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Northeast's 'Center of Happiness' sets blueprint for rural development

Pankhi Sarma


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NEFSP plans for micro common facilities across the region and to benefit 100,000 farmers by 2029

Guwahati: North East Farm Sales Promotion (NEFSP) is a leader in agricultural innovation and empowerment in the Northeast, with a three-fold mission encompassing direct procurement and marketing, innovative product development, and eco-friendly packaging and logistics support. The NEFSP has made history with the first export from the Northeast to Southeast Asia in May 2022. Founder Bhanu Pratap Singh shares his vision with Business North East and sheds light on entrepreneurship development, rural economy, farmer's economic growth, and their 'Center of Happiness' concept. Here are the excerpts:

BNE: How did you come upon the idea of promoting sales firms in the North East?

Bhanu Pratap Singh: The North East region boasts over 22 agricultural Geographical Indications (GIs) out of India's total of around 200, showcasing its rich biodiversity. From sweet Dibrugarh Queen Pineapple to fiery Naga Chilli, our unique products represent the diversity of our region. I was inspired by the transformative impact of Gujarat's dairy industry and envisioned replicating its success in agriculture by upskilling Northeast's farmers and connecting them with markets across various regions. I established a model to inspire engagement in agriculture and uplift small-scale farmers. Our focus remains on supporting small farmers and promoting the Northeast's agriculture globally.

BNE: What products do you sell?

Singh: We focus on sourcing and processing indigenous herbs and produce from Northeast India, known for their health benefits and cultural significance. Products like manimuni saak (Indian pennywort), bhat karela (spiny gourd), and dhekia leaves (fiddlehead ferns) are available in convenient powder forms, along with kaji nemu (citrus lemon) powder. Our brand also offers a diverse range of rice varieties and spices, as well as local fruit pickles. All these items can be purchased on our e-commerce platform, SecretsOfBrahmaputra.com. Our best-sellers include bhoot jolokia (King Chilli), lakadong turmeric, various rice varieties, and essential spices like Sikkim large cardamom, black pepper, and cinnamon powder.

BNE: In terms of benefiting farmers through your B2C brand - are you operating on a profit-sharing model?

Singh: We collaborate closely with over 200 small-scale farmers who struggle to sell their produce independently. They supply us with their products, and we handle the marketing responsibilities. For this cycle to work, successful sales are crucial. Recently, we entered a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Assam State Rural Livelihood Mission (ASRLM), being the sole agricultural startup chosen for this initiative supported by the Ministry of Rural Development and the Assam Rural Livelihood Mission. This partnership entails procuring products worth Rs 2.25 crore from their self-help groups over the next four years, ensuring additional income and stability for these groups. We've initiated procurement of items like sweet mustard oil and cashew nuts, with plans to expand our involvement with women's self-help groups in the upcoming fiscal year. Additionally, as an Assam Startup Nest member, we've received significant government support, including a Rs 14 lakh grant during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been pivotal to our growth. Our contributions extend to providing packaging support to entities like the Assam Plain Tribe Development Corporation, aligning with schemes like Prime Minister Vandana Yojana. We aim to further assist various government initiatives in Assam, such as Lakhpati Baideu, by offering procurement and packaging expertise. Moreover, as registered exporters and Spices Board of India members, we plan to capitalize on Spices Board schemes, including subsidies for spice processing machines, as we expand our operations.

BNE: Can you give us insight into the current activities at North East Farm Sales Promotion?

Singh: Our current endeavors span a wide range of initiatives, all geared towards our mission of uplifting small-scale farmers and showcasing the unique agricultural richness of Northeast India globally, thereby bolstering local economies. These efforts revolve around three main projects.

Firstly, we offer comprehensive support to small-scale farmers for procurement. We've identified approximately 200 farmers facing challenges like weather uncertainties, low yields, and limited market access due to small land holdings. These farmers often struggle to find buyers and are confined to local markets. To remedy this, we provide immediate advance payment for their produce and oversee everything from sorting to marketing. We aim to extend this aid to more farmers, exploring partnerships with financial institutions for enhanced assistance.

Secondly, we've launched a pioneering project dubbed the 'Center of Happiness.' This innovative model, a first of its kind nationally and possibly globally, focuses on providing processing support to roadside vegetable vendors. These vendors, sourcing produce from forests or growing it themselves, encounter difficulties in storing unsold perishables overnight due to a lack of cold storage. To mitigate this, we've established processing centers in their market areas, converting unsold items into powder or pickles, thus preventing waste. Successfully piloted in the Jiro Valley of Arunachal Pradesh, this project is poised for expansion across the Northeast, with plans for eco-friendly packaging solutions integration.

Lastly, we tackle the branding and packaging challenges for Northeast products. Despite the region's wealth of unique, high-quality offerings, they often lack proper branding and packaging upon reaching national markets. To address this, we provide packaging services to farmer groups, self-help groups, and FPOs, handling the entire value chain from compliance to design and production. This empowers farmers to command higher prices in retail markets, boosting their income. Already benefiting over 7,500 farmers across five states, we're conducting workshops to educate them on sustainable packaging practices and market trends.

Moreover, we're establishing Northeast India's inaugural common facility center for packaging in Jagiroad, complete with production and printing facilities. This hub will serve as a focal point for processing and packaging operations, with plans to set up micro common facility centers in other state capitals. These centers will offer training and access to advanced equipment, empowering farmers to thrive in the competitive market landscape.

