Beating Cancer, Manipuri Mum Turns Life Around Through Yummy Pickles!

Beating Cancer, Manipuri Mum Turns Life Around Through Yummy Pickles!

Bamboo shoots, bhut jolokia, bogori, prawn — the hardworking homemaker sources all of these and more from 12 local farmers to make 25+ types of preservative-free pickles and preserves. #womenentrepreneurs

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The Northeastern region of the country is a treasure trove for some of the most flavoursome and exotic ingredients. Be it the delectable bamboo shoot generously used in dishes to give them a unique taste or the spicy bhut jolokia which can pack a flavourful punch, once you have used these ingredients, there is no looking back!

Anyone from the region knows how invaluable these ingredients are!

Pushpita Sinha is one person who is passionate and fascinated with them.

The 39-year-old is a Manipuri by birth but raised in Tripura and married to an Assamese. Naturally, she has been exposed to indigenous ingredients and cuisines. She wanted to share this with people across the country and started a blog.

Pushpita officially registered her business in mid-2019 but began her experiments in 2013

“I found that a lot of people with very little knowledge about the northeast were writing about the region’s food and ingredients. They were repeating the information that was already available and what they were writing lacked depth. Which is why I started my blog in 2014,” she says.

A cooking enthusiast, she also started trying different recipes in her kitchen. Of all of these recipes, she most enjoyed pickling seasonal vegetables, bamboo shoots, carrots, radishes, prawns, and chicken. In 2017, she sent some of these samples to a fellow food blogger in Odisha to taste.

“My friend was so impressed that she pushed me to pursue this as a business. She even shot some nice pictures of the products and put them up on social media. And I shipped around eight pickle jars by the end of the month,” smiles Pushpita.

This made Pushpita believe that she could set up a business from home. But, things didn’t go as planned.

In early September 2017, quite out of the blue, she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.

Pushpita works with authentic ingredients from the northeast like the bhut jolokia (ghost chilli) which is sourced from the region

However, she took the diagnosis in her stride and battled her disease. Within a year, in October 2018, she began taking orders for her pickles again.

In July 2019, she set up ‘Pushpita’s Artisanal’, selling 100 per cent natural pickles and jams! These include bamboo shoot, bhut jolokia, naga chilli, bogori (Indian jujube), seasonal mango, along with non-vegetarian options like chicken, prawn, fish, and pork.

Gradually, she also started making preserves and sauces using fruits like blueberry, strawberry, apple, pineapple, raspberry, mulberry, and blackberry! Now, she has over 25+ products and sells a minimum of 50 jars a month, and the produce is sourced from about 12 farmers.

Pushpita shares how she overcame several challenges to embark on her entrepreneurial journey.

From an economist to a home-entrepreneur

Running a home business is not something she had imagined.

She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey (SNDT) Women’s University in Mumbai. After graduation in 2002, she wanted to pursue a Master’s in Econometrics, but since the subject was not available, she decided to go back home to Tripura.

Once in Agartala, she began preparing for competitive exams and realised that what she really wanted to do was an MBA. Later, when she got married in 2005, she moved to Mumbai with her husband.

In 2006, she got an opportunity to join a leading business channel as a market analyst, but she learnt that she was pregnant with her first child, and let go of the job offer. In 2010, she pursued her Master’s in Economics from Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University, Pune.

Later by the end of 2012, she began working as a content writer with a Canada-based publisher, writing articles on economics, foreign exchange, and lifestyle topics like food.

“My editor was very supportive and asked me to keep writing. So I decided to start a food blog since I was interested in the subject and wanted to highlight the cuisines of Manipur and other northeastern states,” she shares.

Overcoming her battle with cancer

Pushpita was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 but she beat the illness and started her own business

Trying out recipes at home and having a close-knit network of friends encouraged her to start selling her flavourful pickles and jams on a small scale. But, her cancer diagnosis posed one of her life’s biggest challenges.

Towards the end of July 2017, after catering to her first few orders, Pushpita was getting ready to move with her family to Pune as her husband was transferred to the city.

“I started experiencing discomfort and decided to get myself checked. It came as a shock when I found that I had advanced-stage breast cancer. When the biopsy report came, it was unbelievable and overwhelming. I was new to the city and had only my husband and son by my side. I was missing all my other near and dear ones,” she recalls.

Pushpita then reached out to a friend who was previously diagnosed with cancer, who introduced her to the Oncologist at TATA Hospital in Mumbai.

Pushpita wih her family

“I remember sitting in his cabin, asking asked him to tell me what to expect. His response was positive, which gave me strength. On 5 October 2017, I had my first chemotherapy session,” she recalls.

She continued her Chemotherapy sessions once every three weeks and had surgery in January 2018.

Slowly and steadily, she started taking orders and resumed her business on a small scale. In late January, the doctor informed her of something else.

