Manipur -- a region that is slow to witness progress because of its remote location and insurgency problem -- is slowly waking up to the change brought about by the tech innovation sweeping across India.
Lairenjam Niranjan Singh wakes up at four am every morning to train for the Iron Man. The hills surrounding Imphal provide him with the kind of tough terrain that is ideal for this feat where the athlete is required to run, bike, and swim in a stipulated time.
Since he came back to his hometown in Manipur after spending years away -- first for his education and then as a retail management professional -- this is, perhaps, the easier of the two tough tasks that he has embarked upon.
He chose to give up a thriving career in Dubai and return to India around 2009 to become an entrepreneur. Now, many would agree that this is no mean a task than training for the Iron Man!
As expected, Niranjan faced many moments when he nearly gave up. “I came back to my city in 2013 when there was very little or no tech infrastructure. No market for the kind of work I was trained in (retail management), nor the support and guidance that a budding tech entrepreneur needs in his initial years,” Niranjan, now a founder of multiple businesses, tells me over a cup of coffee on a November evening last year.
Return of the prodigal
In the past five years since Niranjan moved back, a lot has changed in the capital city of Manipur -- a region that is slow to witness progress because of its remote location and being subjected to years of insurgency that made any kind of commercial or business activity impossible.
In my short, and may I add pleasant, ride from the airport to the hotel, I was surprised to find billboards advertising local food delivery apps. ‘You have Swiggy/Zomato in Imphal?’ I asked Fisher Laishram, who among other things is also the founder of a food delivery app Hummingbird.
In November last year, Fisher and Niranjana and seven other founders and angel investors came together to set up Imphal Angels, Northeast’s first early-stage investment platform in Manipur. The members believe the platform will set the stage for the growth of tech entrepreneurship in this remote region of the country.
Like Niranjan, Fisher too returned to his hometown after spending years in Silicon Valley and the metro cities in India to set up an enterprise software company and a food delivery startup. His wife, Luxmibai Sonbam, is also an entrepreneur and has a startup called Teakore that sells high-end teakwood kitchen products. (Video below)
Niranjan, who set up JCRE Skill Solutions, the first National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) certified training partner in Manipur with a mission to train and empower one lakh youth in the Northeast by 2023, shares an interesting story from his early days as an entrepreneur.
“Once we received an extortion call from insurgents. One of my employees, who is good at dealing with such things, answered the call, saying that we hardly make any money considering we train the poor and the unemployed. The man called again the next day and I happen to take the call. After he found out that I was the founder, he told me, ‘Brother, I heard about your sorry financial situation, let us fund you.’ You can imagine my state. Damned if I accept, and damned if I refuse,” says Niranjan, laughing.
His skills training business has trained surrendered insurgents and Niranjan has had to battle with red tape to get them government jobs.
Though there’s been an ebb in the insurgency in the Northeast in general and Manipur in particular, you still hear and read about random grenade attacks in newspapers. The evening that I was out late exploring the city (and did not experience any untoward incidents), a country-made bomb was thrown in the Secretariate area. I only found this out in the morning newspapers.
Bandhs and hartals can also catch you by surprise. Given this context, it is laudable how Imphal is witnessing the birth of tech entrepreneurship in the region.
Coming February, the Imphal Angels is launching the Northeast Startup Summit to bring various ecosystem players, including aspiring entrepreneurs, startups, mentors, investors, VC funds, and local industry on one common platform to promote entrepreneurship and to build a robust startup and innovative ecosystem in the region.
Manipur and its challenges
Fisher says there are many challenges for founders like him at present. “The existing success stories are mostly of local or traditional businesses. So many entrepreneurs get inappropriate or limited guidance despite the best intentions of the advisors,” he says, listing out other hurdles that he continues to face in his role as founder and enabler of the startup ecosystem here.
“There’s a lack of proper collaborative culture here, plus we do not have deep connections with established ecosystems like those in Delhi or Bangalore.”
He goes on to add, “There’s limited or no funding opportunities apart from the traditional business loan or government schemes. Most of the businesses are still local or state-focused, while scalability is yet to be learned. Plus, there’s a lack of skilled professionals and services like legal and financial required for a startup,” adds Fisher in one breath.
To blow off steam, Fisher goes on long drives and always keeps a picnic basket handy in his car boot. “That’s one of the advantages of being back in your hometown. There is still time for us to lead a quality life here than what we would have had in places like Mumbai or Delhi,” he says. He makes up for the time he would’ve lost while commuting on traffic-infested roads in the metro cities by heading out to surrounding hills for some quiet introspection time.
Bharat and its date with digital
In an ‘India Startup Report’ launched by YourStory last year, we stated that the ecosystem had grown beyond Bengaluru and Delhi, and how other cities were catching up. According to our Q3 funding data, besides Bengaluru, Delhi, and Mumbai, cities like Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Pune, and Chennai also saw some deals being sealed.
