Head over hills: Home-grown brands setting shop in mountains

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Mountains don’t just offer scenic views; they are also home to exotic products rich in natural resources and immunity-boosting health foods. Sometimes, they may even serve as an inspiration to create and conserve culture and heritage.

With healthy and mindful consumption becoming a top priority for the conscious consumer as well as the new-age entrepreneur, some home-grown brands are setting up shop in the mountains. They are not just getting inspired by nature’s bounty—they are also giving back to the community and committing to a sustainable planet.

Inspired by nature: WHITE HILL STUDIO

White Hill Studio was born out of love for ceramics and storytelling. Largely inspired from Nandita Aron’s time spent in Shimla and wildlife sanctuaries, the founder of the brand translated her first-hand experiences in the hills as a journal of sorts, seamlessly portrayed in a nature-inspired ceramic collection. For instance, one rendition in poetry represents ‘The Midnight in Mashobra’ which explores the adventures and a unique friendship between three animals Raka, Tara and Fredrick (rabbit, sheep, leopard) who live on the slopes of Mashobra in Shimla. The illustrations are created by US-based artist Bakula Nayak.

The narrative of White Hill revolves around finding a balance. “Just as food brings friends and families together, so does the great outdoors. It is my way of communicating with life through the medium of ceramics,” says Aron, 33, born and brought up in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, which is also the headquarters of White Hill.

Aron spent her five years in college in Shimla which became home and an inspiration to start the ceramic brand in 2017. Finding time between artists in Bareilly and a studio in Shimla, Aron pens down her stories of nature and samples artwork in beautiful ceramic renditions. “My time in the mountains has taught me to find pleasure in smaller details. There is no panic or immediate urgency, it sort of slows you down in a way that could be extremely gainful in the long run. I was fortunate to take the time to decide on a career in ceramics,” says Aron who was always drawn to ceramics. “It was after a year of walking through several trade fairs in India and China that I decided on translating my experiences and life on pottery. The concept, stories and colour palettes are seated by me, then artists work on water slide decals used for translating the design stories. The prints are placed onto ceramics and fired at a certain temperature to make them permanent,” says Aron, whose products are priced at Rs 1,100 onwards, retailed through her brand website.

At the outset—there was no knowledge about the industry and processes, no formal training in either pottery or business and Aron learnt along the way. “All I had was a note pad full of stories and ideas,” she says.

However, the slowdown of production during the pandemic and unforeseen circumstances due to labour migration have affected her annual production of about 13,000 pieces of ceramics and pottery. But Aron hasn’t lost hope. “The market is volatile, communities are grieving and the pandemic is raging. We’ll start again as I did six years ago and hope to continue business,” she adds.

Preserving hilly herbs: THE PAHADI STORY

In 2019, during a work assignment in Almora in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand, Pravin Shah (42) stumbled upon wholesome food produce and natural herbs. “I had no knowledge of this town. But this first visit made me and my wife Shweta, 37, realise the need to bring back natural resources to the urban market. We were in touch with women farmers and after a year in October 2020, we launched the brand,” says Mumbai-based Pravin Shah, enabler and co-founder of The Pahadi Story.

One year of hardcore research in the hills on products and consumer preference to have healthy and nutritious made this Mumbai-based entrepreneur couple start a manufacturing unit in Almora in 2019. Mumbai still serves as the head office for managing final operations. The duo felt that growth and goodness are the two axes of an empowering equilibrium and that’s where the self-funded startup was born—a brand to empower lives and generate livelihoods for women farmers. “With limited production of chemical-free tulsi, turmeric and other natural ingredients, we employ women farmers making them financially independent and giving them access to market opportunities. It was imperative that great minds and experts become part of the venture and who believe in the larger purpose of life,” says Shah, who retails from his brand website and online marketplace Amazon.

But producing from a mountainous region has its own challenges in terms of logistics and resources. “The access to products made in Almora was difficult and the travel time from Mumbai was almost a 14-hour journey. So, accessibility was the problem, but we overcame it gradually. We have not just adapted to the region but have also transformed the working cycle of farmers who help in the journey from peaks to packs. These intrapreneurs use traditional wisdom, apply trusted home-grown remedies for cure using pahadi herbs like nettle, a cleanser and natural diuretic, used for years by local people; pahadi tulsi and turmeric; traditional sil batta (hand grinder) method for blending the masalas; kadha and other blends to source and create products,” says Shah, adding that both the kadha and haldi mix are their top-selling products. The price range starts from Rs 350 for wellness green tea and haldi mix for `475 to kadha for Rs 575, and so on.

