“Manipur is a mega biodiversity hotspot. One does not have to explore wilderness spread over 22,327 sq km to discover its distinctive floral wealth. Instead, a casual visit to the all-women Ima market with 4,000 stalls, in the heart of Imphal, will convince scientists and tourists alike. Herbal products straight from the forests and kitchen gardens are sold here on a daily basis,” says Rajkumar Kishor, one of the few first-generation entrepreneurs in Biotechnology and Life Sciences in North-East India.
Growing up in Manipur, Kishor was exposed early on to its rich natural wealth. (Accident-prone during childhood days, he once fell from a Champa tree trying to pluck fragrant flowers and was laid up for three months). Herbal concoctions fascinated him endlessly. The environment of experimentation around him also developed his interest in all things natural — isn’t Manipur the land of the Singju salad that testifies to the Manipuri’s love of crunchy vegetables!
Besides onion, cabbage and coriander, the Singju salad includes lotus root and ginger and is flavoured with herbal components. There are multiple variations of Singju, as well, that include raw papaya, banana inflorescences, and even dry fish powder sprinklings. Singju seasoned with powdered perilla seeds, chilli powder and aromatic herbs is sold at kiosks to be relished any time of the day.
Nurtured in such surroundings, it was but natural for Kishor to be drawn to horticulture. He obtained his M Sc degree in 1997 and Ph D in 2003 from Manipur University and then went on to work as a research associate at the department of horticulture in the Central Agricultural University of Imphal.
In 2005, he was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, and worked at the Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD), Imphal, till 2010. Thereafter, he joined the Centre for Orchid Gene Conservation of Eastern Himalayan Region, Hengbung, as scientist and gained extensive knowledge in the analytical aspects of biotechnology.
Beer, wine experiments
A typical Manipuri family consumes more than 200 different herbs grown as petty vegetables across different seasons of the year. These herbs, Kishor believes, are the potential bio-resources that North-East India can gift mankind as potent future food with strong medicinal value. Many of these herbs can do miracles if their capabilities are scientifically understood. There are certain indigenous plants that are even better than ginseng, he asserts.
Kishor started experimenting with ginger beer by blending different species of lesser known ginger growing in Manipur. This concoction of ginger beer can be a rich source of multiple antioxidants, which are loaded in every ginger species. He even rediscovered a ginger species in 2012 after a lapse of 100 years. Constantly in research mode, Kishor has attempted brewing wine from pineapple and pomelo. Besides beer and wine, he has also formulated a herbal tea blended from wild rhizomes and tubers.
Kishor has successfully created India’s hottest chilli by cross-breeding two capsicum species.
Named ‘Kishor’s Fireball’, it has a potency of 2,87,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). “The Scoville scale is a measurement of the pungency of spicy foods which is based on the concentration of capsaicinoids,” he explains.
While there are several varieties of Indian chilli, the most popular are grown in the North-East and have many uses, including in food, confectionery, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, paint manufacturing and liquor and as self-defence weapons.
India is one of the largest reservoirs of orchid genetic resource in the world, stresses Kishor. But this genetic wealth is vanishing due to destruction, degradation, and shrinkage of natural habitats. There is an urgency to take up various conservation measures on scientific lines so that these herbs and orchids are conserved for the future — which was indeed why Kishor took the step of resigning from his job as scientist and strike out on his own. Along with his wife, Kebisana, he established Kwaklei & Khonggunmelei Orchids Pvt Ltd (K&K Orchids) in 2013 to take forward conservation of precious resources.
Today, K&K Orchids is a research-cum-commercial venture for development of the orchid resource of India and focusses on breeding Indian orchid species using micro-propagation. It aims at development of commercial orchid varieties of purely Indian origin having potential as cut flowers, potted plants, as medicine, and as perfumes.
So far, Kishor has registered 13 new hybrid orchids with the Royal Horticultural Society, UK. Some of these beautiful specimens have been named after famous personalities while one has been dedicated to his wife. His company has been awarded Biotechnology Ignition Grant to work on ‘Clonal propagation of elite genotype of orchid hybrids synthesised in Manipur for commercial cultivation’.
Besides, K&K Orchids is associated with the Institute of Bioresources & Sustainable development, Imphal, for a partnership venture on breeding commercial orchids.
Both Central and State governments are calling for the promotion of horticulture in the North-East States. But this requires a lot more punch to be added to the existing system, feels Kishor. Enriching skill development, improving best practices of post-harvest management, prudent storage facility, marketing and transportation — all this need to be streamlined so that valuable crops can have a longer shelf life.
There is an urgent need to establish fruit and wine brewing and distilling industries, if fruits and vegetables are to be grown sustainably as cash crops. Formulating feasible plans will help promote eco-friendly entrepreneurship by start-up companies and benefit small and big farmers alike, Kishor points out.
A cancer survivor (a bone marrow transplant from his elder sister Babita revived him to full health), Kishor says he may be making strides in research now but he almost took a different turn early on.
“Today I am happy to have become a scientist instead of a photographer despite my intense love of photography. This came from my father, who was an expert in photo-engraving and film-making. I even won a few national awards in photography and often dreamt of becoming a cinematographer. However, destiny had something else in mind.” Thankfully for orchids, you could say!
The writer is a wildlife enthusiast and photographer based in Noida