya has to offer to give our customers rare and pure products. We offer unique treasures of this rich region such as the world’s best turmeric, potent ginger powder, several varieties of raw honey, whole spices, ground spices and a few spice blends,” says its head Kimbretta Khongwir.
Zizira has built up a loyal base of customers, who are even willing to wait till the next harvest. “The demand for our products is steadily growing. Our clientele mostly consists of discerning health-conscious consumers from across the country in search of pure and authentic products and sharing our vision to promote sustainable farming in the northeast,” he says.
Zizira was founded by Ralph Budelman, now its CEO. 70-year-old Budelman, who came to Shillong from Chicago in 2004, first started Chillibreeze, a PowerPoint formatting service for consulting firms and Fortune 500 companies to generate employment for local youth and offer them better opportunities.
However, he also noticed that the agricultural resources of northeast India was largely underutilised, especially in Meghalaya. Ten years after Chillibreeze’s inception, he launched Zizira, based on his belief in “undiscovered treasures” in the state, blessed with nature’s bounty.
Zizira began with a young group of untrained individuals, Khongwir says. “We learnt everything the hard way. We had to figure out ways to how to select the right farmers, how to process our goods, how to pack them properly, how to solve logistics issues,” he says.
At Zizira, they go through the painstaking process of finding and directly connecting with farmers, while also enabling their staff to grow. “We wanted the business to develop the people working in it. So, instead of hiring professionals, we recruited individuals with the right values and the ability to learn the skills they need on the job. We are processing in-house, to ensure total accountability on purity and quality,” Khongwir says.
He also notes the changes in the ecosystem. “It is inspiring to see many people taking on the startup mindset and setting off to become entrepreneurs,” he adds.
Zizira plans to get known wider. “We also have plans of expanding the business in terms of delivering our products to discerning customers outside India as well and build a larger farmer network, partner with more family farmers from other northeastern states as well,” Khongwir says.
Runway Nagaland- Dimapur (Nagaland)
Founded in 2013 with a vision to promote the ‘Made in Nagaland’ brand using locally available materials and techniques, the startup, with an all women artisan team, works to preserve and promote age-old indigenous art and handmade products.
“Our rich culture and tradition has always inspired me to give better platforms to our traditional art and give better lives to our women artisans. We are dedicated to our traditional unique techniques of making handmade accessories. We employ women from all kinds of backgrounds and also engage youths with a sole motive to pass on the knowledge to the nezt generation and also strengthen our economy by bringing in more business in the state to address mass migration to cities,” says founder Nengneithem Hengna.
Offering an array of products including Gou-lu tribal jewellery, Kinep handloom and more, Runway Nagaland has been seeing increasing demand.
“The clients we serve are mostly from outside the state which shows that people not only from our local community but also from different backgrounds appreciate our handmade products,” says Hengna.
Hengna recalls that when she launched her venture, there was very little access to information that could help her and challenges ranged from people’s unsupportive attitude to stereotypes towards women in business, lack of capital and funding among others. However, with the government playing an active role in supporting startups now, the ecosystem in the region has helped many youngsters to get access to right information which can help them grow their ventures.
Hengna now plans to create bigger platforms for artisans to showcase their skills and promote locally available and plentiful natural materials like banana fibre. “The initiative will able to give the villagers a source of income and increase employment opportunities to the unemployed youth,” she says.
Brahmaputra Fables – Guwahati (Assam)
A digital marketplace of handloom, handicraft and ethnic food products of the northeast, Brahmaputra Fables was founded by Dhruba Jyoti Deka in 2017.
While pursuing a Master’s degree in Puducherry in 2014-16, Deka, along with other students from the northeast, would organise shows highlighting their culture, impressing classmates from other states who were completely unaware of the northeast. With his friends often asking him to bring them traditional products when he went back home on holiday, the idea of setting up Brahmaputra Fables was born.
“As people from other states did not have much idea about the rich cultural diversity in the northeast, I decided to start a venture to showcase this culture through handicraft and handloom products,” says Deka.
After graduating, he returned home to his village, Sarthebari — famous for its brass and bell metal work – and sought to make this known. “There are plenty of skilled bell metal artisans in Sarthebari but most lose a significant cut of their profits to middlemen. To improve the artisans’ livelihood and to showcase culture and traditions of northeast India, Brahmaputra Fables officially launched in June 2017, with 30 artisans on board selling 100 products,” he recalls.
“We are the only artisan-friendly marketplace in northeast India, with a digital integration of more than 3,000 artisans and weavers across the region,” he says. His venture now offers a wide range of products, spanning beautiful traditional looms to various bamboo items including shopping bags, and home decor articles to ethnic food products.
Deka sees a huge market for handicraft products. “Our target market consists of tier 1 cities consumers and corporate organisations. The demand is increasing after the lockdown… we are tapping into new markets of handmade, eco-friendly and sustainable products,” he says.
He notes the development of the startup ecosystem in the northeast. “When we started, there was no awareness, no mentors and no incubators. It is a great place to start ventures now, with a good number of incubators, startup competition, funding opportunities and government support,” he adds.
About future plans, Deka says that they will be integrating technology to their platform so that consumers can also trace the product’s origin. “We will also launch tech-enabled touch and feel kiosks where anyone can check the product, place the order at the store itself and get it delivered to their home,” he adds.