At the age of 16, many teenagers begin planning their lives out and choosing a career path to pursue their ambitions. During the same period in his life, Ruovilhoukho Chuzho had to make the tough choice between continuing his education or giving it up entirely to support his family.
With no alternative in sight, Ruovilhoukho, who is from Medziphema in Nagaland, quit his studies in 2005, and took up a daily wage job, like his father, to put food on the table. Toiling in the fields, cutting wood, and clearing the forest were among the many odd jobs he did to earn a living.
Ruovilhoukho, one of four siblings, lost his mother at the age of 12. As the family was coping with personal loss, they were also struggling to have two square meals a day.
“My friends all went to school, and I was embarrassed at not being able to continue studying. Some of them started distancing themselves from me. As I had no money, I could not continue hanging out with them,” he recalls.
With great difficulty, Ruovilhoukho suppressed his aspirations to study and continued working. He says his daily earnings from labour work were Rs 150, or Rs 200 on a lucky day.
This was the case about ten years ago. After years of struggle and perseverance, it all feels like a distant dream, says Ruovilhoukho, now 29 years old. Today, he owns three enterprises and earns around Rs 50,000 a month.
The value of five rupees
Ruovilhoukho’s situation continued for years, till 2012. A beacon of hope came in the form of an advertisement for a free one-year vocational training programme in carpentry at the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) in Kohima. Wanting to try his hands at something better, he applied for the course.
“My uncle lived in Kohima and was kind enough to allow me to stay with him during my training. He gave me Rs 20 for the daily two-way commute to and from the institute. Living on a tight budget, I would only eat breakfast at 7.30 am in the morning, and then dinner straight at night. If I spent any amount from that Rs 20 on a snack of Rs 5 or even had a bottle of water, I would have to walk back home. I had to do it on many occasions, even in the sweltering heat, or the pouring rain,” Ruovilhoukho says, adding, “I know the value of Rs 5 very well.”
After learning carpentry, Ruovilhoukho returned to Medziphema, hoping to start his business in the field. “As there were no jobs, I decided to start my own venture. No bank would give me a loan, as my father was a labourer. I could not afford to buy any tools, and rented them from the market. But without any steady work orders, I realised I couldn’t keep doing that. Despite the right training and skill set, I failed to improve my family’s financial condition,” he says.
In 2013, Ruovilhoukho faced another heavy loss, when his brother passed away in an accident. “My brother Medo was everything to me, especially after our mother passed away. From the age of seven to 11, he paid the school fees and took care of the admissions of all us siblings. He took charge of our mother’s responsibilities and was a special person for our family,” he says.
Bamboo craft comes to the rescue
Recuperating from the personal loss, and still without an established career, Ruovilhoukho fell into deep depression. “One day, back in 2014, I felt so low that I wanted to take my own life. However, I got a grip on my emotions and anger against life, and decided not to make that mistake,” he says. He told himself that he would struggle by all means, but stay positive and hope that things would eventually be okay.
A few years later, he received another opportunity, to receive free training in bamboo crafts from the Nagaland Bamboo Resource Centre (NBRC). “The village chairman said the NBRC was looking for candidates in every village to train, and I signed up. The same year, the Nagaland Bamboo Development Agency (NBDA) agreed to supply tools and machinery to start business,” he says.
Ruovilhoukho says that he started his venture, Ruovi’s Craft Collection, in Tenyiphe, which is about 30 minutes from his home. He started making toys, decorative items and useful products like pen holders, which were exhibited at the NBRC bamboo emporium. “I earned Rs 1,500 by selling my products. I saved Rs 500 from it, and used Rs 1,000 to take care of personal needs. The income increased as mass production orders began coming in,” he adds.
The entrepreneur says his success story soon began to spread across the village, and then in neighbouring settlements. He was also recognised by local NGO CAN Youth for his inspiring story.
“During the programme, a lady approached me and asked if I could teach bamboo craft to her son. I agreed, and since then, many others have come to me to learn the art,” Ruovilhoukho says, adding that he has taught more than 400 people since 2016. All candidates, which include school dropouts and unemployed youth, receive three months of free training, and are provided with meals during the classes. He then replaced his venture’s previous name with ‘The Naga’s Feather’, and also opened another store under the name ‘Collection Store’, where he sold his craft.
Recognising his efforts, the NBDA named him a ‘Promising Artisan of The Year’ in 2017.
Positivity is key
In 2017, Ruovilhoukho met the love of his life, Kevingo Sano, who wanted to start a restaurant. Together, they started ‘Chop Sticks’. “We sell noodles and dumplings, and the joint enterprise earns about Rs 50,000 a month,” he says.
Ruovilhoukho’s father now has a government job, and his younger brother has opened a computer electronics store. Both are financially stable, Ruovilhoukho says, adding that his sister is now married.
He adds that he now plans to expand his business. “Now that I can afford machinery and tools, I want to explore the wooden furniture business and find opportunities to export bamboo craft,” he says.
Describing his life as “good”, and his income as “enough for the family”, Ruovilhoukho believes that positivity is the stepping stone for success. “I was looked down upon by society, and surrounded by constant negativity in the years I was struggling. People like me have to struggle more, and we also deal with negative social aspects and face constant criticism,” he says.
“Since the family had nothing, our friends did not accept us. It was the loneliest period of our lives. But being positive and hoping for a better life was the only thought I bore in mind,” he adds.
Ruovilhoukho is ready to draw the curtains on his past, and is about to start a new and exciting phase in his life — fatherhood. “I am expecting to welcome our child in June,” he says.