Ayurveda and natural products like kadha and immunity boosters were the need of the hour in the pandemic and Shah was in no rush to create more. “Herb-based products stand for natural rarity from the Himalayas, so we produce a limited range of Himalayan Herbal Infusion meant to detoxify, lose weight, restore health with offer immunity-boosting benefits,” he adds.

Kadha is an authentic blend of 12 potent herbs and spices and florals like giloy, bay leaf, cinnamon, rosemary, basil, thyme, lemongrass, liquorice, nettle ginger and rhododendron—a signature bliss of Uttarakhand. “The haldi mix, an authentic blend of turmeric and assorted spices loaded with antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, strengthens immunity, helps reduce inflammation, promotes holistic health and improves metabolism,” adds Shah, who is expecting his business to grow incrementally in 2022 by 35%-40%.

Spreading local cheer: PAHADI LOCAL

For this Mumbai girl who moved to Shimla about a decade ago, exploring and appreciating all things local and natural from the Himalayas made her embark on the journey of building a brand called Pahadi Local. Hidden away from the commercial products for beauty and wellness, founder Jessica Jayne grabbed immense interest in local recipes and remedies and took to creating the brand after living in Shimla for a few months on a break. She calls it a ‘a serendipitous encounter’ with gutti ka tel, also known as apricot kernel oil, that saved her skin from peeling off during one of her trips. Instantly, it was a massive success with friends and family fast spreading its goodness.

“After using pure and outstanding oil from a friend’s orchard, I began to travel in the mountains to understand what products are used by mountain people. Local remedies, recipes and ingredients were a big attraction to kickstart an entrepreneurial spirit. And that became a core idea of what Pahadi Local has been built on—traditionally cold-pressed oils with unadulterated mountain goodness,” says Jayne, who launched the brand in 2016 with partner friend Udit Sheth.

The single source origin products, which Jayne calls as the source-to-bottle, include oils, powders and waters. “We do not add any kind of preservatives or stabilisers. It may sound simple in principle but its execution requires significant work to ensure quality compliance under stringent parameters, third-party laboratory testing and maintenance of wide logistics,” says Jayne, who works closely with the forest and horticultural departments of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh to understand the production process.

Apart from its bestsellers such as gutti ka tel (apricot kernel oil), lake sediment scrub, mineral-rich Himalayan clay and akhrot ka tel (walnut oil), the brand is also known for honey, teas and shawls made from pashmina. The products retail from Good Earth stores across India, besides online marketplaces like Amazon, Nykaa and Myntra.

The ingredients come in the purest form, carefully sourced, extracted and delivered in a way that keeps the carbon footprint to a minimum and benefits the Pahadi community. That is the reason why the brand aims at three initiatives—Pahadi Empower, to work with women self-help groups and youth groups for collecting raw materials; Pahadi Love, to conduct drives for warm clothes and school books for mountain children and sponsored medical check-ups for cervical cancer and the likes for women in remote areas of Ladakh; and Pahadi Preserve, to undertake afforestation drives annually with Himachal Pradesh government.

A return-your-empty jars and bottles initiative helps collect five empties from the user’s home and recycle them with an incentive of a discount or gift on the next purchase after doing this. “We try to be as sustainable as we can. Not because it is a current trend. Sustainability needs to be our normal,” adds the Economics graduate from Mumbai.

Women on top: BHUIRA JAMS

When Linnet Mushran didn’t get the same apple jelly that she used to relish in her childhood in England, she decided to make one in her house in Bhuira village in Sirmaur, the southernmost district of Himachal Pradesh. An incredibly enterprising Mushran was used to growing her own fruits, flowers and food in her own farm in England, that’s when she decided to buy her uncle’s house on her visit to Bhuira in 1991 and nursed a small apple orchard in the premises. That apple jelly was an instant hit among friends and family, making her gradually explore more flavours.