“After a few tests, my doctor told me that I was carrying a child. This came as a surprise, and I got to know about it very late. On 30 May, my son was born, and by October, since my treatment was over, I dove right into my business,” smiles Pushpita.

Serving authentic flavours straight from her kitchen

A shipment of fresh bamboo shoot has arrived!

As Pushpita’s business grew, she needed to register the company. She did that in July 2019.

Sourcing all the spices to grinding them into a mix is done from scratch. Once the shipment of ingredients arrives from the northeast, it is sorted, cleaned and sun-dried for two days. She makes sure that they are grown without the use of pesticides. On the third day, she starts with the traditional pickling, mixing all ingredients with oil and salt and transferring them in sterilised barnis, which are then kept in the sun for about seven hours.

She carries out all the daily operations as she knows all the recipes. “I haven’t hired anyone as such, but my cook has been helpful. She helps with the baby when I am working in the kitchen. She has also seen me work in the kitchen and volunteers to make the spice mix or prepare the ingredients when I am busy with the baby,” she says.

“I have refrained from using any brine and try to keep the process as simple as possible for the best taste. After I follow all these processes, the pickle is ready in two weeks, and I transfer it into smaller glass jars,” she says.

Pushpita had also gotten in touch with a food technologist earlier on who helped her navigate the food business. She learnt how to standardise her products, apply for the necessary licenses, and how to maintain her kitchen.

She also got in touch with a food laboratory in Pune to get all her products tested and an FSSAI license. Currently, Pushpita does not have an official website but sells her products through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

The bestsellers: chicken pickle, the bamboo shoot ghost chilli pickle and the prawn pickle

Some of the bestsellers include pickles of bamboo shoot, king chili, Indian jujube, Indian olive pickle, chicken, and prawns. The authentic taste has impressed quite a few people who now regularly order from her.

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Take Pune-based bank executive, Suvra Chatterjee. The 28-year-old discovered Pushpita’s range of pickles and preserves while scrolling through Instagram. The options immediately caught her eye.

“They had such amazing flavours that you don’t get in Pune. So, I decided to try them and ordered the prawn and the chicken pickles. They were so delicious and light. The best part was that it was all preservative-free,” she says.

Later, she also ordered the bhut jolokia pickle during Christmas and got a jar tamarind chutney for free because of the festive season. Suvra recalls that she wanted to make some spicy Bengali chicken curry during the lockdown. She had run out of chillies and decided to use the bhut jolokia pickle; the dish turned out delicious!

“Pushpita is such a humble persona, and my experience has been amazing. In the case of small delays, she has always informed me. Each of her orders comes with a personal note and makes me feel so special,” she says.

Overcoming challenges to moving forward

All the spices are made from scratch by Pushpita herself

Pushpita begins her days early, at 6 am. After her morning tea, she completes most chores before her baby wakes up. She then makes a list of tasks for the day. She also plans the photoshoot for the products and does all of it by herself.

However, the busy mom-entrepreneur faces quite a few challenges on the business front. Since her ingredients come from the northeast, improper packaging sometimes causes the produce to get spoilt in transit. In such cases, she is unable to make her products.

“But through local connections in the northeast, I have been able to explain exactly how to pack and process the products before they send them across,” she says.

Pushpita also makes preserves and spreads using fresh seasonal fruit.

Another challenge was in the safe delivery of the products. “I would avail the services of bigger courier companies, and because the jars were not handled with care, about 60 per cent of them would end up broken. I realised that going for small local courier services would be better since they have fewer orders and handled them with care. This change worked out well for me,” she says.

Pushpita shares a few words for aspiring entrepreneurs.

“If you have a business idea and feel certain that it will work, don’t doubt yourself. Research your market and figure out how your product is going to bring new value. There will be challenges when you follow your dreams. But, don’t give up,” she says.

So, what are Pushpita’s plans for her small business?

Well, she is working with a design team to make new labels for her jars. She also plans on selling her products in retail stores after scaling up on production. She also wants to set up small manufacturing units in Tripura for the skill development of the women.

“I started this business because I wanted to show the rest of the country that ingredients from the northeast are special. I wanted the local produce and the producers to shine. I hope that I can take my products to a bigger stage and bring recognition to the Northeast region,” she says.

Rapid-fire:
*An entrepreneur you admire.
Ans: Linnet Mushran, founder of Bhuira Jams

*New tech that can transform the future of small businesses
Ans: Social media

*One value that can help small businesses thrive
Ans: Quality control

*Your favourite book
Ans: Outcomes Over Output by Josh Seiden

*In my free time I ____…
Ans: Spend time with my kids

* Before this interview I was ____…
Ans: Playing with my younger son

*Something they don’t teach in college but is important to run a business is
Ans: How to build a relationship of trust with your customers and your employees

*Best advice you ever got is to ____…
Ans: As a woman, financial independence is important to deal with unforeseen challenges and to maintain positivity in life.

(Edited by Shruti Singhal)

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