Contrary to popular notion, summer in India isn’t just blistering hot. It’s a Monday evening in May and Delhi—from where I have taken a flight that morning—is being smothered by a heatwave. But in Imphal, where I land, there is a cool breeze through the day. As the sun sets, the exceptionally fine weather brings throngs of visitors to Dweller, a charming tea and snack shop in the city’s Lamphel neighbourhood. There's a couple on a date and a big group of college students as well as older women stopping by for a quick cup of herbal tea after work.
Unexpectedly, darkness descends—the lights are out. Anywhere else, a power cut would most likely trigger mass displeasure as guests waited for generators to restore order and Wi-Fi. At Dweller, the incident causes only the briefest consternation—then it’s business as usual, with candles on every table and mosquito-repellent coils underneath. My photographer and I are seated at a table, trying to get Instagram-worthy photographs of the offerings: fruity roselle and heimang (Rhus Chinensis/sumac) teas, along with Manipuri street snacks—singju (a concoction of seasonal vegetables and fermented fish), aloo kangmet (a local take on aloo chaat), and keli chana (spiced chickpeas) spread on a banana leaf. The power cut lasts about an hour, but it doesn’t stop customers from coming in.
The buzzy tea shop is the brainchild of Eli Yambem, 29, a University of Warwick graduate and chartered accountant. She gave up her career as a financial analyst and auditor to start an artisanal tea brand that gives the shop its name. “My first job was at an investment bank in London, but I kept questioning myself about my purpose—what is it that I really wanted to do,” she says. Yambem first relocated to Singapore, and, in 2016, moved to Guwahati to learn the ropes of starting a tea business. She returned to Imphal a year later, to start producing teas using extracts from locally available fruits and herbs.
“We can actually do something over here (in Manipur)—we have so much natural produce that tastes good and is healthy. We think it’s normal but I felt this was one of our unique local strengths and worth sharing. To me, Dweller actually meant coming back home and using these strengths to create new opportunities.” She started the shop in Lamphel in November, and, a day before our meeting, had opened another branch in the Moirangkhom neighbourhood. Stoked by their popularity, she hopes to have five branches in Imphal this year.
Dweller is one of the many businesses that have emerged in Manipur, part of a new entrepreneurial wave sweeping the seven states of the North-East. Traditionally limited to government jobs when they return to their hometowns, a number of young, enterprising Manipuris are making their own fortunes with independent ventures, from fashion labels to food start-ups.
“Entrepreneurship has completely boosted the young generation, with everyone trying to create a new business. There is more competition in terms of creativity and bringing in new ideas, because now everyone is more connected than ever,” says Lipokjungla Ozukum, co-founder of Ilandlo, an e-commerce site for artisans and entrepreneurs from the North-East. Ilandlo started operations in Nagaland, where it is based, but has expanded to other states in the region, including Manipur. The proliferation of the internet and use of smartphones has been crucial to this new movement. “We have seen a tremendous change in local mindsets, especially after the introduction and easy accessibility to the internet,” says Ozukum. “The internet arrived quite late out here in the North-East, but it has practically liberated everyone from being cramped in a shell.”
Rooted in tradition
While the chic cafés and boutiques of Meghalaya and Nagaland have been in the spotlight for longer, Manipur is a newer entrant—with many of the businesses taking shape only in the past five years. What sets these brands apart is the emphasis on local ingredients and inspirations. Manipur abounds in natural resources, especially fruits and herbs; it also boasts of a long history of crafts .
Practised by the tribal communities, these handmade crafts continue to be ubiquitous in contemporary Manipur—it is common to see women wearing a traditional phanek (wrap-around skirt) and phi (dupatta) paired with T-shirts or the state’s cane furniture displayed in homes and offices. Now, new-age entrepreneurs are incorporating these assets into their products.
