Manipuri society is primarily patriarchal but women play the leading economic role. It is testified by the fact that there still exists today a more than 500-year-old market in Imphal.

It is popularly called “Ema Market” and has been historically known as Sana Keithel or the Queen of Markets. The outstanding character of this market is that it is entirely run by women – more than 3,000 women ply their trade daily and also make political decisions, which include instances like challenging the writ of the British Raj in 1939.

The economy of Manipur is slowly picking up with the emergence of a new breed of entrepreneurs who are into production for larger markets including overseas. And leading this pack is a woman who has a brand called Meira or flaming torch.

The torchbearer is Shubra Hanjanbam. Born to a school teacher Hanjanbam Gourachandra Sharma, Hanjanbam spent 12 years of her early life at Banasthali Vidyapeeth in Rajasthan.

The institution was started by Hiralal Shastri, the first education minister of Rajasthan, after the death of his daughter. He left politics and set up Banasthali Vidyapeeth, 70 kilometres away from Jaipur.

He based it on Gandhian principles and panch mukhi shikshya or the five tenets of education comprising society, physical fitness, philosophy, politics and economics.

After a Master’s degree in food and nutrition from her alma mater, Hanjanbam returned to Manipur and joined the NGO, Citizen’s Voluntary Training Centre as a community organiser.

In 1992 she was awarded a fellowship by the Asian Community Health Action Network in Chennai and she spent six formative months there, which expanded her vision.

Thereafter, she was approached by two wellknown social entrepreneurs Dr Tamthing and Dr Thumra to take the one-year-course that they were conducting on development of human potential and a two-month-course on community-based health workers. She stayed with the duo for 10 years till 2003.

Hanjanbam was under parental pressure to take the post of a government school teacher but having failed to pay the bidding price to the authorities that mattered, she was not selected. Looking back, she says that it was a blessing in disguise. She started conceptualising local self-employment for the youth instead of just looking for government jobs.

With that zeal to make a difference, Hanjanbam formed the Action for Community Transformation Manipur in 2003 and started channelising youthful energy by tying up with small scale industries, horticulture and agriculture departments, and imparted skill training.

Those trained started forming small units ranging from embroidery to preparation of hawaizar or fermented soya beans, also known as akhauni among the Nagas of Nagaland. In 2004, Hanjanbam plunged headlong into the production business with zero capital.

She founded the Meira production unit and called it her “kitchen factory” for she was just focusing on what was available in her family kitchen – heikru or Indian gooseberries (amla), heitup (wild apples), heiyais (clusters), heinoujom (star food), chorphon (Indian olive) and heigmanag (Warnish fruit).

All of them grow in abundance in the wilds of Manipur and tons get wasted every year, unutilised or rot away. In these wild fruits, Hanjanbam saw a shining path leading to poverty alleviation, especially for the womenfolk, as she believes that empowering women economically is the only means for their emancipation in a patriarchal society.

She admits to being a feminist at heart but not the “bra burning type”, instead insisting upon the concept of equality through employment. Her sense of happiness today lies in the success of her firm and the fact that while in 2003 there was not even a single registered food production Self Help Group in Manipur, there are now 400 as small and medium enterprises. And almost all of them are being managed and run by women. Hanjanbam trains women first and then outsources the work to them.

For instance, she says that removing seeds from the heikru is a time-consuming process and an entire family can be employed for the purpose. She supplies the raw materials and semifinished products are bought back by her.

The same goes for tamarind, mango and garlic processing as well. Her outsourcing means a lot for the women she employs. A woman who prepares hawaizar or the fermented soya beans makes about Rs.1.5 lakh a month.

The same is true for her famous pineapple products – she pays in advance to farmers to cultivate pineapples and buys them back when harvested.

Hanjanbam has also been marketing U-Morok or King Chilli, the hottest chilli in the world, and ngari pastes/pickles. Ngari is the Manipuri version of fermented fish, which is known as “Ngapi” in Myanmar and “Kapi” in Thailand. In Manipur, no family can do without ngari, be it the Meiteis in the plains or tribals in the hills but it is made only by Meiteis.

That ensures a ready market for all Northeasterners in the rest of India and the world. Hanjanbam’s products have diversified today.

She produces 14 types of pickles, which includes king chilli, fish and bitter gourd, and 10 types of sweet candies including pineapple, wild apple and ginger. In the salty variety of candies, there are seven types from amla to lemon.

She also sells kheer (sweetened rice pudding) made from Chakhao, the aromatic Manipuri black rice. Hanjanbam’s market has expanded from the North-east to metropolises in the rest of India. She has also started exporting her pineapple products to the United Kingdom and France where there is a substantial demand for it.

In the course of her long journey, which began from her kitchen, Hanjanbam now has three other production units at Bamon Leikai (Imphal East), Keishamthong (Imphal West) and Kakching Lamkhai in Kakching district.

The last one has a canning facility as well as a cold storage unit. Apart from these, there are five other subsidiary units including one in Ukhrul in the hills. Hanjanbam has taken a loan of Rs two lakh from the Small Industries Development Bank of India for purchasing a packaging unit and another of Rs 10 lakh from Mudra Bank through the United Bank of India, Imphal Branch.

She is reluctant to approach banks for loans as there is too much paperwork involved and normally they ask for collaterals in the form of land pattas.

Very few women in Manipur have land ownership titles as it is normally in the name of their fathers or husbands. Her annual turnover, which was Rs 30,000 in 2004-2005, is now over Rs two crore. She employs 57 women in total including seven managerial staff.

Not a believer in remaining static, Hanjanbam has participated in training programmes and workshops in Bangalore, Bangkok, Guwahati, Kathmandu, Kolkata and South Africa and at home in Imphal.

She has been awarded the SIDBI-ET India Woman MSE Awards for 2019, the FICCI-FLO North East Women’s Achievers Award of Excellence in 2017-18 and the Vashundara NE Women’s Entrepreneur Award in 2015-2016.

In all of this, Hanjanbam is also a wife and the mother of a son.

This torchbearer of the resurgent Manipuri entrepreneurial spirit is not resting on her laurels for she will not be happy until all Manipuri women are emancipated.

The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman