Good Businesses 2014

Living off the land

Zynorique is working to make the best use of bamboo while restoring entrepreneurial spirit among Naga youth

At first, all he could do was listen. Every other day, architect Richard Belho, a native of Nagaland, would get worried calls from home, each time listing a new set of problems: poor work culture among the youth, rampant alcoholism and drug addiction, people living on dole. Working with established architects in Bengaluru after he finished his undergraduate course there, these issues were far removed from Belho’s work, which involved projects for high-profile clients such as Rahul Dravid and Javagal Srinath. With each passing day, Belho felt the need to reconnect with his roots. In 2002, he finally quit his job to move to Nagaland to start architectural firm Zynorique (a portmanteau of the words zyn, for design, original and unique) with associate architect Kezhagwetuo (Ato) Peseyie in March 2003.

“It was probably a bad career move,” laughs 39-year-old Belho when we first meet in sylvan Kiruphema, 24 km from Nagaland’s capital, Kohima. Despite construction being a sector that offered maximum employment opportunity, no Naga youth were involved in this work. “As my friends reported, people here were so dependent on government handouts that there was practically no entrepreneurial spirit among the youth. I wanted to check if there was a sustainable opportunity related to architecture in the region but soon realised the masons couldn’t even read working drawings. So I began training them in working with bamboo for construction,” he adds. 

As a co-opted member of the Nagaland Bamboo Development Agency, Belho’s firm did much work over the next few years on government projects, including renovation and construction at the state secretariat. This was also when he started working with the first batch of 150 youngsters in partnership with the state government, training them in RCC construction, metal work, bamboo construction and fabrication. 

Around 2008, though, he looked beyond bamboo in construction and realised there was a market for good quality bamboo toys and gift material but the goods available in the market were too plain vanilla to command a good price. Investing some ₹12,000-15,000 from his savings, Belho set up a toy-making unit called Uniqraft in Kohima, making prototypical motorbikes completely out of bamboo. A year later, Uniqraft was already seeking room to expand and providentially, around the same time, the government decided to lease a defunct and loss-making bamboo treatment plant in Dimapur. 

“The government had ended up with 40 trucks of unusable bamboo and couldn’t even trace the contractors responsible. So, in 2009, I raised about ₹6 lakh from savings and loans from family and friends, and took over the bamboo treatment plant at the Nagaland Bamboo Resource Centre (NBRC) by paying its old bills. I partnered with five good bamboo suppliers to get the place up and running,” says Belho.

Within three years, he tripled the money pumped into the venture, returned double to those who wanted out (mainly relatives and friends who had invested amounts of ₹10,000 to encourage his venture) and reinvested the rest, making the plant one of his biggest success stories. He adds, “This initial investment helped kickstart our business. We have now floated new shares and people are investing again with great confidence.” 

Putting it together

Under a washed clean bright blue sky and endless cottony clouds, all you can see in each direction at the NBRC grounds at 6th Mile, Dimapur, is the eponymous bamboo. The swing set, slide, gift shop, restaurant, guesthouse, factory and even the restroom — every inch of the centre is a testament to the versatility and durability of the rugged construction material. Here, Bablu Thapa (40) and Akhole (26) take us through the process of how the ubiquitous plant is turned into doors, frames, roofs, toys and furniture.

Mature bamboo of the Bambusa balcoa and Bambusa tulda varieties, which grow in the foothill regions of Nagaland and have the strength for structural application, is selected and bought from villages in the area at ₹80 apiece. This is cut into 22-feet logs, which are drilled in two places and fed into a vacuum pressure machine 80 logs at a time. Apart from a pressure of 16 kg/cm square, these logs are also treated with a medicine called CCB, which keeps them from being attacked by microorganisms and extends the lives of the final structures by 25 years.

Nearly 300-400 such logs are dispatched to places such as Delhi, Odisha, Bihar, Bengaluru and Guwahati each day, apart from being used in the items being constructed by Belho’s team under the Bambonyte brand. As further value addition, the logs may be pressed and processed further and covered with bamboo powder and gum to be sold as roofs and floors for prefabricated structures or bridges. 

While Thapa handles the processing units, Akhole trains Zynorique’s young recruits in making scale models of the final structures to be assembled at the centre, designed meticulously by Belho’s team of nine architects, three interior designers and four civil engineers. S Elow (54) and Weche (26) are part of the current batch of trainees; there are three to four batches of 10-12 people at the centre every year.

Weche, who is working on a scale model of a bridge that occupies pride of place in the humungous warehouse, says that apart from helping unemployed youth find a sustainable source of living, this training also helps preserve the woodwork craftsmanship the state is known for. “We know how to plant bamboo but not what to do with it. This way, at least I feel connected to the traditions of my forefathers,” he smiles. Once the men are trained, it will take them just under 15-20 days to assemble bridges costing ₹1.5 lakh or prefabricated homes (₹1.2 lakh for a 16x16 structure, ₹1.9 lakh for a 25x25 one) or a week to build a complete furniture set costing ₹30,000. These are shipped everywhere from Pune to Puducherry. 