Take, for instance, Richana Khumanthem, 30, a fashion designer who helms an eponymous label focused on handlooms and Manipuri weaves. Khumanthem discovered her sartorial passions as early as class VI. “I chose fashion because of the reason most young people choose fashion—the glitz and glamour,” she says, over a meeting at her studio and store in Imphal’s Sagolband neighbourhood. “But during my first year in college (National Institute of Fashion Technology, or Nift, Delhi), I came to realize how superficial some of it is, and also the fact that the fashion industry is such a major pollutant. It was a little disheartening, but I started thinking how I can make a change—create a business built on integrity, something with a soul.”
After graduating, Khumanthem headed to the UK’s Nottingham Trent University for a master’s in fashion management. Returning to India, her work as a textile consultant for the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, proved instrumental. “Initially, my interest in handlooms was bookish. I would read books and talk to researchers, but during the project (for NID) we had to go to the interior villages and hear from weavers the myths and legends behind every motif,” she says. “It was an eye-opener, learning about their experiences. I started my brand soon after the project (in 2014).”
Khumanthem describes the initial days as both interesting and frightening. Manpower was her chief challenge. “It’s tough to find people here to work for you,” she says. “It took me a good five-six months to find a master tailor (who still works with her) and I recruited a few more people with his help.” Another concern was the steady supply of textiles—many weavers in Manipur only worked in their spare time after farming.
Combining an Oriental aesthetic with minimalist colours, Khumanthem’s forte is her inventive use of traditional motifs. A monochromatic checked peplum top elevated with kabok chaibi embroidery and a black military-style cape featuring mapan naiba (an embroidered motif typically found on phanek borders) are some standout designs.
Four years after she launched the label, Khumanthem came into the spotlight when she launched a collection at North East Mojo, a showcase of the region’s crafts and design potential at the Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) Summer-Resort 2018 in Mumbai. For the collection, Khumanthem focused on the shamilanmi pattern, historically used in shawls gifted by the Meitei (the ethnic majority in Manipur) king to a tribal chieftain as a symbol of respect. “The show helped a lot—it made buyers and stores across India take the brand more seriously,” Khumanthem says. “Because I am just someone working with weavers in a small, remote corner of India.”
Apart from her store in Imphal, she retails online and stocks at Storytellers in Guwahati and Creo in Mumbai.
Khumanthem says much has changed in Manipur since she returned. “What happened initially, before my time, was a lot of brain drain. Many smart and talented people were going to Delhi and Mumbai to work,” she says. “Now there’s a major shift and everyone is trying to do something here.”
In recent decades, Manipur faced a tumultuous period of violence and insurgency, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s. Apart from conflicts between the army and separatist groups, there are also allegations of extrajudicial violence inflicted upon civilians. The struggles are far from over, wrote Mint columnist Sudeep Chakravarti (15 May), in a state where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act continues to apply. “...the Supreme Court has since 2017 repeatedly ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to expedite investigations and filing of charge sheets in nearly a hundred alleged instances of extra judicial killings between 1980 and 2011,” he wrote about a PIL filed by the Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur, and the Imphal-based watchdog Human Rights Alert (HRA).
The region’s turbulent politics has been a major hurdle but with start-ups offering new opportunities, the state government is also taking an interest in boosting the ecosystem. In 2018, the state announced Startup Manipur, a policy to offer financial assistance, totalling ₹150 crore over five years, to start-ups.
“Things gotta change, right? You can’t just stay stagnant,” Nelson Nameirakpam says of the evolving socio-economic landscape. Nameirakpam moved back in 2011 after his graduation in Delhi and started a quarterly magazine, Horizon, in 2014, about the local crafts and entrepreneurs he had discovered in his travels across the state. The magazine shut down a year or so later owing to a lack of resources, but it led to the store of the same name. “People who read the stories would call us up and ask where the crafts were available,” he recalls. “I began collecting but the office began to look like a godown (warehouse). I had so much stuff I finally decided to open a shop.” The store is filled with local treasures, from cane furniture and wooden crockery to organic soaps and hand-painted stationery made by small-batch entrepreneurs.
Behind the scenes, Nameirakpam runs a printing unit where he publishes brochures and magazines for local institutions, and offers packaging for brands and customized stationery.
