Manjusha Barua is making it possible for foodies everywhere to feast on sauces made with produce from Northeast India
If you love spicy food then there is no doubt that you have heard about the bhut jolokia. Although it is found abundantly in the Northeast, it is still not a very common item that you can find in supermarkets, especially in the form of sauces. Manjusha Barua and her partner Rinka Banerjee sought to change all that by starting EAST BY NORTH EAST (ENE). A company that makes delicious products with local and organic ingredients sourced from the region.
Hailing from Assam, Manjusha travelled a lot when she was young, as her father was in the civil services. ‘It gave me the opportunity to travel across Assam as well as some parts of other Northeastern states, and witness and understand the diversity of this region in every aspect.’ She has a Masters in Sociology from Mumbai University and Mass Communication from Xavier Institute of Communication, Mumbai. Before starting the company, she worked in Indian Oil Corporation for nearly two decades and was posted in all the major metropolitan cities. ‘I was mainly looking after corporate communication and branding.’
After so many years with Indian Oil, she started to think about doing something else. ‘This might sound cliché, but I wanted to do something different from my regular job and on my own. So, after taking an early retirement from Indian Oil, I started to delve deeper in understanding the cuisines of the Northeast. Now Northeast being one of the largest bio-diversity reserves in the world, there were various questions that came to my mind. How come there is no national brand from the Northeast, despite having an abundance of fruits unique to the region? No brand means that all traditional fruits not consumed locally will slowly disappear over time as farmers will move to cash crops. This is therefore the opportunity to build a brand with products that have a source of origin in the Northeast. That was the framework on which the company was built,’ revealed Manjusha.
The main aim of the company is to promote the cuisine of the Northeast by sourcing local and organic ingredients from trusted partners and support communities, as well as use their expertise and knowledge of the region to create products with unique raw materials. Currently they have three bhut jolokia sauces in Sweet, Hot and Extra Hot that are available in 250 retail outlets in Delhi/NCR, Mumbai, Pune, Chandigarh, Guwahati, Bangalore and Hyderabad. They are also selling through Amazon Mumbai, Big Basket Delhi and Mumbai. They have their own e-commerce site, but are only delivering in seven cities.
Manjusha is a powerhouse but even the best of us need a helping hand and for her, that turned out to be Rinka Banerjee. ‘Just after retiring from Indian Oil while working on the project, I met Rinka, who had just left Unilever after serving for 16 years to start her own consulting firm THINKINGFORKS. She was Director for Food in South Asia for Unilever before she left. We got together and Rinka and her team developed my first set of three products after doing extensive research on the availability of the raw materials in the Northeast. Before starting ENE, I had never met Rinka. Today she is part of our board–Northeast Flavors India Private Limited–and she will be looking after all the R&D work for new products and manufacturing.’
She also has a small team who help her manage everything. ‘Two persons based out of Delhi are looking after Delhi NCR and Chandigarh. One more person is looking after Mumbai and Pune, one person based in Guwahati is looking after the entire Northeast and another is based in Bengaluru.’
The company sources fresh bhut jolokia puree from Assam/Nagaland. ‘A large number of farmers grow this chilli and our representative in these areas collect/buy it fresh from them. Rinka and her team have interacted with the people in the areas and have taught them how to make the puree as per our requirement. We transport the fresh puree to a factory in Uttarakhand where the final product and packaging is done there. From there, we get the products to Delhi and then send them to other parts of the country. We are presently following third party model for manufacturing so far. But we plan to put up our own manufacturing plant in Assam soon.’
What makes their sauces different is the use of fresh puree. ‘We make our sauces using fresh puree whereas most of the other hot sauce brands are using dry pods or powder. Fresh puree adds to the flavour.’ Manjusha also felt that no one in the food industry was popularizing bhut jolokia even though it is one of the hottest chillies in India and Asia. ‘Till 2007 it was the hottest chilli in the world. Anywhere else in the world, they would have made this news and brands would have adapted it, benefiting the local community. But in India, nobody did anything and subsequently it went into obscurity. Though not the hottest in the world anymore, it is perhaps one of the most unique chillies in the world. It has a fruity flavour and also the impact is slightly delayed allowing you to taste the food while also feeling the tingling feeling of the chilli for a longer period. Other sauces will not give you the same taste or feel.’ And so, it is not surprising that the Extra Hot variant is their highest selling product.
They have had success so far but Manjusha is looking for funds to grow even more. ‘We had launched in October 2016, and have seen the impact of demonetization and GST and yet the brand has survived. We have been growing steadily and the business is sustaining itself but the need of the hour is faster growth and for that, it will need additional capital. This is the time to spend money on building the brand, awareness, launching new products and investing in efficient manpower. With all of this in place, the brand can hit new heights. We are in talks with many PE funds and Government funded organizations. Something positive will work out very soon.’
Despite all the challenges, Manjusha has continued to strive and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. The company will be launching new products. ‘Our new products will be made from bhut jolokia, and in next phase, we will be launching pickles and jams made out of exclusive fruits and vegetables from the Northeast.’
This article was first published in Eclectic Northeast Magazine (November Issue, 2018)