Online Markets from the Himalayas: Aiding small-scale business owners grow

Online Markets from the Himalayas: Aiding small-scale business owners grow

With the surge of cases in Sikkim in the past week, the government of Sikkim has initiated a total lockdown yet again. The previous one came with a tremendous economic strain and subsequently, relaxations were imposed. Except everyone has accepted that lockdowns are part of the New Normal.

The way that everything has been at a standstill has made many come forward by investing and working on developing E-Commerce in the state to help local entrepreneurs, small business owners, and micro-businesses in Sikkim and the Darjeeling hills.

From food products to handicrafts, handmade candles to traditional clothing, these Sikkimese products have been hitherto seen in pop-up shops, festivals, and in few of the state’s shops and markets. They make up the essence of Sikkimese culture since they are either derived from cultural practices or are based on produce from Sikkim itself.

One of these resources, widely used in Sikkim and in many other parts of South Asia is the bamboo. A flexible plant, it can be used as food, construction material, dishware, furniture and more. To bend this adaptive plant into a truly innovative idea, like the Bamboo Hand Sanitizer Stand created by Indra Kari Subba from Khechuperi, shows that the Sikkimese are making full use of their natural resources while keeping in mind the public’s need for essentials needed at this time of crisis.

According to Subba, his innovative bamboo stand has been now installed at Yuksom GPU sub-division. “I sent the organic bamboo stands as a contribution and it has been installed now at Yuksom sub-division,” says Subba. 

Subba’s products are housed at Khechuperi Bamboo House, a brand known for its exclusive bamboo products.

Similarly, a lot of homestays are also supplementing their income with the products they create. Most of these products are agro-based and of rich cultural value, but they need a marketplace that can cater not only to the locals but on a larger scale. That is where E-Commerce and online market places come into play. The prime examples of such marketplaces and online domain initiatives that work around Sikkim and North-East Indian hills are:

 1. NE Origins

 2. Gorkhalines

 3. Let’s Local

These initiatives have targeted local products that don’t have a proper outlet outside of pop-up shops, festival stalls, and other miscellaneous markets. With the lockdown harming small businesses, these initiatives have now gained a lot of traction.

Also paving ways for futuristic trade, buying and selling can be eased with these domains, not to mention how these domains can be instrumental in showcasing products from our localities. 

NE-Origins, budding from NE-Taxis, one of North-East India’s biggest and most successful taxi and travel company, has ventured into E-commerce and into the online market domain with the intent of helping small industries across the Northeastern region.

“Right now, basically the small traditional businesses, like people who make, pickles, chocolates, handicrafts, etc., who are mostly limited to trade-fairs and pop-up events. No one is selling it on Amazon, Flipkart, or any such online domains,” says Rewaj Chettri, CEO of NE-Taxis/Origins.

“Now if you see, with the pandemic and the lockdowns, no such events, trade fairs or pop-ups are happening. So previously it used to be more physical markets, but with people not coming out of homes it is near impossible. So we have tied up with various logistic companies across the country, like Delhivery, E-Kart, ExpressBee etc., to enable people from the Northeast to sell their products. In Sikkim’s context, there are a lot of people who are listed with us,” he adds.

NE-Origins is a self-service platform where the vendor can upload, manage, sell and do all their bidding by their selves. The vendor needn’t go anywhere since all the logistics work is handled by the company. Once the sale is made the people from the company come and deal with the transport of the products.

“The sale can be made from home as our reps from the logistics company will come and pick up the products right from the vendor’s home. This will enable people to sell right from home and also sustain their businesses during this (pandemic and lockdown) time,” says Rewaj.

Speaking more on the eligibility of the vendors, Rewaj informs that to sell or list the products the vendors and producers need to go to the website to list their products.

He says, “The vendors if they are selling food items, at least a basic certification of FSSAI needs to be there. They should be a legal entity to sell, that is the only criteria to list with us, and for other agro-based products, the products shouldn’t be easily perishable and has to have a shelf life of atleast 3-6 months. These are the only things we are checking, other than that we are open to anything.”

Gorkhalines is another platform with a pan-India approach of marketing small businesses that groom Gorkha culture and how they can be showcased on a global platform. With the idea of custom made products derived from the rich cultural heritage of the Gurkhas, and seeing the plight of micro-businesses encountering difficulties in their search for a solid market to sell their products, Gorkhalines was birthed. 

“Gorkhalines is an online domain for the small business owners who can showcase Gurkha heritage. I started it two years ago, but I couldn’t complete the website building. Since I am working from home now, I can work on it,” says Anjani Sharma, founder of Gorkhalines. 

“This idea spawned with the book-fest, how people all over Northeast didn’t even realise how their books are all across, and the idea that Gurkha culture is spread all over North-East India and people are oblivious of it,” she adds.

Tied up with E-Com, an e-commerce logistics company, Gorkhalines does a warehouse supply for products with longer shelf-life, dropdowns at the company’s sites, and door-to-door pick-ups.

