India Interior

Taking Manipur’s flavours beyond its borders

Ninglun Hanghal | Updated on July 12, 2019

Deft touches: Women workers at Meira Foods   -  Ninglun Hanghal

Shubhra Devi’s Meira Foods promotes local produce and empowers women economically

At her home in Bamon Leikai, south-east of Imphal, Shubhra Devi is busy in her kitchen-store-office, running a food business that has grown to touch an annual turnover of ₹1 crore. Meira Foods, a household name today, was started by Shubhra in 2004. After working in the development sector for more than 10 years, she took the plunge into packaged foods. She started with four women and a few hundred rupees in hand. “It all began in my kitchen,” recalls Shubhra.

The products consist mainly of pickles, candies and salted dry fruit. The brand’s uniqueness is that all the products are prepared from the indigenous fruits and vegetables of Manipur. Fruits and vegetables are purchased from local sellers and suppliers, creating a network of farmers, vendor-suppliers and buyers.

Women power to the fore

It is an all-woman initiative, and the employees are freshers who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Within a year, the women become master trainers and they, in turn, train the next group of freshers. They work in groups at places convenient to them or at leikais (socio-cultural spaces). Then they put together their products at the marketing unit at Bamon Leikai, from where Shubhra operates.

A cold storage and processing unit has come up at Kakching, where pineapple processing is done on a large scale. The unit networks with local pineapple growers and has a tie-up with the Manipur Organic Mission Agency for the supply of organic puree.

“We invested capital and expanded our operations using our earnings. In 2004-05, our turnover was just ₹30,000; in 2005-06 it increased to ₹1 lakh. As Meira Foods toiled on, by 2012-13, the turnover was ₹75 lakh. Now, our turnover has crossed ₹1 crore,” Shubhra says with pride.

She has a simple answer to queries on how she started her venture and how it grows: “Whatever we earn we invest. Our machinery, stocks and our trained, dedicated staff are our assets.”

Meira Foods is particularly popular among youngsters and Manipuris living and studying outside the State. “The packaged home food is convenient to carry, and gives them the comfort of home-away-from-home — something I longed for when I was away from Manipur. It is also a good gift for friends outside the State so they can taste our food,” says Shubhra.

Shubhra says her business needs life-skills rather than academic skills. Cooking comes naturally to women, she feels, and food processing is a logical step forward that turns tradition and inborn skill into an opportunity for women’s economic empowerment, considering everyone cannot land a government job. When women have economic independence, they have a say in the family and society, says Shubhra, who holds an MA in food and nutrition. Interestingly, she studied away from home, in Rajasthan, but came back to work in the social sector. She formed the Action for Community Transformation (ACT), which mainly focusses on food processing. She is associated with MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises), conducting training in capacity and skill building. She has trained over 30 women but the first set was a group of three women who trusted her enough to take risks. Today, Meira Foods has 55 direct employees and works with over 100 women across Manipur.

Challenges alongside growth

Shubhra recalls how, once the morning meal was done and the kitchen free, they would start experimenting. There was no money, no loans, no space, but plenty of determination. The market response to their early offerings was overwhelming and they started looking beyond the neighbourhood market. Today, their products go across the North-East — Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Meghalaya.

As the business grows, new challenges need to be faced, like preservation of raw material. “That’s why we source only what we can make use of in a day — maximum 50 bags — since the processing is done manually, be it locally grown umork (also known as raja mirchi) or hawaijar (fermented beans), ngari, garlic, ginger, or our candy preparation using heikru. We boil it, remove the seeds, then process it with sugar syrup for six days, drain out the water and then dry it in the sun. The salted variety, too, is sun-dried. During monsoon, when there is not enough sunlight, we use dryers. We have to deal with irregular power supply, when the machine sometimes burns out.”

Shubhra says she prefers human labour to automation as it ensures more employment. The absence of data regarding markets is a hurdle as it is difficult to estimate how much to produce. But demand outstrips production and there is very little waste, she asserts.

Awards and recognition have come her way, including the FICCI 2018 Outstanding Entrepreneur and special recognition from the National Small Industries Corporation. But there is no resting on her laurels as Shubhra looks forward to taking Manipuri flavours to many more places.

The writer is a Manipur-based journalist

Published on July 12, 2019

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