Leiyolan Vashum and Zeinorin Angkang are bringing the rich natural produce of Manipur’s Ukhrul province to food lovers in various Indian cities, through e-commerce
Ukhrul, in Manipur, populated by the indigenous Tangkhul tribe, is a land is nestled in nature’s bounty, steeped in ancient tradition and buoyed by a modern outlook.
Leiyolan Vashum and Zeinorin Angkang of Ukhrul tell the story of their people, through their rich produce. The couple, with a background in Management and Communication Studies, started Hill Wild in the winter of 2017. The business became popular for its confections infused with local produce, but took a detour in 2020. “With the arrival of the pandemic, everything came to a grinding halt,” explains Zeinorin, as she juggles online orders and social media updates.
What the company stumbled upon as a predicament last year, soon transformed into an opportunity. “On one hand, access to produce was limited, while on the other, plentiful harvest could not make it to consumers on time. So we launched Taste Ukhrul, a brand that would bring artisanal produce from the region to the rest of the country, and create a network for farmers to sell their harvest,” Zeinorin says.
Zeinorin Angkang and Leiyolan Vashum. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU
They had clearly hit the spot: in the midst of lockdown, the small business was inundated with online orders. “I remember our small team packing till 11pm once, so we could meet our dispatch deadline the next day,” Zeinorin recounts.
Under the umbrella of Taste Ukhrul, a bouquet of unique produce is harvested, minimally processed and packed for shipment. Ukhrul plums, Sirarakhong chilli , Sivathei/king chilli (hitting a whopping million units on the Scoville Heat Scale), Kachai lemon, Ningthee sumac berry, Raphei perilla seeds (used in salads and with meats), wild figs, dried wild apples, kiwi candy and ginger powder have made their way to kitchens across India.
“We want to showcase Ukhrul’s tasty natural produce. With its amazing terrain, rainfall and proximity to the Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot, Ukhrul has a cornucopia of delicious spices, vegetables and fruit. This venture motivates our small land-holder farmers and even our youth, to take up agriculture not just to sustain ourselves, but to ensure food security,” Zeinorin explains.
Sirarakhong chilli. Photo: Jim Kason, Special Arrangement/THE HINDU
Taste Ukhrul is now working with over 200 farmers, with more additions every season. “Our recent work on International Women’s Day with Talui garlic farmers makes us particularly joyous. Two hundred women planted the same garlic on small patches of land, grown without pesticides. They gathered manure from the forest, mulched it regularly, adding organic compost as fertilizer. The same heirloom garlic, now yields collective sales with equitable wealth distribution across the community,” states Zeinorin.
The little victories are truly sweet, reminisces the couple, “Just before Diwali, Ukhrul had at least 10 tonnes of harvested kiwi fruit and some farmers approached us to speed up sales when the stock was fresh. We sold three tonnes of fresh kiwi locally, but we had to think on our feet to preserve the rest of it.”
She says they finally made it into sweet-sour kiwi candy, by slicing the fruit thin, soaking it in sugar and then dehydrating it under the sun. “This was just one of the many instances for us where we felt a sense of responsibility to our farming community,” Zeinorin says.
Ernest Luikham, a local farmer with disability, grows tree tomatoes. His rich harvest from a 1,500-tree farm has inspired local women to source produce from him for their pickle business.
“Food is enjoyed the best, when you know where it’s grown and who lovingly tended to it. Shangshangwung Huileng, who returned to Ukhrul from Chennai, started a cabbage farm. Initially we got our cabbage from other states, but now Huileng has risen to the challenge and is trying to meet local needs with his amazing, organic cabbage. We see such a spark with our youth, to be self-sufficient and support the local economy,” Zeinorin says.
The collective has had some artistic collaborations too.
Dimapur-based jewellery and home-decor business Runway Nagaland, for instance, has created hand-embroidered pouches for Taste Ukhrul.
The journey has not been easy, despite the success. “We took a big leap of faith during the lockdown and sunk our own resources at considerable risk. But I think it is paying off now. We have brands based in Switzerland and across the USA who are buying from us,” Zeinorin says. She adds, “This augurs well for our farmers, who reap rich dividends, and these small partnerships form the base for future collaborations.”