Fourteen years ago, an entrepreneur visited Shillong and set in motion the course for change in Meghalaya. That entrepreneur was Ralph Budelman, the founder of an e-commerce business in Illinois, Chicago, who launched Zizira in 2015, a brand that specialises in fair-trade, Northeastern produce. In effect, the brand epitomises what technology can do for India, if channelised correctly.
What Budelman did when he arrived here was foresee the tremendous potential in the youth of the northeast and then, manifested that in the form of Chillibreeze, a company offering design solutions to consulting firms and Fortune 500 companies.
Inadvertently, he saw in the agricultural resources of the region employment and better opportunities for locals who had been severely underutilized until then. And so began the story of Zizira, a food venture that has done exemplary work in the fields of sustainable agriculture, and fair-trade spices with technology at its disposal and imagination on its sleeve.
This month, we chat with Kimbretta Khongwir, Head of Zizira and Jubanylla Bang, Head of Product Development—two women at the fore of the brand, to understand what it stands for and how they made it possible to sustain a company that is as much for the people, as it is for the planet.
The Northeast's beautiful produce is often overlooked. What was the reality of the spice farmers in the region and did it even need a brand like Zizira in the first place?
Kimbretta Khongwir: The reality of Meghalaya's spice farmers was that they were relatively isolated from the Indian spice trade. There may be various reasons for this, but the consequences were that most, if not all, spice farmers grew only enough to satisfy their own family's needs or that of the local demand. And if they had surplus yield, they had no open market to sell it to. Middlemen dictated prices to the point where selling it to them was not worth the trouble. On the other hand, Indian consumers in metro cities were in need of a trustworthy seller of pure herbs and spices. That's the gap that Zizira decided to fill. We source herbs and spices directly from these family farmers, keep the entire processing and supply chain under our responsibility, and provide the final product in a convenient manner to customers through e-commerce.
How is Zizira solving the burning issue of food insecurity that is rampant in rural India and how is it responding to the economic pressures faced by farmers, alongside ensuring that culturally appropriate foods reach the market sourced from the right growers?
Kimbretta Khongwir: To us, fair-trade means three wins. The first step was to connect with hardworking farmers from every corner of Meghalaya and partner with them. Then, gather information on the traditional knowledge and farming practices and put it out there for the world to see. In order to do this, one thing was made clear from the get-go: pay the farmers the sum they deserve for their produce. By doing so, we eliminate the middlemen, and thus the farmers win. The second step was to take these unique ingredients, process them in-house, following the most ethical practices and guidelines. This ensures purity straight from the farm and directly to the consumer. In doing so, the customers win. And thirdly, as for the team, we know we've won if everyone is winning.
In spite of contributing deeply to the culture and cuisine of India, Northeastern states have always been under-represented. Add to that the impediments of language barriers, lack of connectivity and the general understanding of the culture. How does Zizira create a voice that is heard effectively in such an atmosphere?
Kimbretta Khongwir: First and foremost, we try to make available those products that are unique to Meghalaya, so there is a story to share and something different to talk about each time. We work hard on connecting with our audiences by employing methods like storytelling on our blogs or through our social media posts. And trust me, there are a lot of stories! Plus, our products will speak volumes for themselves. These ingredients are straight from the people and the soil of Meghalaya.
How do you procure your ingredients and identify farms to work with, while simultaneously ensuring that their practices are in line with Zizira's values?
Jubanylla Bang: Our procuring process starts with these epic trips that we take. That's where it all begins. We visit remote villages and identify the farms and farmers to work with. Yes, that also means that we do not work with all farmers but only those that share our values of authenticity. There is also the factor of speed of execution, which needs to be considered. We look out for key farming practices that our these farms follow, like traditional methods of farming, which translates to all-natural fertilisers, usage of heirloom seeds and farming with nature. This is important for sustainable and good quality ingredients that are then shipped to 28 states and 8 union territories across India.
We've had a bit of an awakening when it comes to realising the importance of Indian spices and sadly, this has happened once the West started taking interest in our spices. Take turmeric, for instance. Urban Indians took notice of traceability of their ingredients and fair-trade farming practices only later. Why do you think that is?
Kimbretta Khongwir: The Indian Market is frugal compared to the West. Fair trade spices are naturally more expensive to produce. To convince an Indian consumer to buy the more expensive produce at a higher rate is not an easy task. I think it would've been impossible for one company or even a handful of companies to do it. But in the West, the price gap between common commercial spices and premium fair-trade spices is not as big. This made it easier for western consumers to try something which was unknown to them before. Also, the fair-trade concept is not new in the West. This makes it easy for the western consumer to choose fair trade spices over regular spices. As it grew in popularity in the West, it gave the Indian consumer social proof of the virtues of fair-trade spices. This is how it has worked for many other products and industries too. To put it simply, they're not affordable to the common man, therefore fair-trade spices are still considered premium here in India.
What is the food like in your homes? And has working with Zizira changed your relationship with food and indigenious ingredients?
Jubanylla Bang: I come from a family that loves food. Initially, it was simple things, like fruits, vegetables and rice, which are staples in Khasi cuisine. As I grew up and started traveling and exploring, I was introduced to more cuisines. That helped me develop more depth and a nuanced love for food. After joining Zizira, it opened me to another realm within the culinary world, one that includes herbs and spices. So now, I experiment a lot with them. Sometimes I add these to my daily cooking, and on other days I use them to create something special such as a herbal tea blend.
Sonal Ved is the editor at IFN. She is also an author of an award-winning cookbook called Tiffin. She travelled through the first five tastes to be able to tell between a brie and provolone dolce. She can make stellar undhiyu and a green smoothie.