Northeast India. What image does that word bring to your mind? What does the landscape look like? The people? The cities?
Chances are, you’re picturing it completely wrong.
Far from the starkly urban New Delhi or Bangalore, the region is largely untouched by industrialization. Many people live in villages and make a living by farming. Tucked between Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Bangladesh, and Burma and connected to India by a tiny strip of land, it’s easy to mistake the region for a different country altogether.
It’s nothing to feel bad about. Meghanath Singh says that most Indians from outside the area don’t know the place or its culture, but he’s hoping to change that with a little bit of ecommerce.
Meghanath, who is from the northeast of India, founded Giskaa, an online store that sells handicrafts, food, and other handmade items from the region. He says the store has a triple purpose – to sell items, to help artisans in the region break into the ecommerce market, and to educate people across India, particularly those in large cities, about northeast Indian culture.
“We always feel like, when we walk around India, they’ll mistake us for people from Thailand or China because of the [way we] look,” he says.
Meghanath, who is also Giskaa’s CEO, is from a state called Manipur, near Bangladesh and bordering Burma. He lived in the state until he was 17, then spent 22 years living in other parts of India. He came to Bangalore in 2009 after working in IT and founded Giskaa in 2014 with Surchand Wahengbam and Ratheesh Elayat. The startup is based in Bangalore, a long way from the founder’s hometown.
“People like me who have left their homes in the northeast, looking for better career opportunities […] we have always felt this lack of awareness from the rest of mainstream India about the northeast,” Meghanath explains.
Lost and found in translation
Getting a leg up in India’s ecommerce market today can be a struggle. Giants like Flipkart and Amazon got an early start in the online shopping market. Anyone else who wants to break in is going to have to play catch up. That doesn’t phase Meghanath. His secret weapon? Giskaa doesn’t just sell products – it tries to create romance around each item by giving it a backstory.
“We had to create awareness from the ground up, so we focused a lot on stories, telling stories about products, and reading that interest in terms of passion.” said Meghanath. This lends itself well to organic and artisanal products – but is of course something that would not go over as well with electronics, in his opinion. The store’s website also features a blog that explains the use of and history behind select products.
One of the biggest challenges for Meghanath also makes for some workplace humor when he gets questions from people inquiring about the items on the website. The top three highest-selling items on Giskaa, for example, are totally unfamiliar to most people across India.
“Customers ask: ‘Can I microwave it? Can I put it in the dryer?’” Meghanath explains.
There’s another challenge. Many of the craftsmen and craftswomen with whom Giskaa works have never used the internet or traveled outside of their hometowns – yet online shoppers have expectations that Giskaa has to meet, such as delivering items on time. Communicating this to an artisan who hand makes items with little concept of ecommerce, delivery times, or a big city can be difficult.
“We hire people who are there, speak the language, who can talk to and understand the artists,” he says. He tries to hire people from the northeast who belong to the specific regions with which they work. It’s a lot easier to work when the company can also speak with the artists in their native languages.
The startup aims for customers in India’s largest cities and has found the most success so far in Mumbai, which is a surprise to Meghanath.
One of the advantages of working with artisans is that eco-friendly materials are all but guaranteed because the artisans don’t use any other materials.
“You’ll find, for example, handbags […] made of water reed,” Meghanath explains. “Reed grows in most parts of northern India, and over centuries and centuries, there have been traditional techniques and methods to creating home décor items, kitchen items, from these materials.
Besides, eco-friendly certainly has a place in the region. Sikkim, a northeast Indian state, has been declared a completely organic state, a goal it has been trying to reach for over a decade. Only organic fertilizers are used in agriculture, meaning that preservatives and pesticides shouldn’t be present in any of the food grown there.
Environmental awareness is a nice marketing point, but the main one is still personalization. Each of Giskaa’s items tells a story, and that story is the key to making each sale meaningful. “To tell a story about these products, that’s our mission from the start,” says Meghanath.
For him, puzzling out cultural differences, social media marketing, and working out kinks in the system are more than just a day’s work – it’s his favorite part of the job. He finds the frustrations part of the joyful struggle involved in developing a business. “It’s your idea,” he says. “It’s a plan you grew from a seed. The most amazing and heartening thing about this is when things go wrong and you can face it.”
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