At the Uniqraft unit inside the Centre, Kenei (31) teaches trainees to fashion tough bamboo pieces into smaller sections and shape them into toys such as bikes (₹1,500), ships (₹3,000) and cars (₹900). Zynorique doesn’t pay a stipend to trainees but covers their living expenses during the training, which ranges from six months (government training) to two years (apprenticeship), after which a few of them are absorbed as employees. Kenei, who was earlier working in a plywood factory, now earns about ₹8,000 a month, ₹2,000-3,000 more than before. 

Belho buys all the items from this unit and another woodcarving unit at Kiruphema, halfway between Dimapur and Kohima, and absorbs the losses made on unsold items. “Through him, we are able to get ready orders and have access to the market,” says Thapa.

Talking shop

Picturesque Kiruphema is also the site for the only retail outlet run by Zynorique in the region. Apart from private orders, consultant work for the government, sales during the yearly Hornbill festival and an under-construction website for e-commerce in the pipeline, the outlet, Chapru (Naga for a roadside shed used by villagers to rest and eat on the way to their fields), is one of the biggest sellers for Zynorique’s craft unit. Strategically located exactly halfway on a crucial highway that connects Dimapur to Kohima and then goes beyond to Manipur (the only motorable route currently), Chapru brings Belho’s company sales of ₹5,000-15,000 for the crafts per day, and an additional ₹7,000-10,000 through the sale of iconic Naga pork dishes. 

“The government had invited entrepreneurs to use this prime property for business under the Integrated Infrastructure Development Centre scheme and we needed a retail outlet anyway,” says Belho. Not surprisingly, Zynorique’s biggest client is the government. “In government contracts that usually range between ₹2 crore and ₹30 crore, our share of the jobwork or billing cost is around 4%,” says Belho. The prefab business contributes the biggest chunk to revenue at 30%, while craft sales, bamboo and food chip in 20% each, and toys and other items accounting for the remaining 10%.Though the company rakes in revenue of ₹2.5 lakh-3 lakh a month, with the monthly expenses incurred for its 80-150 trainees each year (including those under government training programmes), the business is yet to break even.

Besides, Zynorique continues to invest in R&D for new projects and also has to absorb losses due to unsold inventory. The good news, Belho admits, is that all the three independent units — Bambonyte, Chapru and Uniqraft — are already self-sustainable, ensuring guaranteed employment and business to its employees.

 Apart from starting a nursery near Chapru to start providing raw material by 2016 for landscaping projects ranging between ₹30 lakh and ₹80 lakh, the firm is now looking to expand its reach in India and abroad through the supply of prefabricated bamboo structures, structural bamboo, bamboo toys and furniture and Naga food. “We are looking for partners and investors for our retail expansion. Expansion costs will be marginal since we don’t plan to start any standalone stores,” Belho says. Bengaluru-based Bambooz, a construction firm that specialises in bamboo design structures, has been buying treated bamboo from Zynorique for the past five years. MD Indrani Mukherjee says, “We have a common interest for low-energy construction. The quality of the raw material at Zynorique is the best and cannot be found elsewhere in India with such consistency.” 

“If it is not directly exposed to the elements, structural bamboo can last more than 200 years. The good news is that we are getting a lot of demand for prefabricated structures from all over India. With mass production and the availability of skilled workers, we could net profit margins of 30-80% in the bamboo trade.” Currently, ₹2 lakh-3 lakh of revenue per year comes from sales outside the state. Bambooz is also exploring a tie-up with Zynorique for marketing the crafts it produces for the export market, adds Mukherjee. Though a tie-up with customers in Vietnam did not materialise due to political unrest there, Belho remains positive about the volume of local orders.  

Making a difference 

More than finding local and outside markets for bamboo products, Belho is relieved that he is making a difference to the quality of life of the Naga youth — the problem he came home to tackle. “Politicians have spoiled the northeastern region by pumping in far too much money here in lieu of political stability. People started looking down upon entrepreneurship and hard work, considering them the fallout of not having enough political connections. Alcohol addiction became rampant due to inactivity. Currently, we house, train, employ and create bank accounts for such addicts so that they learn to take control of their lives. We introduced a log system under which they are rewarded for every 100 hours of work to incentivise growth for them,” says Belho.

In 2009, Belho delineated the training arm of the company as the not-for-profit Zynorique Initiatives, under which it partners with the government for continued skilling workshops for artisans. Belho and his team train about 80 to 150 youths directly every year, of which five to 10 are absorbed into the team. At any point in time, the company works with over 200 people, including its 50 permanent employees. 

It has not been easy to balance these initiatives with earnings, admits Belho. But the rewards have been worth it, says Zynorique employee Aleho Tase (34). “Whether it is crafts or bamboo work, or our local football team, the Kohima Komets, all these initiatives are good because by working on these skill sets, our youth can work anywhere they want and command a good price for their work. We have changed the lives of nearly 5,000 such people through our efforts,” he says. 

As a professional, Belho could have been earning much more if he were still a part of the rat race back in Bengaluru, but he says he is happy having taken the plunge into this venture and being back in his hometown. “Earlier, I didn’t have to worry if the people working with me had a good life or not. Here, all of this is my problem as well. I have had to slow down my life to suit the area; things take longer here. But this has given me time to savour the growth in the company and my people,” smiles Belho. Sipping a glass of aromatic black tea at Kiruphema, surrounded by the crash and roar of the clouds and the sound of metal on wood, we find ourselves quietly subscribing to Belho’s theory on the speed of life.