Jahnabi Phookan, one of the very first women entrepreneurs to come out of Assam, has over the years perfected the role of a social entrepreneur deeply invested in sustainable development and change.
Please tell us how your journey as an entrepreneur started. Was it easy to take it up at a time when there were very few women involved in it?
It all started with a dream to bring tourists to the jungles of Assam and the name ‘Jungle Travels’ was born. My husband, Ashish, was then a tea taster with the premier tea broking firm J Thomas & Co. I was a journalist, trained at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) and Indiana University USA. Neither of us had any qualifications in travel and tourism. All we had was the passion to succeed.
We set up shop in a wing of a residential home, tucked in a quiet bylane, with a monthly investment of Rs 1000/- in 1989. My husband’s cousin with some experience in travel ( unlike us ) and two delivery boys were our only resources. Starting out, the challenges for me were societal. Working outside the home in conservative Assam was quite unheard of and a lady in a travel profession was rare. Ticketing offices were basic and the staff clerical.
I remember when we moved Jungle Travels India in 1991 to the main road of Silpukhuri. We created a huge interest when we opened an air conditioned, glass fronted facade and for the first time, clients would actually come to the office themselves instead of sending their peons! Nobody had ever given this ambience nor provided these service levels.
Meantime, in 1994, the then iconic American Express Travel Services ventured into the Northeast seeking a franchise partner and they chose us as their representative from the Northeast to join their network. This was a prestigious tie-up which helped us penetrate the sacrosanct world of the IATA agent and get the accreditation which no Northeast agent had managed till then. In 1996, Jungle Travels India became the first IATA agent in the entire eight states of the Northeast .This recognition is a matter of great pride for us as the airline industry finally saw that there was a market beyond West Bengal that they needed to reach out to and the Northeast finally came into its own. From 2000, the outbound business was again revived. Deciding to market the Northeast themselves, instead of being sub agents to mainland India players, we were the first agents to attend travel shows abroad .The Inbound business began to pick up. The key was quality people and we invested in retaining people from good families, like minded and well educated, in the executive level.
JTI was also the only travel agency of the Northeast to be awarded The National Tourism Award for Excellence in Innovation in 2004. This was for the pioneering climb of Mt Saramati in Nagaland.
With that, began the entry into the resorts business. A 16 roomed lodge at Manas National Park was leased from the Assam government in 2004. Restored at great cost, The Bansbari Lodge opened up the Manas National Park to foreign tourists for the first time after 20 years of insurgency.
This led to a spurt of domestic tourism, roads were improved and gainful employment opportunities were created for all. This is the essence of tourism that we have always stood for. In 2008, our upscale jungle lodge came up in Kaziranga National Park, The Diphlu River Lodge,opened to rave reviews and is the only certified Eco Lodge in the State . The Lonely Planet Travel Awards 2013 accorded Diphlu River Lodge as the second best Wildlife Resort in the country, after Oberoi’s Vanya Vilas and before Taj’s Mohua Kothi.
The visit of the royal couple gave the Diphlu River Lodge a lot of positive publicity and highlighted the importance of sustainable tourism. How has the venture shaped over the years and how do you think Kaziranga can be a part of sustainable development?
It was indeed a testimony to Diphlu River Lodge that in 2016, when the Royals, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Assam, they chose our lodge to stay for their two nights in Assam. They were such a lovely, gracious and grounded couple, walking around hand in hand around our lodge, with no one to invade their privacy.
The parting words of the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William to us was ‘We will be back, with the children’. The Head of the Royal entourage complimented on parting that ‘you have created a paradise here and it’s not easy’. It was Bihu time in Assam and Mother Nature was at her lush best. However, the evening they had arrived in Diphlu was to a thunderstorm and the next night had the Royals rush out of their cottage to 6.7 richter earthquake! I did tell them ‘I think we’ve just about given you the entire gamut of experiences here’.
Diphlu River Lodge’s comfortable cottages on stilts, simple bamboo bridge to cross the paddy fields, home grown cuisine , all created with natural resources and staffed by our own human resources was therefore appreciated as a living example of sustainable tourism .
