Zizira is a small startup inspired by the quality exotic produce, the clean farming methods of the traditional farmers, and the pristine environment of Northeast India. Based in the city of Shillong, the Zizira team operates in an area that is remote and isolated from the rest of India. Their dream is to unleash the hidden potential of their region by showcasing the unique produce of the region to the rest of India and to the world.
I recently spoke with Ibansara (Zizira Co-ordinator) and Mira (Team Lead – Web Team) about the background of Zizira and the plans for the future.
Ali: Could you tell me a little bit about the background of Zizira?
Ibansara: Our CEO, Ralph Budelman, is [a] person who loves nature, who loves to get his hands dirty playing with the soil. [And] he loves to see people grow.
Whenever he visited Shillong, he [saw] that this region [not only has] hardworking people, but is also blessed with pristine water, hills, climate conditions, [and] soil. Then most of the people out here in Meghalaya come from [families] who are into farming, who are into agriculture.
Based on all these things, and looking at the [existing Chillibreeze] team, he knew that the farmers here are diligent and hardworking, but on most occasions, are deprived of their fair share for their hard work by the local traders and middlemen. [This is where the idea for] Zizira was [born as] an opportunity where we can bring a change.
[So], we had our first [Zizira] meeting in December [of] 2014.
Ali: So Zizira is a part of Chillibreeze? Can you explain how they fit together?
Ibansara: [We started out with a company called Chillibreeze around 10 years ago]. Chillibreeze is a company [that formats] presentations and [provides PowerPoint] services to global customers located around the world.
Some of our customers are big, multinational companies; [for example], Microsoft and Pepsico, Mastercard, Canon, and there are various other customers.
Ali: Perfect. That’s so interesting. It’s such a leap from PowerPoint services to running a social enterprise/eCommerce marketplace for local farmers, but so inspiring! So who exactly is involved with running Zizira?
Ibansara: [Our] team is actually [made up of people] that [have] been working with Chillibreeze for several years, like three years [or more].
Right now, I would say we have a team of 12 members. We have the Zizira content marketing team, which includes four members, and then we have the Zizira production team, which is a six-member team. And then we put in another three people inclusive of Ralph, Teddy, and Vilasini – these are the people who are just [directing] and guiding us with Zizira.
Ali: How do you manage your HR? What sort of culture would you say that you have at you work, at your office?
Ibansara: [There is] one thing that really stands out about how we are managing [and handling] issues of culture. [There is] one thing [common to] each of us, be it in Chillibreeze or be it in Zizira, is the seven core values and the 20 foundational principles.
Ali: Interesting. So, when you hire people, you hire with those values in mind?
Ibansara: Yeah, we do. For us, skills you can always learn. Skills can always be taught but character and values is something that comes inbuilt within the person. If you do not have the right people with the right values, then it doesn’t align with the vision and the working culture that we have set up for Chillibreeze and Zizira.
Ali Awesome, I totally agree. This is what we believe at Prospress too. And so how exactly did you get the inspiration for Zizira from Chillibreeze being a PowerPoint formatting company?
Ibansara: It sounds crazy, but then I think the one thing that Chillibreeze has [proven] was what Ralph and Joanna, his wife, [dreamed from the start]: they believed that [through] diligent work, a healthy company can always transform, provide purpose.
Mira: [A]nother motivation and inspiration is that many people in metropolitan cities [are not eating healthy] food. It’s all processed with chemicals. Meghalaya is a land which is pure and the farmers here, grow organically. Ralph and Joanna saw the potential of this place and the agricultural potential [to] meet the needs, especially the health [needs] of the people.
Ali: And is that how you saw an opening in the market as well? Are there no other companies providing that at the moment in India?
Ibansara: Yes, because we knew that there were big companies but … we even [have] exotic products that [do not] grow elsewhere in any parts of India.
We do not really have farmers being certified as organic but they do practice traditional cultivation, which by default, people call traditional organic farming. But then, we do not want to say or claim anything at present. The soil that we are blessed with, it’s very pristine, it’s pure, and the water [used] is mostly rain water. These are the things that make it more pure in terms of our farming practices.
Ali: Of course, I totally understand. Traditional farming practices prior to the introduction of chemical fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, and whatnot, were organic by default. They used natural substances for fertilisers and permaculture or co-planting for pest resistance.
Mira: Yeah, you’re right.
Ali: That’s really great. How did you decide to take the plunge to set up an online store for Zizira?
Mira: Actually, [with] Chillibreeze we have been selling [presentation formatting] for more than eight years now. We know how to do eCommerce. [With] Zizira [as] a startup, we know that we’re going to do this through eCommerce because it [is a] fit from the maintenance [side] and the cost perspective. It has really helped us focus more on the business. That’s why we definitely plunged right in to eCommerce for Zizira.
Ali: That’s perfect. You already have so much experience with eCommerce so it’s just natural for you to take something that’s offline and bring it to the online.
Mira: The thing is with WooCommerce, we have not done it [previously]. We just started [with] it last year but so far it has been good.