The zeal to start a business is not limited to the state capital. As Nameirakpam points to the most striking products in his store, it is evident that many of the traditional crafts as well as the promising ventures are emerging from smaller districts and towns. The town of Ukhrul is one such hot spot, where one finds rural artisans making traditional longpi (nungbi) black earthenware pottery as well as new-age manufacturers of chocolate and plum wine.
Made in the mountains
If you have never heard of Ukhrul (pronounced oo-khrool), you are not alone. A mountainous town, this home to the Tangkhul Naga community is situated 81km from Imphal, a 3-hour ride made gruelling by under-constructed roads. It is May, but Ukhrul residents are dressed in puffers to stay warm in the face of sharp winds and sudden rainfall. The main market area is crowded with shops selling grocery and counterfeit Crocs slippers, but drive on and you will find quaint homes splashed with springtime blooms in the gardens and organic farms abounding with produce such as kale, shiitake mushrooms and passion fruit.
“People often complain that Ukhrul is dusty, but to me it is life,” says Zeinorin Stephen, 27, co-founder of Hill Wild chocolates, one of the town’s well-known new brands. Stephen is making tea for her workers and setting up operations at the brand’s new factory, built in a sprawling farmhouse belonging to Nelson Vashum, father of the brand’s co-founder, Leiyolan Vashum.
Stephen’s favourite character is Johnny Depp’s rendition of Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005). A graduate from Nift, Delhi, she started making chocolates as a hobby, after visiting Ooty’s chocolate factories during a vacation. The turning point came when she returned from Delhi, where she was working, to tend to her sick father in 2016. “When I came back, my boyfriend (now fiancé, Vashum) suggested we start a business together and maybe it would be profitable.”
Stephen and Vashum started in November 2017 with little knowledge of chocolate making, but Hill Wild was an instant hit. “Many entrepreneurs do so much research—they know what they are doing—it wasn’t like that for me,” she says. “We just tried and it went like, boom!” Today, Hill Wild chocolates are a common sight in stores and cafés across Imphal. Next on Stephen’s list of to-dos? Making candies, and setting up a café next to the factory.
Like Hill Wild, a number of small businesses are taking shape in Ukhrul. Stephen’s younger sister Tuingam, a former make-up artist who worked with Bobbi Brown in Delhi, launched Secrets, a vegan cosmetics label, in 2018. A line of 12 paraben-free lipsticks was launched earlier this month and she aims to expand to more make-up products.
Another young entrepreneur, Aleks Vashum (not related to Leiyolan), is a sound engineer who returned to Ukhrul in 2016 after working for a few years in Delhi and Chennai. His brand Thapo’s Heikhatheira makes wines based on recipes created by his father. “I knew how to make the wine, but I had to do a lot of research to develop the process and create a version of the product for commercial sale,” he says.
Aleks makes two variants—plum and theikanthei (Prunus napaulensis)—and supplies bottles at special events in Imphal. In 2018, Aleks produced about 2,000 litres of wine and is hoping to scale up to 5,000 litres. He is experimenting with new packaging ideas and planning for licences in other states.
With most businesses conceived on bootstrapped budgets, young entrepreneurs find their support system in each other. In April 2018, a few months after starting Hill Wild, Stephen helped organize a Made in Ukhrul pop-up with 23 entrepreneurs. “The business plan (for Hill Wild) wasn’t concrete yet, and we thought we would do a community-driven project and lift ourselves together,” she says. In December, Stephen got together with Khumanthem and Yambem to organize a Christmas pop-up at Dweller’s Lamphel branch. “There are many young people trying to start a business now,” says Yambem. “We meet up once in a while and try to do things together. Manipur is a small market and collaboration is the best way to move forward together.”
Local is the key word
Manipur is showing a heartening trend of buying and supporting local businesses and there is a new-found respect for entrepreneurs, says Stephen. These business are, in turn, creating opportunities for others. Yambem makes it a point to employ local residents in her café, many of whom have had to drop out of school. Khumanthem works with NGOs to empower weaving clusters, most of which comprise women.
