Shillong: At the heart of the agricultural industry in any society are farmers. They are not only responsible for the rigorous physical work that goes into producing a healthy harvest, but in some cases, also take on the responsibility of getting the produce to consumers. Hence, one can only imagine how disheartening it must feel to know that these agricultural heroes are sometimes underpaid and undervalued. Several establishments have in the past attempted to profit off the backs of these farmers and as a result permanently sealed the fate of the farming industry in Northeast India, specifically Meghalaya to the back burners.
Luckily, a few ventures have attempted to correct this anomaly, but one that can be said to have been impactful is Zizira. As an agro-food based startup established by Ralph Budelman, Zizira has been described by many as a blessing. Although founded by Ralph, who is also its CEO, the company is currently run and managed by Kimbretta Khongwir, who serves as head of Zizira.
But what exactly is this establishment all about? Kimbretta breaks it down to its core, “Zizira deals with various spices and herbs and our vision is to pioneer the development of natural products, proving the underutilized potential of Northeast India in a way that sparks a movement. Zizira started because we believe that there are undiscovered treasures in the hills of Meghalaya. The abundant rainfall, rich soil, high altitude, hilly terrain, fresh air, and clean water produce unique plants and crops endemic to a few regions globally.”
Often regarded as a product of the success of Chillibreeze; Ralph’s first startup, Zizira was birthed out of his vision to create a system that will properly utilize the agricultural produce Meghalaya has been blessed with, while also making farmers famous, and giving them good value and returns for their work.
“Ralph, 70 years old, from Illinois Chicago, came to Shillong in the year 2004. He started Chillibreeze, a successful PowerPoint formatting service for consulting firms and Fortune 500 companies in the same year. Ralph’s vision to start Chillibreeze was influenced by the potential he saw in the youth of the North-east. He wanted to ensure that this potential did not go to waste, so he started Chillibreeze to generate employment and offer better opportunities. So, ten years after Chillibreeze’s inception, Ralph took another leap of faith and launched Zizira. Subsequently, Muezart, another start-up which deals with indigenous eri silk from Meghalaya, was born in the year 2019,” Kimbretta informs.
The venture is aimed at encouraging sustainability in farming in the state of Meghalaya and beyond. Ralph believed the hardworking farmers in Meghalaya were not getting enough compensation for their farm produce, and so decided to launch a venture that will not only ensure farmers are properly compensated, but will also give these farmers the much needed publicity and relevance, nationally and internationally.
For a startup of this magnitude, with such an important mission as this, there has to be a model that is being followed strictly to produce success. Kimbretta gives a valid insight into how the venture’s model works and how it has managed to remain relevant years after its inception. “In the year, 2019, we had the ‘Zizira reboot’ wherein Ralph passed on the reins of leadership and management to three members of Zizira including myself. Today, we are a young team composed of 16 members who are driven by the mission and vision of the company and we are hoping to grow with the years to come. Zizira’s beneficiaries are the customers who consume our products, and our farmer partners, whom we buy our raw materials from. We offer authentic Northeast Indian spices to our customers, and a market opportunity for farmers to sell their produce. We do this by maintaining direct relationships with multiple farmers instead of going through middlemen and doing all the processing in-house.
“We also market directly to customers through our own website, as well as using organic and paid marketing campaigns, while outsourcing all non-core activities such as order delivery logistics, and so on, to partners and subscription apps,” she says.
As you may very well know, there’s no gain without pain. Running a successful venture such as Zizira came with its fair share of hurdles, which Kimbretta speaks about. “We faced numerous challenges, especially during the initial stages. Due to the pressures and challenges we faced as a start-up, it was difficult to retain our team members. We also made the typical mistakes that many startups make; hiring the wrong people or not doing enough testing. We learnt most things through trial and error. And then the pandemic and lockdown proved to be a major hurdle which we thankfully surpassed,” she notes.
Talking about their collaborative process with farmers for sourcing the products, Kimbretta says that the farmer partners are all from within the state of Meghalaya. They mostly consist of farmers settling on the outskirts of Shillong from various districts such as the Ri-Bhoi district and West Jaintia Hills. For procuring bird’s eye chillies, the brand partners with farmers from Mizoram.
Speaking on some of the startup’s most remarkable products that have gained nationwide acceptance, he says “One of our prized products is our high curcumin Lakadong Turmeric Powder which is indigenous to the Lakadong valley of Jaintia hills. Another one of our prized products would be our Ing Makhir Ginger Powder which is a rare variety of ginger that’s valued for its potency and has been used in traditional folk medicine in Meghalaya for centuries,” she adds.
Other products they are currently dealing with include Digestion-friendly Zizira Long Pepper, Nadia Ginger Powder from Meghalaya, Pure Wildflower Raw Honey from Mawsynram, Lakadong Turmeric Latte, Lemongrass, Dried Roselle, Lakadong Mirch, and Valerian Tea among others. Zizira’s primary targets are conscious consumers who live in metropolitan cities since they have limited access to pure and unadulterated herbs and spices. Although the company’s current target buyers are those within the country, there are expansion plans currently being perfected to take the venture to the next level. “With time, we hope to engage with more farmers all over the country and develop connections with them. We also hope to sell our products overseas and grow as a brand. We really want to make Ralph’s vision of changing the ethos of sustainable farming and conscious consumerism come to life”.