Ali: I’m curious, what has been your experience been like with WooCommerce? How did you decide on WooCommerce rather than another kind of platform?
Mira: [With] the other two websites, we had used Magento. But for Zizira, we wanted to do something on WordPress, because we like WordPress, because it’s very easy to customise and the look and feel is much better. We thought we will do eCommerce on WordPress and out of all the research that we did [into] all the eCommerce [options] on WordPress, we saw that WooCommerce is better. So we learned it and we chose WooCommerce and so far it has been good. We had a few problems but otherwise, in general it is good. We have the website on WooCommerce.
Ali: Perfect. Do you have a physical store as well?
Mira: No, we don’t.
Ibansara: We just have an online store.
Ali: Interesting. What kind of difference have you found between selling on your own site with WooCommerce and selling via Amazon?
Ibansara: Yes, selling on our own website with WooCommerce is one of the biggest things. The advantage that we can see is the customisation [with WooCommerce]. It is very compatible and it matches our requirements. If we want to make any changes, we do the changes from the backend. We customise it according to our needs and requirements. That is one big advantage that we see having our own site with WooCommerce.
Selling via Amazon is also a good thing. I’m not saying it’s bad but [it doesn’t have the] more human touch with the customers. So, everything is all auto-generated or machine-generated [by] a robot. [WooCommerce allows us to send] human engagement communication telling stories of the offers that we want to really convey [to our customers]. That is something that we do not have with Amazon. [Although] it is one of the number one top selling eCommerce business platforms, we chose WooCommerce for better selling for our own website.
Mira: Yeah, another thing is that when we sell it on our own store, we get to add other interrelated links on the products. [We wanted] people [to] know where their product comes from. With our own store in WooCommerce, [we can] tell the customers that this product is sourced directly from this place and this farm and it gives us so much freedom to add those other links where if people are interested, they can go and read more about that place or about that farmer if they want. That is a big advantage.
[Also], the affiliated products on Amazon are not always our own products. [On our own site] people can see other related products from our own store that are Zizira products.
Ali: Interesting. I hadn’t thought of that. That’s really true. Amazon’s recommendation engine will give you products from other stores, not necessarily from yours. How would you say that WooCommerce has impacted your business, other than the fact that without your own website, you’d just be selling in Amazon?
Mira: It’s a huge advantage. The only thing is that our website is very new. In order to build the credibility, it always takes some time. In Amazon, people [make] a lot of comments because they get to compare products. That is, again, another advantage of Amazon. There are, like I said, pros and cons, so we have to sell on both.
Ali: Very cool. How do you manage inventory and shipping and returns? Do you have a warehouse or do you work with a fulfillment partner?
Ibansara: Presently, we do not have a warehouse. We don’t have an FBA, [so] with Amazon I think the platform itself has made it very easy for the seller in terms of [the] automatic generation I’m talking about. Whenever we [are low on] stock or anything like that, Amazon would just connect to us and give us a popup [alert] saying to update your [store, or send more inventory].
Ali: So Zizira manages the shipping and the product and everything yourself? The farmers don’t do it?
Ibansara: No, not the farmers. We source [the products] from the farmers. Once we get the source [product] from the farmer, we process it. We do all the things that are needed, the cleaning, winnowing, the packaging and everything.
Ali: Wow, where do you do that?
Ibansara: [In] the office [where] we’re working. It’s a very small, humble office. Like I said, we do everything.
Ali: That’s amazing. You have a processing factory or something in your office?
Ibansara: I wouldn’t really call it a big factory. We just have two big machines, a dryer and a grinder and also a steam distillation unit. These are the three big machines that we have but the rest are very small, miniature ones.
Ali: Wow, ok. So everyone works in the office? There are no people out in the field?
Ibansara: [T]he same people that work in the office, [are] the same people also go out to the field. It’s just amazing with the team that we have. We’re flexible enough that we distribute our work and then when it’s time for us to go to the fields, we plan it accordingly and then we go to the fields.
Ali: How many farmers do you have on your marketplace?
Ibansara: I think we have around 90 of them but most of these farmers… are from the turmeric field. The rest (five to six) would be mostly farmers from which we’ve been able to source some spices and then some traditional food like the rice, the grains.
Ali: So cool. How do you decide who you’re going to list on the marketplace?
Ibansara: [T]he one thing that [is] really, really important for Zizira is quality. When we talk about traditional farming, we make sure that the farmer does not have any kind of fertilisers or chemicals added to the produce. We cannot compromise on the quality because we are selling unique, exotic foods with a premium price to the customers so we have to make sure that [the customers get the product they pay for] and it’s worth it for them. That is the most important thing for us.
Ali: Okay, and will you look at some way of doing organic certification? Is there even some way of doing organic certification for these traditional farmers?
Ibansara: Yeah, we want to. That is something we look forward to, to how to get our farmers recognised as organic farmers. [But] it cannot be done only [by Zizira]. We have to collaborate and we have to work with different government organisations, to help us facilitate [certification] for organic farming.
