Here we are with yet another farmer story.
The women in Meghalaya are very entrepreneurial. It always amazes me how passionate they are about their work. There are women from distant villages who leave their houses early in the morning to go to 'Iewduh' (a wholesale market in Shillong) to sell their goods. And then return home until late evening. They have the fire in their belly and the passion in their heart to provide the best for their families. This drives them to take on any challenges and turn them into opportunities.
On 1st Dec, 2018, we met one such woman. Her enthusiasm attracted us and led us to an amazing partnership with her. Are you ready to hear a farmer story from the field?
Let me introduce you to Kong Tharina Umlong.
A Farmer Story: Enthusiastic and Enterprising Kong Tharina
We first met Kong Tharina at the 2018 Saras Fair that happened in Shillong. This fair was organised by Meghalaya State Rural Livelihood Society to strengthen self-help groups. It brought together women from rural villages and gave them an opportunity to showcase their products to urban customers and interact with them. From such fairs Zizira gets the opportunity to gather many farmer stories and so we never miss them.
Kong Tharina's exuberant spirit caught our attention and so we stopped to see what she was selling. At her counter, there were banana chips, tapioca chips, millet cakes and other homemade sweets.
Upon interacting with her, we learned that she came from a village called Pynkya, in East Khasi Hills District of Meghalaya. She and the other ladies had to walk 1 hr from her village to reach the main road. Remember, they would have carried the goods they want to sell. They then booked a vehicle to come to Shillong.
We learnt that she is a mother of 8 children and one of the leaders of the Self Help Group (SHG) at her village. Her SHG has a very interesting name – IOHLYNTI. It means 'Pathfinders'. I believe the women in her group are always figuring out new paths and ways to succeed together. I am sure that there is a real-life farmer story behind each one of them.
Let’s get to know them more.
From Selling Brooms to Processing Food, They Do Everything to Make a Living
Kong Tharina and the women in her group would help each other and make products from their villages to sell them to the market.
She would sell brooms, bay leaves, and other fruits and vegetables regularly to the local market.
She and the ladies in her SHG attend annual fairs or food expos held by the government to showcase the products they grow in their village.
In such expos, she would sell -
'pashor' or banana flower, and other local herbs like :
'jali', 'soh ngang', 'jatira', 'jyllang', 'pathaw' or pumkin, 'kait' or banana, 'sohmarit' or black pepper, 'shynrai' or turmeric, 'jaiur' or winged prickly ash.
They make jams and fruit juices made from pineapple and carambola, tapioca chips, banana chips, millets cakes and honey.
They would also sell pickle made from jack fruit and 'shophie' known as Myrica esculenta in scientific lexicon.
As she was busy in the fair, we could not talk to her at length about how she started this initiative. It was much later that we ended up having this interesting conversation. Let me share it with you. Read this farmer story as it unfolds:
How did you learn to make jams and cakes? Did you get any training?
Kong Tharina: I did get some training on how to make jams and juices from the horticultural department. They would call me whenever they have such trainings. However, for the chips, I learned it by herself. My daughter looked up at the internet and took a printout of the recipe, then I started making the chips at home. This was how I started selling the jams, juices, chips and cakes.
Where do you sell your products?
Kong Tharina: I sell the products to several shops in Shillong and in Food Expos.
What do you benefit from attending these food fairs?
Kong Tharina: These food fairs have helped me make a lot of sale for the food products we make at our village. It also gave me a chance to connect with many customers in Shillong who are interested in selling my products in their shops. They would contact me after these fairs, and they would buy more products from me. This has really helped me and the women in our Self Help Group grow our business.
Which products are more profitable?
Kong Tharina: Selling fruit juices and jams gave me more profit than selling fresh fruits. I sell 20 pineapples for Rs 200 – 250 rupees, whereas when I extract the juice, I could sell them for Rs 2000. The problem though is with the shelf life.
What challenges do you face with your business?
Kong Tharina: The main problem I see is that we are not able to meet the demand. People love the fruit juices we make. However, we could not produce more because we were doing it with our hands. We didn’t have the machine to help us speed up our work and increase production.
Another problem we face is with shelf life. We use lemon juice to preserve the fruit juices. These would last for a month. We use other preservatives to preserve them for more than 6 months. If we are not able to sell the juices within the shelf life, then they go to waste. We sometimes suffer a great loss because of this.
My children are still young and some of them are still in their studies. I am finding out different outlets to sell my products so I can provide for my family.
Do you make any other products in your Self Help Group?
Kong Tharina: Yes, apart from processing food products, we also make bamboo baskets, spoons, cups and a wooden mortar made from a tree called 'U Dieng Sohkumphor'.
‘Dieng Sohkumphor’ means a Papaya tree. However, Kong Tharina told us that this is not the same Papaya fruit tree. The tree has a hard texture and makes it suitable to make a mortar out of it.
Self-Help Groups have helped many women in Meghalaya. This reminds me of another farmer story about a lady farmer who started a Self-Help Group in her village. She impacted the lives of many ladies in her group. You can read about her here.
Zizira always goes out on Epic journeys every year. Our Epic Trip planner, Khraw, planned to take Zizira to visit his village and other nearby villages - Pyngkya, Mawjam and Mawkhap. Coincidentally, one of the villages that Khraw planned was Kong Tharina’s village, Pynkya.