The warehouses that are being set up are at Siliguri, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Delhi. For other areas, since there are remote areas to consider as well, there are pick-ups that can either be dropped at the designated sites from where the products can be transported or there are door-to-door pick-ups. The drop sites are at Gangtok, Darjeeling and Siliguri, but the door-to-door pick up is only practised in Siliguri from where the company picks directly from the seller.

Speaking on the criteria of being aboard Gorkhalines, Anjani shares, “As of now what we are doing is if you are a registered producer, and have certifications, of any products, you can sell your products as yourself, but many micro-businesses do not have certifications. For uncertified or unregistered people, because many of the producers don’t know the legal procedures, we first do a quality check of the products and then put them up under Gorkhalines, since we have the needed licensing.”

The innovations by Bamboo House Khechuperi and of its main man Indra Kari Subba have been seen as the epitome of products that cry out to be out in the world but due to the legality of it and there are multiple hiatus in the business part of it. 

Indra Subba says, “I have not been able to get a certification, I only focus on handicrafts.” This says a lot about the indifference that sellers, artisans, and producers in the general face from remote areas. 

However, Subba did catch wind of online markets, as necessity is the mother of invention, he has now tied up with Amazon, which is going through his products and getting the vendors under the procedure. “I guess in a week my products will be on Amazon,” says Subba.

Subba’s products are also on board Let’s Local, another one of these online domains that are hell-bent on helping small businesses get a market place in these trying times.

“Let’s Local is an online mall, where various local stores from Sikkim, Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Siliguri will be listed. As a vendor, you will have an exclusive online shop, where you can showcase your products and items.

Unlike Amazon or Flipkart, it will be a vendor/store first platform, instead of a product first platform. Customers can buy products from stores which they have known and come to trust/rely on overtime. Hence, through Lets Local a great deal of brand building, trust and confidence building through unique and distinctive products, can happen for a store,” informs Prerna Sherpa, one of the founders of Let’s Local.

Conceived by the creators of Our Guest, a travel company, the founders write:

The idea of Let’s Local was conceived around the time of the Coronavirus pandemic when the entire world was in the grip of this unknown, unseen foe.  A lot of people were stuck at home with little much to do and plenty of time on their hands.

In a way “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times!” Lockdown was a period in time for them to showcase their skills and latent talents for which they used social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

Similarly, even in our tiny state of Sikkim, there were many talented home entrepreneurs with great potential but lacked a platform and logistics backing to launch their brands and products.

It was during this phase that the trend of online shopping picked up, with people ordering food and other items through e-commerce platforms. People were reluctant to step out of their houses due to the risk of infection and preferred having their goods home delivered.

As a travel company (Our Guest), we have always worked with the local community and have worked for the betterment and upliftment of the fraternity. So, during this time of crisis, we felt a dire need to revive the financial state of affairs of the region, which was severely affected due to the Corona Virus lockdown.

While working in the tourism industry we were focused mainly on people from outside the state, but now we had been presented with the opportunity of serving our dear locals! Hence, with this objective in mind, the notion of Let’s Local was forged, to be an online platform empowering local entrepreneurs and proprietors, to help their dreams and visions take flight.

“Compared to other online and e-commerce sites, ours is a store first site; we do not brand products but stores,” says Prerna.

Starting with the pilot town of Gangtok, Let’s Local mostly focuses on local stores, entrepreneurs, business owners, and produces in and around Sikkim. Most of the merchants and owners do not have the GST requirements, so targeting mainly micro-producers and farmers this online mall has been set up.

The grocery part of the spectrum is also being listed in which 8,000 plus items are still under enlistment and has been taking most of the time to get the site up and running. Prerna shares that once this will be done within the back-end there will be a soft launch to start it off.

Although, their launch has been affected by the week long lockdown imposed on Sikkim on July 20, people will have to wait a little longer for the site to go live and purchase products.

The realisation that actual physical market places are quickly losing value in the New Normal, these online market places are the need of the hour as news of the pandemic gets ever more serious as every day passes. To see local e-commerce websites from in and around the Himalayas is a feat in itself.

What with Amazon and eBay raking in high capital while harming the environment and shady ethics in terms of their labour and tax evasion systems, having not only an eco-friendly online market but one that promotes ethical labour and transparency is imperative since most online shoppers are made up of Gen Z and the Millennial populace who are most concerned with ethical practices and try to find alternatives to commercial giants.

These local, online marketplaces also offer an alternative to taking up spaces and ensures fewer crowds. The fact that most of them are focusing on vendors who are oblivious to the legal side of the trade is something that not only enables them to educate themselves on the subject but brings to light a lot of issues they might not have noticed before.

In a nutshell, these local e-commerce sites may finally widen the market for micro and small businesses, bringing into the spotlight that the hills of the Northeast have more to offer than just travel and music festivals; these products are more than tangible goods – various stories are weaved into the fabric of its material, each better than the last.