Shillar House: Big dreams of a micro enterprise

Himachal Pradesh-based Shillar House deals in natural and unadulterated local produce such as pickles, nuts, ghee, honey and fruit. We caught up with founder Sonal Sarjolta to understand how such micro enterprises have an enormous effect on the local community.

Micro and small enterprises are the lifeline of developing economies such as India. Across the country, especially in rural or remote pockets, it is these kind of businesses that not only support and sustain entire communities but also shine the light on many a little-known regional specialty. In today’s day and age of ‘vocal for local’ these enterprises have assumed an even more important role. Shillar House is such an initiative based out of a village of the same name, in Himachal Pradesh’s Nandpur. We got a chance to catch up with Sonal Sarjolta, the founder of the brand, on how this little enterprise came to be and the impact it’s having on the local community.

Sonal sarjolta
Sonal Sarjolta wanted to help the local women in her village gain financial independence. Thus was born Shillar House, a brand that deals in natural regional produce and has the community’s best interests at heart.

Sonal, a native of Bihar, first moved to Himachal after she got married. As she settled into the new setting, getting used to village life, she noticed what is an unfortunate reality across most of the country – the women there had no financial independence. That was when the germ of the idea behind Shillar House was planted, although it took concrete shape in 2016. “My mother-in-law has cows, as is the norm for nearly every household here, and she makes her own ghee. I used to bottle the ghee for my friends and send it across. But with time, more and more people started to ask for ghee. Since I was already thinking about doing something for the local community, it was a natural progression for me to start sourcing ghee from the local women and with time, we included new products as well. So, this is how Shillar House started off,” says Sonal.

Shillar house at baro market
Baro Market turned out to be just the kind of marketplace that Shillar House wanted; respectful of the community and more focused on it than on commercials.

Perhaps the most crucial factor for Shillar House and definitely Sonal’s core area of focus is to empower the local community. Given that it’s a micro-enterprise, they aren’t after volumes and instead, rely on seasonal produce in whatever quantities that are available. “We are a very small concern and we deal in the basic. I am still working on motivating the local women to get a hang of this kind of a business. We don’t have enormous facilities, neither do we set targets when it comes to produce volumes. I simply ask them for whatever special things they make, such as pickles or the local muri (puffed rice), or fruits that grow in the region. The greatest challenge that these small farmers face is getting their produce to the market. Many a times, they have unsavoury dealings where payments are pending or never actualise. In my way, with Shillar House, this is what I’m trying to address. Give them fair compensation for their produce.”

Women of shillar house
The small scale of Shillar House is a natural way for the brand to keep its carbon footprint low. The smiling faces are reassurance of the positive impact it’s having on the community.

Marketing is a major challenge for micro-enterprises such as Shillar House. So, it makes a world of a difference when platforms such as Baro Market, brainchild of Srila Chatterjee, which brings together artists, craftsmen and designers from across the country, get involved. Luckily for Sonal, they also matched on philosophy. “The collaboration with Baro was a stroke of luck. When they extended to the concept of Baro Market, I was given a chance to exhibit Shillar House’s products there. And I felt extremely comfortable in that space because it was not at all commercial. We don’t want to chase volumes and set targets and grow at an aggressive pace. I’ve had the opportunity to put my products on e-commerce giants’ platforms such as Amazon but that was never my goal. When you grow enormously, commerce becomes the driving factor. And you tend to forget the original reason why you started out in the first place. I am still focused on my community, everyone works at a relaxed pace and is happy to work like this. Our products are completely natural, we don’t add preservatives just so the shelf-life can increase and be more commercially lucrative. The key focus here always has been and always will be to uplift the community.”

And while huge profits and scaling up production might not be Shillar House’s objective, what is definitely on the agenda is sustainability. “We use only glass bottles and cloth for packaging, which also, is done by hand, avoiding any need for major power consumption. We don’t use any plastics and in every little way, we try to keep our carbon footprint as small as possible.” Clearly, Shillar House’s scale is an advantage for both the community and the environment.

Fruits are a new avenue that Shillar House has ventured into, with local varieties of peaches, cherries, pears and apples. “These local varieties grown here are different from what you generally get in the market. The July Elberta peach, for example, is different in how the seed doesn’t get attached to the wall of the fruit. The Durone Nero cherry is fleshier than what you usually find, they’re heart-shaped instead of round.”

However, with perishables such as fruit, logistics is a major hurdle, especially for micro-enterprises. Which is where they need support from the government. “For enterprises like ours, it’s not possible to figure out logistics on an industrial scale. It’s simply not feasible for the kind of volumes we have. It would be great if we got government support in the form of training or cold chain infrastructure that can be utilised by even smaller businesses. I feel like this is an issue that isn’t just bothering small businesses but even smaller farmers.”

As we wind up the conversation and it turns to future plans, the fact that Shillar House is focused on the community and its betterment is evident. While naturally, plans for growth are on track, the other big highlight is entirely community-related. “We want to grow our distribution in southern India and while the pandemic obviously put the brakes on our plans, we expect to make progress once things start to normalise. The other major item on our agenda is to improve our village’s medical infrastructure. We have a dispensary here but there aren’t proper facilities. There’s a nurse and three rooms but for even the most basic care, we have to travel at least 30-45 minutes away. So, through Shillar House, I’m trying to do whatever we can to get the basic care facilities in place.”

While there is indeed a lot of noise these days around self-reliance and sustainability, there are few that walk the talk. Shillar House, refreshingly, is honest about its intentions and has no qualms about its core vision – to empower and uplift the local community. Luckily for consumers, the consequences are natural, fresh and unadulterated local produce delivered home.

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