UP-based Sabhapati Shukla and his wife Shakuntala run Shukla Ji Sirka, a business that sells traditionally made vinegar across India, helping the couple earn crores.
Among the many towns and villages that you can reach via NH-28 — which runs through Uttar Pradesh — is a small village named Macha. Here, many residents have left over the years in search of better opportunities, and while some have found success, many did not.
Among the residents of this village, located in Ghazipur district, is Sabhapati Shukla (69). While many left, he decided to stay back. Today, this decision has proved beneficial not just for him, but for the rest of Macha as well.
The secret to his success? Vinegar.
But Sabhapati insists this success was accidental. “I was a sugarcane farmer before this and suffered a huge loss. One day, I was looking to destroy my entire crop. But my wife suggested that we use sugarcane to make vinegar. It was just an experiment, and look where it has landed us today,” he tells The Better India.
With unending support
After three years of trying sugarcane farming, Sabhapati found that it was going nowhere, he says. “The losses were mounting, and the expenses were also increasing for the family. By then we had children to look after as well.”
This was also a time when Sabhapati was being pressured by family members to take up a job in the town. “My family wanted me to move away from the village. I, on the other hand, did not want that at all. This caused too much turmoil, and ultimately in 2001, I broke away from the family.”
The same year, Sabhapati started a sugarcane business with a loan he had taken from a local bank. He says, “Believe me when I say that I did not have even Rs 10 of my own. There was a bank manager in the local bank who approved my loan of Rs 50,000. With that money, I set up the sugarcane farm.”
But by 2003, things had started to crumble. He recalls the night that changed his life and says, “I remember asking my wife to set fire to the sugarcane plantation. It was only bringing us ill-fate and I did not want to continue with it. It was her sharp mind that helped save the day.”
He notes, “I would be nothing if not for the support and encouragement of my wife, Shakuntala Devi. It was only because of her that I managed to emerge from a very dark period in my life.”
Shakuntala urged Sabhapati to consider making vinegar with sugarcane instead of destroying the entire produce. “At first, the idea was just to make vinegar and distribute it among other village residents and family members. What happened instead was nothing short of a revolution,” he adds. “Those who tried the vinegar started loving it and asking for more.”
“The first batch of vinegar was sold at a small shop in Faizabad. The demand was so good that I continued with it,” he says. This was how Shukla Ji Sirka was started.
Using age-old traditions to make vinegar
What’s unique about this vinegar is how it is prepared, Sabhapati says. “We have not brought in any modernisation to the technique we follow. The age-old technique that women have been using to make vinegar from sugarcane continues even today.”
The process takes close to five months, during which the sugarcane juice that is extracted needs to be strained multiple times.
The first year, close to 40 litres of vinegar was made and sold. The next year it increased exponentially, and they were making close to 1,000 litres. Sabhapati says that in the third year, they had surpassed the 2000-litre mark as well. “Those who laughed at me in the beginning for attempting something new and different were suddenly singing my praises, wanting to join hands with me,” says Sabhapati.
He notes that most of the vinegar being sold in the market is synthetic in nature, and that is what his natural vinegar took off so well. “I was sure of never letting the quality of the vinegar dip. That is our USP. No matter what changes the business undergoes, the quality will remain the same,” he says.
He adds, “Whether it is a product you are selling or a government you are running – what trumps everything else is quality. If quality starts to falter, everything will fail.”
Along with this growth, Sabhapati also started giving employment to many residents from the village. “My aim has always been to try and grow the village. I was never in favour of leaving and do not want others to leave as well. We have created enough jobs and employment opportunities here as well. We have also worked on increasing the earnings of so many residents of this village.”
Prakash Shukla (23), who is Sabhapati’s youngest son, says, “Since the time I have been of an age where I understand what is happening, I have seen papa work very hard. I remember the times when he was mocked. He never let any of that come in the way of his hard work.”
“He was like a horse with blinkers, his sight was only on the outcome. I have been associated with the business for the last two years”
He adds, “We have seen many hardships. There was a time when people would think multiple times before lending us even Rs 100. Even then, papa never gave up. We have sold this vinegar in so many ways – set up a stall in Lucknow, went door-to-door,, and even gave out free samples to attract people.”
Sabhapati says the people in and around Macha and adjoining villages have also taken to making vinegar. “They now see the benefit in it. We are not worried about competition coming in. We are happy to see so many others take inspiration and start their own businesses. Ultimately, only the ones who maintain their standard and quality will survive,” he opines.
Today, the vinegar made in Macha is sold to different regions of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Punjab, Bengal, Delhi, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and other states of the country. From earning Rs 16,000 from the sale of the first batch to making an annual turnover of over Rs 1.50 crore, Sabhapati says he’s extremely grateful for all the success he has achieved.
The business employs six men and 10 women on a permanent basis, and up to 50 others are employed during season time. On an average, a worker associated with this business takes home between Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 per month.
Sabhapati says that they now make and sell various kinds of pickles and jaggery as well. One litre of vinegar is priced at Rs 50 and can be delivered to any part of India via speed post. “Within a few months, our products will also be available for purchase on various online retail platforms,” says a very proud Prakash.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)