Ali: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a big challenge even when there are highly-organised groups to conduct organic accreditation. So what has been your favourite partnership so far?
Ibansara: Our favourite partnership so far has been the relationship that we’ve been able to build with the different government organisations [such as] ICAR and NEHU. They are the experts [who come] from the horticultural and agricultural background. They know exactly where the produce [originates] and they know what kind of farmers are involved.
Ali: Perfect. So now, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in setting up Zizira?
Ibansara: It’s kind of ironic. [While] the favourite partnership was with these government organisations … we find it a bit of a challenge when it comes to building trust with the farmers. We do not blame the farmers. We [understand] where they’re coming from. They don’t have a market.
[There is a] game that is played by the traders, [which] is where competition really arises for us. Farmers have lost out, because many organisations have come to them and have promised them something or other, but then when it comes to [the farmers] growing and selling the produce, [the traders] do not even turn up. That is [why] the farmers cannot trust any other organisation even though we are locals from here.
This is one challenge that we’ve seen and until now, we’re still struggling and we’re still [working at] how to come around and make sure that the farmers trust us and how we can build a greater bond [through] the kind of work that we do.
Ali: So you’ve really had organisations that have come to the farmers before and promised to help them sell and then just haven’t turned up again?
Ibansara: Yeah, we’ve had so many. [We hear the stories] from the farmers. [They question] us, “What is so different about [Zizira]? Why should we believe your organisation? Why should we believe [that] Zizira [is] going to make a difference? That they’re going to buy the produce?” They do have a point. How can we guarantee to them? We have to tell them our story. We have to tell them our vision.
Again, we do not make empty promises to them. We say if you have this, at this point in time, we can only buy this much. Next year when we do have more buyers, we’re going to return. We don’t ask them to grow or to do things as the other organisations would have done. We also have to be smart in how we interact with the farmers. The farmers will only believe in us, will only trust us only if they see us buying their produce. So that is one thing that we need to do and we need to keep doing with the farmers.
Ali: Hopefully those efforts will pay off soon in terms of increased trust and bonds with the farmers. Could you speak a little bit about the broader vision for the future of Zizira?
Ibansara: Vision? One of the first [and] foremost things is opening markets. Then, unleash the agricultural potential of this region and making sure also, last but not least, the exotic produce, the unique produce from this land [is available] for the people of India. [We want] the rest of India to know about us, to know about these [products] that we have.
Ali: Fantastic, it sounds like a very bright future ahead! Consolidating your local activities, sharing your produce with India, then supplying to the world. So is there anything you wish that someone had told you before you started Zizira?
Ibansara: Maybe Mira, can you respond to that?
Mira: I guess this kind of business, especially with the vision that we have, is so new. [This is the case] with this region, and with these people. It’s such a remote place, [with very limited] opportunity, [and it is] very challenging. I don’t think that somebody has [already] been here. We feel like we are the pioneers here. We don’t wish for anything.
Ali: Right, so nobody could have told you something before you started because you’re the first people doing it.
Mira: Yes, doing something like this for the farmers and procuring something directly from the farmers and directly to the buyers. That is also very unique. We [didn’t] expect [it], but we have been able to figure it out. It’s [our] vision that has driven us so far.
Ali: Thank you. My last question is whether you have any advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out, anyone else who’s thinking about starting a startup? Do you have some words of wisdom?
Ibansara: I think Mira would also want to answer to this. [But] foremost is to look at the generation that we are in right now, and [know] we’re thinking about the future generation. [In India] most young people have come up to the cities. Even the people from the farms, have left the farms. [Their parents are carrying] all the work [while the young people] come and search for more employment in the cities.
One thing that I will say for entrepreneurs, [in the startup phase], is they [can] start visiting villages and start pushing people to come back to the fields and start farming again. The world is changing. We might [one day] reach the point there will be less food, because most people have moved out from agriculture. I would tell the entrepreneurs to start facilitating, to start something small, to start it from the village itself so [the young people] go back to the farms.
Ali: Thank you. Mira? Do you have anything to add?
Mira: Yeah, actually we read one report on the CGIAR. That is the Consulting Group of International Agriculture Research whereby they said that [there will be increasing] agricultural and food needs.
The food, especially healthy food, is what the future generation will need and entrepreneurs, I think they should really see the opportunity that is right here to help out the people.
One of the more remarkable things about the Zizira team is that it was drawn from an existing company that produces custom PowerPoints. They have now made an incredible leap to become a marketplace for local agricultural products – it’s such a huge diversion, I’m not sure it could be called a pivot!
But they have successfully applied their existing eCommerce skills acquired in the “new economy” to help farmers whose traditional farming practices could be seen as part of the “old economy”. The marketplace allows those farmers to deliver their healthy whole foods farmed with traditional cultivation practices to the consumers who need them.
Zizira, a company with a beautiful name and a beautiful vision: to help farmers become entrepreneurs in food security, and to bring healthy food to the rest of India.