With 'Made in Urkhul,' this duo is determined to put Manipur on the entrepreneurship map

Manipur might be known for a lot of fiery things, but Hill Wild and its founders are doing their bit to ride India's start-up wave along with other aspirants with their Made in Ukhrul summit
Hill Wild has a workplace of their own where they manufacture their chocolates
Hill Wild has a workplace of their own where they manufacture their chocolates

In one of the seven sisters of India, Manipur, lies the district of Ukhrul. The eponymous village in the same district is famous for the recently launched Shirui Lily Festival, which collectively celebrates the rare Shirui flower and its delicate pink rareness. And it is truly rare as it can't be found anywhere else other than in this village of this state nor can it be transplanted.

But before we get carried away by the beauty of these flowers, there is another reason why this town is famous today — it is the Made in Ukhrul entrepreneurship conclave and trade fair, which brings together locally produced goods and the entrepreneurs behind them. These minds not only get to exhibit their labour of love but also help pitch their ideas to potential investors. And they all have Zeinorin Stephen Angkang and Leiyolan Vashum to thank. These two entrepreneurs were not happy with merely advancing their own start-up, Hill Wild, but also felt it necessary to help advance the dreams of others too. 

The closest station to Ukhrul is Imphal which is 84 km away. So connectivity is a huge challenge for all the start-ups in Ukhrul

Started in 2016, which was basically a meet-up of 26 entrepreneurs, Made in Ukhrul's third edition saw 70 plus entrepreneurs fill Bakshi Ground this April. Not only was the summit sponsored by the North Eastern Council, Government of India, it also had speakers like the Sikkim-based founder of iShippo, Karun Bhutia, the CEO of GNRC Hospital Sixmile, Satabdee Borah, and several others. And while the next installment of Make in Ukhrul is a while away, we catch up with Zeinorin Stephen to find out about Hill Wild and the journey she's undertaking with several others to put Manipur on the entrepreneurship map.  

There's always a backstory 
Education brought Zeinorin to Delhi. She pursued her Master's in Fashion Management from NIFT and interned at all the right places like Adidas and Jabong.com. It's safe to say that she was ready to go places, but alas, life had other plans. Her parents wanted her to stay with them and she had to take care of her ailing father. "I had to make the tough decision of coming back home and I still had the best time of my life in my own town, caring for my parents," says the 25-year-old. 

Red and spicy: Hill Wild chocolates which are infused with ghost Chilli

Unfortunately, her father passed away and responsibility came upon her like a "thunderstorm", but she drew courage from the resilience her mother exhibited. "My mother used to micromanage everything and make sure that our needs were met. She also stressed on attaining a good education. I always wanted to incorporate the skills I learned from her in a business of my own," says the Ukhrul-born entrepreneur. And she did so with Hill Wild, an artisan chocolate brand which she registered in November 2017. "We have been recently selected for the government's Start-up Manipur scheme as well," she shares delightedly.

The zesty chocolatier
Zeinorin was taught how to make chocolate by a friend back in Delhi, but she did not want to be just another person who makes chocolates. She wanted to infuse them with local flavours, like pumpkin seeds. Rains are quite common in Ukhrul and one of the most common sightings during this season is people cracking pumpkin seeds. So she used roasted pumpkin seeds in her chocolate and distributed them to her friends who relished it to the last bite. Next, she used the fiery ghost chilli found in the North East, which has the ability to dissolve blood clots in the vessels, which was an instant hit. "Though the cacao is brought in from Maharashtra, I tried to infuse it with flavours which are not only typical to the region, but also a huge part of my childhood," says Zeinorin, who is the Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Hill Wild.    

Hill Wild experimented with gooseberries and other wild fruits too before finalising on the flavours they currently have

For the greater good     
By starting their own venture, Zeinorin and her partner, Leiyolan, have not only become self-sufficient but have also helped the community around them become independent. Zeinorin tells us that they work with 25 plus farmers who they coordinate with regularly to source ingredients like plums, garlic, lemon, wild nuts, wild pepper and more for Hill Wild and other start-ups who require them. "Through this, farmers not only find a market for their produce, but they also get a better profit margin," she shares.

They have now even started producing plum jam, something that grows in almost everyone's backyard. They are employing a number of widows to collect these plums, make the jam and package it. They have also connected with 12 women growing rare and traditional wild herbs in Talui village, but are unable to find a market for it yet. Zeinorin plans to make green tea with these herbs and mixing in wild cardamom, dried nettle leaf and more. Now that sounds like my kinda brew.

I think every state has its local challenges, but we are trying to connect with local entrepreneurs here and discuss the issue

Zeinorin Stephen Angkang, Founder, Hill Wild 

Of course, starting a business in Manipur, which is low on connectivity, is a hassle, but nothing is keeping Hill Wild from expanding and helping others evolve as well. "We are open to mentoring, helping start-ups by expanding their network and connecting them with retailers," says Zeinorin, adding that, "the North East is usually known for bans and protest, but maybe in the coming years, when a lot of start-ups come together, we will be known for something more," she concludes.

Three to go

Though there are several start-ups that Hill Wild has helped out, we talk to three who have benefitted from their connections and mentorship:

Aeram Products 

When Ningbo Liang Shinglai attended the Made in Ukhrul exhibition, he was motivated to start something of his own. After looking around, he found honey making to be a lucrative business which will also help the localities. He soon shared his knowledge of beekeeping and honey extraction and now, there are three remote villages that he visits regularly on his bike to collect honey from 22 households who have about seven bee boxes. He regularly supplies the local market with their organic produce and calls his venture Aeram Products. "Going forward, maybe I can employ educated youth who can help me further in packaging and logistics," says Shinglai. The 35-year-old is also in the process of requesting farmers to grow yacón (a Peruvian ground apple) so that he can expand the business.

Handmade Cottage

Yungreiwon Ragui (27) and her sister Sovi (25) started making Amigurumi dolls (a crocheted doll) for their cousins and friends, but when they realised that people wanted to buy them, they set up a small business and started selling them. And they aren't restricted to just Manipur. They also sell outside and use the Indian Post to deliver their products to cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Pune. "In Manipur, either you aspire for a government job or become a private school teacher, there are few options beyond that. My sister and I are trained nurses and the scope here is very less," says Ragui, who is currently taking a break. This is how they ended up with this business named Handmade Cottage. But pricing remains a challenge as the product is simple so they can't charge too much, but making it is time-consuming so they cannot charge too little either. 

Highlanders Holding

Yireikan Khapudang realised that their Naga hill tribesmen were eating one of the healthiest and naturally grown foods, free from fertilisers and pesticides, which was harvested from isolated forest plantations in spots where there is no industrial activity within a 200 km radius. So, he wanted to introduce these products to the urban population as well. "Our tribe has 100 variants of rice. However, the rice I am dealing with is Mairanzaa. Laboratory tests showed that it has high energy levels and high dietary fibre with a presence of important vitamins," shares the 39-year-old, adding that, "no standard packaging material is available in Manipur, which leads to an increase in the cost of packaging. Transport cost continues to remain high too. So once the project goes through with the good traction of market demand, tribal villagers will immensely benefit from it," he says.  

For more, click on facebook.com/hillwild/

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