The mountain women were skilled and trained in jam making under the tutelage of Mushran who prepared an assortment of jams, jellies, fruit preserves, marmalade and chutneys, and this gave birth to a household brand name, Bhuira Jams, in 1999. Today, the name is synonymous in metro households and is close to the heart of the owners. “We didn’t want to change the brand name. It represents the village and that’s the association of the local women who work with us. It’s like an identity reflected with the brand name,” says Rebecca Vaz, director of Bhuira Jams and the daughter-in-law of 80-year-old Linnet Mushran, and now takes care of the factory produce and jam business.

Vaz’s background in management and confectionery production has brought in a fresh approach, blending the modern with the traditional but ensuring the handcrafted flavour of the company still remains.

With 48 varieties of marmalade, jam, jellies and chutneys available on the brand’s website, Amazon Prime, Big Basket, CostBo, Simpli Namdhari, FoodHall, Spencers and Wellness forever, Mushran’s first recipe of apple and cinnamon jelly is among the top seller besides their limited-edition jams in seasonal fruits like blackberry and wild Himalayan golden raspberry which remind most people of the holiday season in the mountains.

Conducive climatic conditions make Bhuira region ideal for production of stone fruits such as peaches, apricots, cherry and plum, among others. From one factory in 1999, Bhuira Jams now has two manufacturing units—Bhuira and Halonipul, both managed and run by the local women. The core of the business in the past two decades has been to employ women in the village and enhance their quality of life, allowing marginal farmers to sell their produce locally. They no longer had to struggle with middlemen, strict mandi bargains or distress sales.

Offering a healthy range, Bhuira has introduced its no added white sugar range of jams. The white sugar is replaced with apple, strawberry and blueberry concentrate. The three-fruit marmalade—Santra (orange), kinnow (mandarin) and gulgul (large lemon)—are a perfect blend of sweet, sour and bitter.

Bhuira is a sustainable name mindful of the carbon footprint. There’s a stone factory, a Himachali style bamboo packing shed made by architect Ritu Varuni, recyclable glass bottle packaging, installed an effluent food processing plant to treat water and wastage, test pH value of water or recycled compost.

The pandemic is a wakeup call for brand pushing a hardcore retail business into the ecommerce space. “In the last two years, we have a robust online presence and the transition from physical to online has made us grateful to loyal customers and sales,” says Vaz, selling over 6,000-7,000 bottles in a month online out of 1,400 cases a month (a case has 12 bottles).

Wearing their culture: NAMZA COUTURE

The silhouettes of traditional Ladakhi clothing in modern yet easy-to-wear designs come alive in the clothing brand Namza Couture that started its journey in 2016. It revives fine Ladakhi textiles like Nambu (sheep wool), Khulu (yak wool), camel wool and pashmina. Namza, which was self-funded with Rs 60 lakh, is the brainchild of two Ladakhi women entrepreneurs—Padma Yangchan and Jigmet Disket. They were keen to conserve their heritage through a range of clothing represented by the different ethnic groups with colours, silhouettes influenced by different Central Asian countries.

It all started when Padma Yangchan, a proud Ladakhi and a Master’s degree holder in fashion designing, chose Thikma (a traditional method of tie and dye) as a final year research on Ladakhi textiles and art. “The project was an eye-opening experience. Seeing the richness of the culture and heritage helped me understand the value in working respectfully with artisans, and explore the unique Ladakhi culture,” says the 31-year-old designer, who has worked in design houses in London, Mumbai and Delhi.

While co-founder Jigmet Disket has technical knowledge from the Defence Research and Development Organisation to make dyes from sunflower, onion and other natural ingredients, Yangchan has developed a direct relationship with in-house handloom production. The wool is sourced from Changthang and Nubra valley of Ladakh; woolen fabrics use cotton, silk, linen which come from Indian cottage industries; and pashmina comes from the Changthang Pashmina Growers’ Cooperative Marketing Society, which operates a dehairing plant in Leh.

