Seven years ago, when Yangmila Zimik attended food processing training organized by Ukhrul, a Manipur-based NGO, Participatory Action for Sustainable Development Organization (PASDO), what she was most looking forward to was making delicacies to share with friends and family.
However, soon after the workshop, Yangmila, a single mother, felt encouraged enough to start a small venture. She spent Rs 500 to buy gooseberries and sugar, made candies and packed them in small batches.
“I gave the local shops some packets of sweets to see if they could sell them. They sold out quickly,” says Yangmila in a conversation with HerStory. Knowing only Meitei, the prominent language of the region, Yangmila enlisted the help of a local translator to sit down for this interview.
Today, as an entrepreneur, employer and food expert – language is hardly a barrier for 47-year-old Yangmila, who is the proud owner of her brand Shirin Products. The brand is synonymous with several organic products and is found in stores across Manipur.
How the venture began
Yangmila’s candy making quickly became a huge success, with many Kirana shops in the small town of Ukhrul approach her for more products.
Encouraged by the demand, she decided to invest more time in what had until now been an ordinary hobby – experimenting with food. She started by collecting locally available fruits like gooseberry, plum, guava, wild olive, etc. and processed them into candies and jam at her residence in Ukhrul.
In 2017, when she attended another workshop held at the local Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) to learn how to make pickles, her interest and enthusiasm caught the attention of officials at the KVK.
They soon helped her set up a small work unit in her home by providing her with a wood-burning stove, a gas stove and a jumbo box, among other things, under the Socio-Economic Action Plan (SEAP).
From candies and jams to various types of pickles, Yangmila, who started out as a solo entrepreneur, began to expand her repertoire of products over time. She registered her Shirin Products brand in 2019, which now includes 35 different types of food products. Over time, she even hired six local women, four of them full-time and two students who work part-time.
Yangmila says she wants to make sure students finish their studies because it’s an opportunity she missed.
“My mother passed away when I was three years old, and my father remarried. I had six siblings and it became difficult for us to continue our education,” says Yangmila, who grew up in the mountain village of Pharung in Manipur before getting married and moving to Ukhrul.
With her only son away pursuing a master’s degree in forestry, Yangmila devotes all her time to promoting her brand. All 35 Shirin Products food items are organic and include items like pickles, candies, squash, cakes, and more. “You have to try guava green tea, it’s extremely healthy and delicious,” she says when asked about some of her unique products.
Yangmila herself distributes these products to nearly 30-50 shops in Ukhrul district, and manages to earn between Rs 70,000 and Rs 80,000 a month just through brick-and-mortar stores. She has yet to explore the world of e-commerce, but sells her products through her brand’s Facebook page.
Her determination and entrepreneurial spirit recently won recognition when she was awarded the Assam Women Entrepreneur Award for being an outstanding entrepreneur in the rural category.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Yangmila says,
“At first I hired one person to help me with this venture, but I realized that it was not enough. Now there are seven of us and we still don’t have a proper work shed or machine. All our products are made by hand. As for raw materials, there is a lot of fruit here that we can use very well. With the right machines and a fully functional work shed, I could employ more people. The first days will be challenging, but I am ready for all challenges.”
Financial aid and more
Over the years, Shirin Products has become a household name in Ukhrul, but it has also had its share of challenges and obstacles.
Yangmila says the pandemic years were tough as sales dropped, but she was able to stay afloat because her products are made with local ingredients and she didn’t have to depend on an outside supply chain to keep her production lines open.
As for distribution to stores, she says that customers contacted her directly, and she personally delivered her products to homes.
Yangmila’s entrepreneurial spirit is widely recognized.
While she was able to be funded by a grant of Rs 1,20,000 from German non-profit organization GIZ, Yangmila also benefited from Rang De, a peer-to-peer lending platform that supports access to microcredit for rural India, through which she was able to borrow 2 lakh Rs.
This year, Yangmila applied for the Pradhan Mantri Formalization of Food Processing Micro Enterprises (PM FME Scheme). Launched in June 2020 under the ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’ and ‘Vocal for Local’ campaigns, the scheme aims to provide technical, financial and business support to micro food processing units in the country.
For Yangmila, receiving the PM FME Scheme grant will be a true confirmation of her efforts all these years.