However, the growth of the ecosystems in the smaller towns is painfully slow primarily for the various reasons highlighted by Fisher.
What makes the Northeast an even bigger challenge is its geolocation and the fact that it hangs by a thread to the mainland. “There is some noise being created in Guwahati, Assam’s capital city, as far as tech startups are concerned. Guwahati is better connected to the mainland, hence you see better infrastructure there,” says Niranjan, who first shifted to Guwahati to test the waters but returned to Imphal within two years, unable to grow his business there.
Today, Niranjan employs 100-plus people across Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, and Nagaland, where he has established skill development centres.
Much to bridge
In recent times, internet technology has done what no amount of roads, bridges, or airports can do. It has connected people from the remotest parts of the country with one another. As I drove down the countryside in Imphal, it was not surprising to see a lone youth bent over his mobile in the middle of nowhere. It was what many call the Jio effect. Cheap data is making the internet accessible to all.
According to Internet And Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), the country at present has an estimated 281 million daily internet users. Around 182.9 million of this 281 million comes from the urban area, while the rest 98 million come from rural India. And though a lot of ground remains to be covered, there’s no denying that cheaper data has been a game changer.
Prasenjit Laikangbam, Co-founder (along with Fisher) and Director of Mobimp, says, “We do not have a good ISP where internet service is dependable and fast. The ISPs we have now are not good enough to be used in an enterprise as there are frequent downtimes.” He goes on to add that frequent bandhs and blockades and lack of professionalism are other two major challenges that young founders like him have to deal with on a daily basis.
“Manipuri people as a whole are pretty laid back. Most of them own land or property and are more keen towards government jobs. Private company jobs are looked down and are mainly taken up as a part-time thing just to get to the government jobs. As a result, people are not really into making a career out of private company jobs and they don’t really care about the exit process at the time of resigning from the company. There are many instances where these employees have just sent resignation emails and have not shown up the next day,” adds Prasenjit, who is also training for the Iron Man alongside Niranjan.
Nickson Sharma, Investment Analyst at North East Venture Fund, and an advisor at the Imphal Angels, says, “There is this perception that the Northeast means only tourism and agriculture. But there are some tech-based companies from here who are expanding to the Philippines and Vietnam, including one of our portfolio companies, Parking Rhino.”
He believes that because of its location, the Northeast has remained isolated from the other startup ecosystems in India, but people are trying to bridge the gap with technology. “People like the governing members of the Imphal Angels have come back from the US and other countries and that is a good sign,” he says.
Small towns, big dreams
Such is the enthusiasm to catch up with the thriving internet ecosystem in mainland India that we had a houseful at an impromptu meetup organised in a cafe all thanks to the hustle by the young entrepreneurs. There were tech founders, SMB founders, techies, and students.
Meena Longjam, a documentary filmmaker who hosted the meetup at her 70 MMCafe, says her cafe is always abuzz with startup enthusiasts and founders. After working outside the state, she came back home and set up the cafe using her gold as collateral. She has a 'Pride of Manipur' corner where products made by local businesses are put up for sale.
One such display belonged to Dweller Tea, a health drink product made from locally available herbs, founded by Elizabeth Yambem. Like the rest of her compatriots, Elizabeth worked in the corporate sector in Singapore but decided to return and start her own venture. Now bootstrapped, her startup was selected as one of the startups to receive funding support under the Manipur government’s startup scheme. Elizabeth is awaiting the right time to avail of the funds as she says it is a loan after all and she will have to return it.
(Watch her story here)
For a capital city where there are no Ola and Uber yet, it was interesting to find that online shopping is big in Imphal. An entrepreneur, who runs a last-mile delivery for Amazon India, says that on an average the startup has 600 to 800 packages to deliver in a day.
Clearly, there’s a new market opening up in this remote part of India. But what will get the startup founders noticed is how they can scale beyond the region by using locally made and locally sourced products. Rajesh Sawhney, Gurgaon-based early-stage investor and serial entrepreneur, who has been mentoring the young founders of Imphal Angels, feels that the ‘notorious’ chillis of the Northeast, Bhut Jolokia and its other variants popular in the region, should be bottled as sauces and exported across the world.
Rajesh, who was part of the inauguration of the Imphal Angels, says, “I see the aspiration and desire among the young here to be part of the startup story of India. They are onto something. My advice would be, make new mistakes, a great new story is waiting to happen. We have a marathon to run.”
Something that Niranjan and Prasenjit will endorse. For them, the Iron Man race is going to be a long one.
(Watch Luxmibai Sonbam pitch her startup here)
(Watch Meena Longjam talk about 70 MM Cafe)
(Videos and photos by the author)