Cocoa beans, sugar, vanilla, milk—these are all common ingredients that one would find in one very essential sweet—chocolate!
Taking a traditional spin on this decadent confection, Hill Wild in Northeast India is not only revolutionising the way the world sees chocolate but is also helping build sustainable livelihoods for the community it comes from!
Started in 2017 by Zeinorin Stephen Angkang and Leiyolan Vashum, Hill Wild aims to build an economically sustainable community through entrepreneurship in the Northeast region of India—and the first item on the list was chocolate.
“I had a friend who was a pastry chef and was willing to teach me the art of chocolate making. I wanted to add something unique from the hills into the chocolates I made,” says Zeinorin in a conversation with The Better India.
Hailing from Ukhrul, Manipur, she says that her heritage played a significant role in the products she wanted to create.
While she had started several businesses, none of them had been very structured. It was her mother who inspired her to start Hill Wild.
“While I was young, she kept telling me to ‘breathe possibilities,’ and that kept me moving. It helped me see the potential in the work I was doing,” she says, adding that, “I come from a place with great cultural heritage and mystical stories that are rooted within the land itself, so I knew that it had to be exotic.”
She went about gathering knowledge about local produce, including edible nuts and plants that had been under utilised.
Along with her business partner Leiyolan Vashum, she launched a range of chocolates which incorporated locally sourced Northeastern ingredients such as pumpkin seeds, hodgsonia, plum wine, and even the famous Naga King Chilli. The company even creates rum raisins and whiskey truffles!
“The produce of the hills are infused in the chocolates—which makes them precious. They are grown in a pristine environment, and one can actually feel the terroir in the chocolates,” she explains.
Throughout the creation process, Hill Wild has always tried to provide employment to the local communities.
The ingredients are all locally sourced, providing a sustainable income to farmers in the region, and through constant networking, they have managed to rope in more retailers through the various events they attend. The chocolates can be found in select local stores or can be ordered by contacting the official page.
Today, Hill Wild has a dedicated team of 4 and works with 13 women for manufacturing and development of other products.
Apart from crafting artisanal chocolates, they have encouraged 90 individuals in Ukhrul to become entrepreneurs, and have created 15 farmers’ groups, helping them get certified as organic.
What has been most satisfying for the pair, is to see the impact their initiative has been able to create in the lives of people in the community.
“One of our staff members wanted to build a small house for his family but didn’t have enough resources. So we taught him other food processing skills so that he could start his own business, and generate more money apart from his regular job hours. He gradually earned enough money to build his own home. Growing together as a family has been one of the most memorable parts of this journey,” she recalls.
The changes that Hill Wild has wanted to make haven’t come easy. Living at a higher altitude has led to frequent connectivity issues, and logistics continue to be a problem that they constantly battle.
Nevertheless, the pair is confident in their dream of stimulating the local economy.
As part of its efforts to get people to know more about entrepreneurship opportunities in the community, and to promote the use of local ingredients, Hill Wild began a mini-trade fair in 2017 titled ‘#MadeinUkhrul’ with the objective of promoting sustainable enterprises in the district. The first edition of this fair saw 26 entrepreneurs gathering with their products under one roof. The following year, it increased to over 92 eager entrepreneurs!
“The vibe is full of possibilities, and the collective strength shown gives hope to many. They make connections, gain resources, and can express their creativity,” says Zeinorin.
This is only the first in a series of changes that the pair hopes to make to the lives of people in Northeastern India. According to her, the Northeast is a land that is rich with resources and thriving in culture.
It becomes crucial to strike a balance between exploring new opportunities while maintaining the sustainability of resources.
So, what does Hill Wild see for the future?
“Hill Wild aims to come up with more products that use similar sustainable methods and infuses local items into something palatable that can aid local livelihood. We are deeply rooted to our people and our land”, she says.
By 2030, she hopes to see Ukhrul as a completely organic district, thriving in the community and known for its entrepreneurial spirit.
Of course, when change comes in such a tempting wrapper, it’s hard to resist!
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)