Stephen and Leiyolan are working with local famers to source ingredients for their products more efficiently. Much of the natural produce is seasonal, and tying up with farmers helps stabilize the supply chain for the brand. “We also want to include wild apples and heimang in our chocolates, and work with farmers to help them understand the potential of the produce,” Stephen says. Hill Wild has recently launched a network for farmers in Ukhrul and connects them with local entrepreneurs for knowledge-sharing and support.
But starting a business in the state comes with inherent logistical challenges. “There are lots of start-ups nowadays, but the thing is that it shouldn’t just be glorified,” Yambem says. Yambem has juggled just about every glitch, from inferior-quality ingredients to long-delayed shipments, especially during the first year in Guwahati. She summarizes it in a sentence, “In that first year, everything went wrong…but I decided not to look back.”
On moving to Manipur, she invested in machinery and visited tea factories to understand the process and develop her own recipes. Today, operations are streamlined but glitches exist nonetheless—online retailers like Amazon help to expand reach, but shipping of products is another story. “We don’t have a lot of options—we have a Fedex account but that’s limited to ground shipping. For faster orders, we have to use the postal service,” she says. “We once received an order from Bihar—and we sent it through post. It came back because it couldn’t be delivered, and the package was torn.”
“If we want to take online orders, we have no way of sending products. Sometimes, even the post offices are on indefinite strike. We have to go to Imphal and that can be expensive unless we have a branch or proper set-up there," Stephen says. “We don’t have delivery services to take the products, and we are yet to build a trust factor between distributors to ensure that stores stock our products. So, we have to go individually to each store and try to convince them,” she adds.
Procuring packaging material is another obstacle—Stephen and Aleks get most of their packing material from Delhi, but the cost of delivery tends to double due to distance and lack of accessibility.
But funding might well be the biggest concern. Bank loans are hard to come by for new businesses, and government funding even harder.
According to the entrepreneurs, it isn’t just the lack of opportunities but also the general impression of tribal communities that leads to the challenge. “To be honest, there is a perception that we won’t return the money,” says Stephen, mentioning an incident when a banking official told her not to disappear with the loan she had been given. “Most of the time, I am turned down,” says Aleks, who has applied for funding on a few occasions. “A lot of people have misused these funds before. Even if we genuinely do our work, there’s always a doubt (about our credibility)”.
But they are not giving up. Built on the foundations of a history of strife and realities far removed from the rest of India, the stories of these entrepreneurs from Manipur is also the story of the North-East—a region of remarkable beauty and scarce opportunities. “I see a very bright and hopeful future,” says Nameirakpam. “It’s about time.”
ON THE WEB
A list of digital businesses that make local products from the North-East accessible across India
From ethnic Naga shawls and stoles to wild forest honey from Meghalaya, you will find an assortment of regional specialities at this e-tailer, which aims to facilitate market linkages for brands in the North-East. “We wanted to offer an alternative option of marketing and branding apart from the physical stores,” says Lipokjungla Ozukum, who co-founded the venture with Imtisunup Longchar to turn the spotlight on hyperlocal businesses.
Roots and Leisure shop
A popular digital portal showcasing stories and people from the North-East, Roots and Leisure also operates an e-shop that allows shoppers to choose from a varied mix of intrinsically North-Eastern) handmade products (including a beef bladder pickle for the adventurous) and even a small curation of pre-loved fashion.
Based in Meghalaya, this e-commerce shop makes plant-based products and medicinal herbs from the region available online. The founders, who also run the local tech start-up Chillibreeze, partner with farmers to offer products like wild flower honey, Ing Makhir ginger, gotu kola powder and a variety of turmeric-based products, including Lakadong Ker—a turmeric latte blend.
The North-East Store
The founders of this e-commerce shop, Trideep Rabha and Catherine Dohling, hope to make homely products from the North-East easily available to those who have moved to other parts of the country. Food items dominate the inventory, but their handicrafts collection includes bamboo products and miniature folk artefacts that make for great gifts.