To my mind, unfortunately, Kaziranga’s growing popularity has not seen the comparable rise in sustainable tourism standards that she deserves to have.
The luxury river cruises started by your company are a pioneer in river tourism. There has been a lot of talk of late about the opening of waterways with our neighbouring countries, do you think initiatives such as yours can benefit from the move?
It is a matter of pride for us that our sister concern , Assam Bengal Navigation Company, was to pioneer long distance river cruising in the country with their first ship, ABN Charaidew ,on the Brahmaputra in 2003. We were to put India on the international river cruising map of the world.
The National Tourism Award for Excellence was conferred on ABN for this pioneering concept in 2005. ABN went on to add a second river vessel ABN Sukapha and started operations on the Hugli and the Ganges in 2007. Our third vessel ABN Rajmahal built to sail upto Varanasi, was launched for the Hugli and Ganges in 2014. Our fourth vessel will be ready for sailing in October this year.
This is our 15th year of operation. Since our inception, we have tried for permission to carry passengers through Bangladesh (so far, only our vessels had sailed through with crew) and we are hopeful that with the MOU finally signed with Bangladesh, that will soon be a reality and will open up the high end river cruise tourism between our countries.
Handloom and handicrafts has been another sector you have ventured in. Will you share your experiences in the sector for our readers?
As a natural corollary of my years in tourism, I was proud of our arts and crafts and keen to highlight them but what the govt emporiums had to offer left tourists clearly unimpressed. That is how Jesmina Zeliang, doyen of the crafts of Nagaland and I got together and envisaged KONYAK (named after the most artistic of the Naga tribes) ten years ago, in 2008. Today, the store has grassroots artisans from all over the Northeast who have grown with us and is a model of sustainable livelihood generation.
The USP of KONYAK was the design intervention given to traditional craftsmen and women which gave a contemporary look to the intrinsically organic and eco friendly native handicrafts of the Northeast. Her target audience became the discerning buyer appreciative of natural fibres and dyes and eco friendly products. KONYAK’s first store was in picturesque Uzanbazar riverside, Guwahati , its second store in Dibrugarh in 2012 and its third store, in the Taj Vivanta in Guwahati in 2017.
What do you think have been the high points of your journey so far?
Along the highway of life, busy with my work and my family, came the opportunity to look beyond and reach out, through FLO, the women’s wing of FICCI (Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry). Despite my protestations of knowing nothing about social service, I was appointed the Founder Vice Chairperson in 2007 and Chairperson in 2008 of the fledgling Northeast Chapter. This year, 14 years down the line, I have been elected as the National Vice President of FLO and will be President of the 6000 strong body with 15 chapters pan India in 2020.
It was thanks to FLO that I got to seek out and work with women outside my tourism sphere and that’s how I came in touch with the world of Assam’s weavers of fairy tales in their looms.
TRIBAL HERITAGE started with my one feisty weaver Anjali, who understood the design intervention we wanted to provide, to make their hand weaves more appealing for urban women. Anjali would go village to village, engage the village women in their looms and collect at the month’s end from them. This provided a sustainable livelihood generation model at the doorsteps of the rural women weavers.
Today, TRIBAL HERITAGE has its own weaving centre in Kaziranga National Park with Anjali managing women as well as men weavers in our own looms. Located next to our wildlife lodge, the Diphlu River Lodge, guests from over the globe get to observe the basic bamboo looms and the heavier wooden looms used for the tedious and intricate craft of handweaving. This has enabled the appreciation of the handloom as opposed to the power loom and understand the price differentials involved and the rural households that are benefitted.
Today, married women and young girls of the nearby townships come to our weaving centre asking to learn or relearn their weaving. TRIBAL HERITAGE provides the enabling environment as an experiential textile tourism model, as a training ground, as a centre for upskilling design and weaving skills. TRIBAL HERITAGE’s ethos remains to revive, sustain and celebrate the weaving heritage of Assam’s tribal communities.
Are there any words of counsel for women who wish to take up entrepreneurship?
There really is no short cut to success. Be prepared for the long and lonely road to the top.
Believe in yourself. Hang in there. The gestation period for any business is at least five years. Be passionate and be compassionate.
This article was first published in Eclectic Northeast July 2018 issue