Nambu wool is made from indigenous sheep wool worn in winters, while Yak wool or Khulu is breathable wool as it can absorb moisture and is coarser than other wool. Besides dress design, Namza dreams of an empire of Ladakhi jewellery designing, an integral part of a wedding in every culture. “There is no one who is working in this field as of now in Ladakh,” shares Yangchan, who represented in-house handcrafted fabrics in the AW19 collection at London Fashion Week in 2019.

The use of local natural dyeing processes and employing a community-based network of over 40 local artisans has made the brand more sustainable. “The nomadic community of Changthang plateau of Ladakh is pastoral—living, rearing livestock such as yak, goats and sheep and shifting campsites depending on availability of grass and water. The nomadic way of life at high altitude is not always easy. We source wool and pashmina from these nomads and artisans, and that’s a way to support them and turn the wool into beautiful, priceless pieces without harming animals while shearing them,” says Yangchan.

From Nambu jackets or flared sleeve capes to traditional attires like the Kos or Goncha (a voluminous robe resembling a coat made of wool, velvet, cotton, polyester, or a combination of all), Namza’s products are priced between Rs 12,000 and Rs 5 lakh, depending on fabric, and retailed through stores in Ladakh, Leh and Delhi.

Oil’s well: JUNAILI

Anshuman Sen, 43, started Junaili as a small-batch and family-owned personal care brand to ensure that factory and operations—from plucking to packing—are done on his local farm nestled in a snow-clad small village of Rautakhet, the fruit belt of the Kumaon Himalayas in Uttarakhand.

It started during one of his trips abroad when Sen’s interest grew in some of the indigenous ingredients like lavender, rosemary inscribed on an international label. These were readily available in the hill house and were majorly underutilised. An acrophile, Sen spent time with his father in the Himalayas and his gradual admiration for the mountains grew. He realised the short shelf life of peaches had around 40% wastage. This made him utilise the produce of the fruits, with innumerable benefits, and took two years of extensive research, to work on product extracts.

“I went to GB Pant University in Uttarakhand to understand the process of extracting, and learnt post-harvest technology. Today we make our cold pressed apricot oil and meal apricot oil. From June to August, we spend time in villages and buy apricot kernels at the highest price that benefit and supplement the income of farmers despite a good or bad harvest in a season,” shares Sen, who started working on extraction process in 2014 and took two years to launch the brand in 2016.

The apricot kernel oil is apt for new-born babies for strength and vitality, a pahadi cure for dry eczema, a natural source of Omega-6 and 9, rich in vitamins A and E, which does wonders for the hair and skin. Sen uses amber bottles in order to keep sunlight out and damage the hand-pressed oils. Hair oil, scrub and body oil are made of apricots grown in the orchard.

The single origin series oil is unfiltered and has distributors in Europe and the UK, besides being a registered seller on Instamojo, an online selling platform, and Amazon.

But what’s special about the wild apricots of Rautakhet? Sen tells us how it was a challenge to adapt the best possible process to the fluctuating single phase electricity supply in the village. “Over the years, we pressed oil from both apricot and wild apricot (called chuwaroo in Kumaoni language) kernels from all over Kumaon and realised that the best quality oil and meal came from the wild apricots of Rautakhet. At 6,578 feet and in the midst of imposing deodars, only the toughest wild apricot trees are able to survive and bear fruit. And this is what makes Rautakhet’s wild apricots special,” says the 43-year-old photographer-cum-entrepreneur.

Junaili means moonlight in the Kumaoni language and is a success story for its loyal fan base in the south from cities like Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Chennai with 5, 15 or sometimes 20 orders a day. But Sen believes in a slow and steady life. “We have a slightly old-fashioned way of doing jobs. I feel our biggest customers are the villagers who locally use the oil which is good for joint pains and that’s how we spread the goodwill. An elderly man came for the kernel oil which relieves joint pain; it immensely benefited him after he lost all hopes from therapies. That’s a success story apart from our patrons,” he adds.

The long-term goal of Sen is to buy and live local. In this process of slow and sustainable personal care brand, there are good employment opportunities in the region.

“The quality of the season’s harvest in March is different in quality from what we get in October. Each seed is broken by hand and this is the biggest engagement or employment for the villagers as apricot seeds are sun dried and de-shelled by hand —about 4-5 kg apricots a day—done by the local women of Rautakhet. This process goes on for a year,” adds Sen.