BNE: Can you tell us more about the project in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh?

Singh: We refer to it as a "Center of Happiness." This center primarily caters to roadside vegetable sellers who cultivate produce near their homes. We plan to establish more such centers. These centers serve as collection and small processing hubs for these small-scale vegetable sellers who typically operate within their local communities. These sellers, often referred to as 'baidus', sell small quantities of produce grown at their homes. It's their main source of income. If their produce remains unsold by evening, they face difficulties in transporting it back home, as their residences are often located in remote areas. Witnessing their plight, I was inspired to create these centers, having encountered farmers facing similar challenges during my service years.

Our first center in Ziro currently supports around 25 farmers, bringing stability and assurance to their lives. While this number may seem modest, the impact on these individuals is profound. We ensure that any unsold produce is purchased from them, thereby providing them with a steady income. Importantly, we utilize these products rather than discarding them, ensuring a sustainable model. The Center of Happiness concept holds immense potential across Northeast India, particularly in remote areas where market access is limited. We have plans to expand these centers to various locations, including Mizoram and the border villages supported under the Vibrant Village scheme.

Furthermore, we aim to establish micro common facility centers in every district of the Northeast, provided we receive invitations and support from the respective districts. These centers will streamline production processes, with coordination and compliance handled centrally. We welcome collaboration with state and district authorities to realize this vision. Those interested can reach out to us at northeastsales@gmail.com. While we are enthusiastic about these initiatives, we acknowledge financial constraints and seek support, particularly for machinery procurement, from concerned departments or local administrations.

BNE: You mentioned having 200 farmers onboard. Could you elaborate on their geographical distribution? Are they predominantly from Assam, or do they represent other northeastern states as well?

Singh: Our network includes farmers from multiple states, such as Mizoram, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim, albeit in smaller numbers. Currently, we have limited participation from Tripura. However, apart from Tripura, we actively collaborate with farmers from across the entire Northeast region. Our processing unit is situated in Guwahati. It is equipped with dehydrators, cutting machines, and various other processing tools, including packaging machines. This setup enables us to manufacture premium-quality products sourced from the diverse agricultural resources of Northeast India.

BNE: We recently learned that Secrets of Brahmaputra received a unique recognition. Could you provide some details?

Singh: The Government of India's Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), Ministry of Commerce, initiated a competition called the D2C accelerator program, focusing on startups in the direct-to-consumer (D2C) sector. Our online platform operates on a direct-to-consumer model, eliminating intermediaries. Through this program, we were selected from Assam and received a grant. Additionally, we established a partnership with a shipping company, facilitated by the program, which provided us with free shipping credits and grants. As a result, our shipping processes have become much smoother, enabling us to deliver our products across India.

BNE: So have you cracked any projects with Secrets of Brahmaputra?

Singh: We have made significant progress, particularly in online sales. Previously, shipping posed a challenge for us, but through this program, we have established partnerships with courier companies. They now handle pick-up, delivery, and cash-on-delivery options, which were previously unavailable. While our focus is primarily on the Indian market due to regulations, we aim to expand internationally, with plans for future growth.

This venture is relatively new, just shy of one year. Our emphasis is not solely on revenue generation but on creating replicable models for others to adopt. Our goal is not to be the top revenue earner but to maximize benefits for producers and serve as a robust support system for farmers in the Northeast. We prioritize social impact over achieving unicorn status and focus on providing livelihood opportunities to farmers with dignity. By 2029, we aim to positively impact approximately one lakh farmers across Northeast India.

BNE: How many products does the Secrets of Brahmaputra offer?

Singh: We currently offer approximately 75 products, including high-quality rice, spices, value-added products, and pickles. Additionally, our range includes tea blends infused with various spices. Our focus is on creating models that add value to the region, and we prioritize transactions that benefit local farmers. While we have received orders for large quantities of fresh produce such as ginger, pineapple, and turmeric, we have declined those that do not significantly increase farmers' income or contribute to the region's identity. Despite generating a turnover of close to Rs 1 crore this year, our emphasis remains on sustainability and positive impact rather than solely maximizing revenue. We prioritize principles over immediate financial gains and aim to expand our operations in a manner that benefits farmers and strengthens our infrastructure and team.

BNE: What are your plans going forward with North East's farm sales promotion organization, and what's the long-term vision for Northeast?

Singh: Our plans include establishing micro common facility centers across the region and integrating technological advancements for improved production. Our recent partnership with the Government of Germany signals our global ambitions, with plans to export products to Europe. We remain dedicated to supporting local farmers and fostering entrepreneurship, working closely with government agencies for Northeast India's prosperity.

Additionally, I want to highlight the significance of the Ishan cone. In Indian tradition, the Ishan cone represents the most auspicious angle, analogous to the northeast corner of a house. Just as this corner symbolizes prosperity, we envision leveraging agriculture to bring prosperity to Northeast India, making it a pride of the nation. Our goal is for the entire country to take pride in Northeast India, consume its products, engage in agro-tourism, and support the region's growth, ultimately integrating it as a significant part of India's development narrative.

In conclusion, our organization is dedicated to supporting local farmers, especially small-scale producers, by offering assistance in marketing, quality assurance, packaging, and accessing government schemes. We encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to reach out to us for guidance and support in navigating the business landscape and accessing funding opportunities.

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Pankhi Sarma