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A Manipuri entrepreneur blends chilli with cacao and strikes gold

Rakhee Roy Talukdar | Updated on October 25, 2019 Published on October 25, 2019

Raising the bar: Zeinoirin Stephen Angkang learnt chocolate-making from a friend

Zeinoirin Stephen Angkang is spicing up chocolates with the deadly bhut jolokia pepper and other local ingredients from the Northeast

Tribes of the Northeast believed it could ward off enemies. The Indian Army planned to use it to flush out terrorists. For women, it acted as a safety weapon. The bhut jolokia, or the ghost pepper — said to be one of the world’s hottest — clearly had its uses.

The extremely pungent pepper, used in many parts of the Northeast to spice up food and pickles, can also be found in chilli grenades and sprays. But now there is a sweet twist to it: It is being turned into a special kind of chocolate.

A young entrepreneur from Manipur, Zeinoirin Stephen Angkang, has infused the spiciness of the chilli into the sweetness of chocolate and conjured up an intense combo that explodes in one’s mouth.

Zeinorin (27) started the business of hand-made chocolates in 2017 in the remote Ukhrul district of Manipur; in two years, her revenues have touched over ₹2 crore.

The bhut jolokia chocolate, priced at ₹160 for a bar, is the most popular item, but the rest of her products, made with local ingredients such as pumpkin seeds, nuts, Asian sesame seeds, seasonal fruits and plum wine, are greatly popular in the region, too.

The business started off as a kitchen concept with an investment of ₹2,000, she tells BLink. “I always knew I would have my own business one day. And that would be something to do with food,” she says. Her mother, who runs a food business, greatly influenced her, she adds. “She always taught me, ‘Eat what you grow’. And the amazing flora of the Northeast moulded my mind,” says Zeinorin, who was a speaker at a recent women’s summit in Jaipur.

Having learnt the art of making chocolates from her friend, a pastry chef, Zeinorin began with her first product, the wild apple candy, in 2017. Soon, she was preparing other kinds of candies and chocolates, using Manipur’s rich variety of seasonal fruits, edible seeds and nuts that were not in regular use.

With her friend and fiancé Leiyolan Vashum, she launched the company Hill Wild in November. 2017. Her chocolates infused with the exotic flavours of the fruits and nuts of the region were an instant hit. The good word spread when these were served at the North East Development Summit in Imphal in November, 2017. At present, the company sells more than 10,000 chocolate bars in the Northeast (Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Assam) every month. Plans are afoot to take it to other parts of India.

The dry king chilli chocolate has caught the interest of the people. Bhut jolokia, which grows in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, is a stubbly red pepper that scores 1,041,427 units on the heat-measuring Scoville scale, is twice as hot as the next fieriest pepper, the Mexican red savina, and 200 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. A jalapeno, by contrast, measures a measly 10,000 on the Scoville scale.

Sweet twist: Hill Wild chocolates were launched in November 2017

 

“The taste is unique because just as the sweetness of the chocolate engulfs you, the spiciness of jolokia hits you, exploding in tiny pops all over your mouth,” Zeinorin says.

But her journey has not been an easy one. There were financial obstacles to begin with, but their company soon received a funding of ₹20 lakh from the government’s Startup Manipur initiative. “People tend to believe that loans won’t be returned if given to first-time entrepreneurs but I stood my ground, giving them a comprehensive project. In the first year my revenue was around ₹40 lakh.”

The other problem was sourcing chocolate. Ukhrul is 1,662m above sea-level, and the roads are hilly and treacherous. Getting cacao consignments from south and western India was especially difficult when it rained, she points out. To top it, company employees had to personally take orders and deliver products to shops in the region, for internet connections were erratic, which meant online orders were not a viable option.

Strikes and unrest often upset their plans. Training unskilled workers was another worry. The duo, who is to be married this week, then decided that it would set up its own group of farmers to ensure the smooth and timely delivery of raw material.

The company now has 25 farmers, 15 of them women, growing organic vegetables and fruits for the products. The farmers together earn around ₹2 lakh per month just from her company, she says. “They supply other products to other companies and there is no restriction on that, as long as our work does not get hampered. This way we are trying to uplift our community, which is largely tribal.”

With ₹2 crore revenue generation in the last financial year, the Delhi NIFT graduate is not ready to rest solely on chocolates. She has helped organise mini-trade conclaves in Ukhrul to boost sustainable business ventures. They have also found a variety of cacao growing in parts of Manipur.

Zeinorin is working on a project to develop a chocolate tourism circuit in Ukhrul. “Tourists can see how we are procuring cacao, preparing chocolate, infusing them with local ingredients and coming out with the end product, beautifully packed for the customer,” she says.

For the time-being, however, Zeinorin is focusing on her wedding. As she walks down the aisle with Leiyolan, cartoonist Charles Schulz’s words will probably echo in her mind: “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

Rakhee Roytalukdar is an independent journalist based in Jaipur

Published on October 25, 2019
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