It is on trips like these that we get to cover farmer stories and go deep into their lives’ dreams and the challenges.
Before going for that Epic trip, we were discussing about the villages and how we will do it. So Ralph shared with me about Kong Tharina. He had noted down her name and her village name in his notebook. I would say it was a coincidence that her village was the same village that I was planning for the Epic trip. It was nearby to my village. She is my family member and it's funny that I never knew her until that Epic trip.
It was on Jan 2019, the team went to Pynkya and the neighbouring villages. We’ve captured a gist of that trip in this video.
We visited Kong Tharina and her family for the first time on this trip.
She is a warm and welcoming person and a hard-working lady. She is always finding out new ways to sell her products.
- said Khraw.
After the Epic trips, we invited her to our office in Shillong.
New Opportunities Awaited Kong Tharina and the Women at Pynkya
On 10th October 2019, Kong Tharina visited Zizira’s office. She brought a few sample bamboo cups and spoons that the women from her village made.
We took her around our office. We showed her the Turmeric Dryer and the Oil Extraction Machine. Her eyes sparkled with excitement. She was curious to know more about the machine and the dryer.
After a few days, she called Khraw and expressed her interest in the oil extraction machine.
Since plenty of bay leaves grow in my village, I want to use your machine to extract bay leaf oil and sell them in the local market. If Zizira can provide me with the training, I will use the machine. I am willing to pay the hiring charges for the machine.
- said Kong Tharina.
Kong Tharina's passion and entrepreneurial spirit motivates us. We are eager to help her succeed. We gave her the training, and now the machine is with her for extracting oil.
We shared with her about Eri Silk Rearing and why her village should try too. She was curious to learn Eri Silk rearing. We introduced her to Muezart, our sister venture, a startup with a mission to release the potential of Eri silk rearers and weavers in the state.
Since then Kong Tharina and the women from her village started training with Muezart. Rearing Eri silkworm is very new to her village. No one has ever done it before. The women were overjoyed. They are venturing into a new territory that could raise up their entire village.
Kong Tharina told us that she is looking forward to a bright future from her partnership with Muezart. You can read more about this part of her story on Muezart website.
I hope that you have been inspired by our farmer story on Kong Tharina and her women Self Help Group so far. Our journey with her has just started. We are now more like a family and we have a trusting relationship with her.
On 25th Jan 2020, a team of 13 explorers from Zizira and Muezart again visited Kong Tharina and her village.
For many of us who were not used to, treading the stony and rocky steps to reach Pynkya village, that too for an hour felt like a never-ending journey!
Kong Tharina was eagerly waiting for our arrival.
As soon as we reached and settled down, she gave us 'Soh Bah' or Pomelo Fruit. We cut and ate them the Khasi way, with mustard leaves and salt. We relish the fruit to our heart’s content. It was the much-needed refreshment after the continuous 1 hr walk.
Her generosity and kindheartedness made us feel much like her family. And yes we are 😊
Later, during the day, we discovered 3 interesting things that grow in Pynkya village:
- Coffee beans:
We were surprised to see Arabica coffee growing in this village. Some households have been brewing their own coffee for a long time. Their coffee had a smoky smell. The reason being that they roasted the beans over wood fire on their kitchen ‘dpei’ or fireplace. They then powdered the coffee and store them in bamboo containers.
- Small popcorns or 'Phngei':
One of the village ladies, Kong Aiti, served us with few popcorns. These looked like proso millets and it is called 'Phngei' in their village. Kong Aiti fried them on a pan over the fire. And we watched with amazement to see them pop. We have never seen such small popcorns before. They are aromatic and tasty. They grow abundantly in Pynkya village. They cook these millets together with rice.
- 35-Year Old Millets:
Kong Tharina showed us the finger millets she stores in her big bamboo basket which they called 'Krai Kruh'.
'Krai' means millets in Khasi. And 'Kruh' means a container or basket.
The millets have been stored there for 35 years. She says she uses them only when there is a shortage of rice in her home. She would sometimes mix the millets with rice and have it for her meals. Though millet was the main food that her village would eat in the past, she says that they do not grow millets in her village anymore. It needs daily maintenance and care. They need to take care of many other crops and process food too. This makes it hard for them to grow millets in their village.
If Kong Tharina knows the demand for Millets in the market, she would probably start growing them again.
On this trip, we spoke to many lady farmers from the village. We introduced them to castor seeds so they can grow in their village. Once the seed grows, they can use the castor leaves as food for the Eri worms that they have started rearing by this time.
The village women, including the men too were very intrigued. They asked us many questions.
Our team members, Badshai and Khraw shared our knowledge with them and showed them how we could work together toward a trusting relationship with our company.
One thing that these trips taught me is that there are many entrepreneurial women in the villages of Meghalaya. Even though they are located far off from the city, they are hungry to learn and try out new things. For any given opportunity, they are ready to cooperate and work towards uplifting themselves and their village.
Zizira loves to work with hard-working farmer entrepreneurs, like Kong Tharina and her group. Our mission is to find the right opportunity for them, to help them grow and thrive.
As we headed back home, we thanked Kong Tharina and all the other people at her village.
We climbed up for 2 hours, to get back to the car. The climb was hard but the knowledge, learning and the time that we were able to share with our farmers made it worth every moment.
We love telling farmer stories which showcase their lives and what they do for their livelihood. Their humility and zeal always inspire us. We hope it inspires you too.
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