Bhuira, a remote village in Himachal Pradesh’s Sirmaur district, is home to vast orchards of apple, apricot, strawberry, peach, plums and cherries, and surrounded by deodar, pine and fir trees.
Come March, the fruiting season begins here, and women in the vicinity begin making their way to ‘Bhuira Jams’, a factory that produces jams, chutneys and marmalades. Were you to visit, you’d love these jams as much as you would the village.
“The fruits are hand plucked, washed, cut, semi-processed and frozen. Over the next few months, they will be turned into delicious natural products to sell to different corners of India,” says Sarita Devi, manager and in-charge of the factory.
Like Sarita, over 100 other village women work at this all-women factory, making products relished by thousands of loyal customers. The establishment of the factory has changed the dynamics of the village and empowered women by making them independent.
“It would not have been possible without the factory as we never had cash in hand before and depended on our husbands to provide for us,” Sarita tells The Better India.
Working at the factory has helped the village women improve their lifestyle, provide better education for their children, become self-independent and create a self-care group to support each other in tough times. The company offers 48 varieties of products from 75 tonnes of fruits, churning a revenue of over Rs 2 crore a year.
An uphill task
Interestingly, the intention of setting this company up in the hinterlands never stemmed from the conventional need of profits. Instead, it was to prevent wastage of apples on founder Linnet Mushran’s one-acre orchard. She bought the farmhouse in the village from a relative, with her husband Viney.
Born in New Zealand to a German mother and British father, Linnet was raised in Somerset, UK, and met her partner while studying in Scotland. The couple married and moved to India in 1966. She spent most of her time living on the outskirts of Mumbai, in the jungles of Bihar and Delhi. In 1991, she visited the property in Himachal and fell in love instantly.
Linnet soon made Bhuira her second home. Over the course of multiple stays, she came to realise that many apples in the orchard would fall owing to strong winds and monkeys in the vicinity.
Pained by the wastage, Linnet decided to make apple jellies from the fallen apples, using her mother’s traditional recipes. “I shared them in the neighbourhood, and they became a hit,” the 79-year-old recalls.
Linnet says she eventually diversified to jams and began using other fruits available in the vicinity. “I requested a shelf space at a retail store in Kasauli. Surprisingly, all the bottles were sold in one weekend. I started taking help from local women to process the jams and marmalades,” she adds.
Linnet says that as popularity grew, she procured licences in 1999 and set up a factory with four burners and electric stoves. The factory is made out of stone and slate, making a charming cottage that merges with the local landscape.
Since then, she has overcome all odds to make the venture a success. “There was no consistent electricity or piped gas. There was not enough cold storage to preserve the fruits. The village was remote and had few pukka roads,” she adds.
Linnet adds that while jams are seasonal, customers wanted the products round the year. “Maintaining the supply became difficult. The fruits had to be semi-processed and frozen at minus 20 degrees Celsius, wrapped around a blanket and protected with cardboard boxes and sent to Chandigarh to a cold storage facility. They also had to be transported back the same way. The logistics were poor. Slowly, we procured an industrial level cold storage and blast freeze to solve the preservation,” she says.
But the added infrastructure demanded selling larger quantities to meet expenses and earn profits. Eventually, the jams were sold to other states and cities. In 2005, the company collaborated with Fabindia, which boosted sales.
Linnet says the banking system was slow in the early years and delayed the payments up to six weeks. “It became difficult to stay afloat during those days. With the advent of cell phones, net banking, computers and accounting software, operations became easier. However, the problems have not ended. Hurdles including demonetisation, GST and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have hindered progress,” she adds.
As work expanded, more women from the village began joining Linnet. “The women had no cash in hand, and their families depended mainly on a single income — farming,” she says.
Linnet involved village women and bought them digital watches to keep track of time, as well as pressure cookers, irons and cameras. “Sometimes they needed help with finances and additional household expenses. Slowly, they banded together and formed a group to help each other by all means,” she adds.
Bandana, another worker at the factory, says, “I have been working here for almost 19 years and joined the factory soon after school. There are no employment opportunities for women in the region, and it is inconvenient to travel long distances for work. Linnet offered the right opportunity with a decent income.”
Bandana says the women face no financial crunches now and are independent to make their own choices and decisions in the family. “Local farmers have also benefited multifold as their fruits are bought at a better price in the market, and they do not have to venture far distances to sell,” she adds.
Linnet’s daughter-in-law, Rebecca, who handles marketing, says the village dwellers have dish antennas and regular electricity, and that the women own washing machines. “It has been a fascinating transition,” she says, adding that a resort has been constructed in the village, which sees frequent tourists, artists and other commercial entities.
She adds that the women play a leading role and have become decision-makers in the factory. Citing an example, she says, “Sarita Devi, in-charge of production, learned a red capsicum jam recipe on Google and incorporated it in the product list.”
Rebecca says the reason behind the jams becoming a success over the years is their simplicity and the natural process with which they are made. “These jams, marmalades, chutneys and spreads are made the same way a mother makes them at home. The entire process is handmade. The semi-processed frozen fruits allow us to make fresh batches round the year. Moreover, the products have a two-year shelf-life without using any chemical preservatives because the sugar and lime juice added acts as natural agents of protection. The seal is vacuumed, which ensures that no air enters the glass bottles,” she adds.
She adds that most importantly, the jams and marmalades have fruit chunks in them, and are not purees, as observed with other products in the market.
The legacy continues
Rebecca says the products are available on Amazon, Big Basket, CostBo, Simpli Namdhari and retail brands such as Fabindia, Pepperfry and others. The seasonal blackberry jam, tomato chutney, Strawberry Preserve, Bitter Orange Marmalade, Black Cherry Preserve, Apricot jam, and Kashmiri Bichua chutney are top sellers.
She adds that in recent years, many customers have demanded sugar-free products. “Buyers have become sensitive towards sweet consumption, and hence we innovated the jams by replacing the sugar with apple and pear juice concentrate. We offer strawberry and marmalade for now and would add more products soon, starting with blueberry,” she adds. Linnet quips that there can be no harm with two teaspoons of jam on a toast.
When inquired about the road ahead, she replies, “Rebecca is the future and modern face of Bhuira Jams. She is the person who made the website and started online marketing adding special value. The women love her, and Bhuira is lucky to have a son-in-law, Karan, who takes care of accounting. He also delivered workshops for women to train them for better production efficiency. We have another factory rented at Halonipul.”
Linnet says the future is rosy in these young hands and is confident that the legacy will carry on.
Edited by Divya Sethu