Entrepreneurship gaining pace among Assam youth, but lack of support makes choice difficult

Bibek, a youth of Lakhimpur is an aspiring entrepreneur. He is inspired by the journeys of his entrepreneurial idols and is simultaneously working on three ventures MurKam, BornoZatra and AOTA.

Speaking on his future aspirations, Bibek says, “I want to do something on my own and bring change to society through innovative ways."

There are like Bibek in Assam who are working to establish themselves as successful entrepreneurs in the state. Be it the development of software programmes, or setting up bakery businesses during COVID-19 lockdown, the younger generation seems enthusiastic about self-employment.

To add to this, enterprises like 'Tholgiri' are encouraging the state’s youngsters towards promoting their own ethnic items.

However, these entrepreneurial endeavours are not without their own set of risks and problems. The COVID-19 pandemic hit one of Bibek’s start-ups, AOTA, which makes custom-designed T-shirts. Several of his orders were dispatched but the delivery got delayed because of the unprecedented crisis.

He says, “Students from educational institutes used to order custom made T-shirts in bulk, especially during their annual meets or college weeks. But ever since COVID-19 hit our lives, demand for this has decreased manifolds. Colleges and universities have yet not completely reopened and there are many restrictions to mass gatherings.”

Upon being asked whether he has tried to avail any entrepreneurial scheme provided by the government, Bibek says, "Yes, I applied for Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana (PMMY) but have not been able to avail, since it was stopped due to some documentation work.”

AOTA, a startup that makes custom-made T-shirts, is one of three ventures that Bibek is running simultaneously in Assam. Image courtesy: Madhusmita Bordoloi

In a bid to attract investors under the ‘Make in Assam’ programme, the BJP-led Assam government has spent a humongous amount of money on events like the ‘Advantage Assam - Global Investors’ Summit. However, as per the Department of Industrial Promotion and Internal Trade (DPIIT) report on State Business Reform Action Plan (BRAP), Assam has slipped down from 17th position in 2018 to 20th position in 2019 in terms of "ease of doing business".

This plan included 180 reform points covering 12 business regulatory areas such as access to information, single window system, labour, environment, etc.

What this suggests is that the state government needs to first try and address the regulatory hindrances and several other issues already present in the state before dreaming of big investments from foreign investors.

Speaking on the role of pressure groups in the creation of a conducive environment for entrepreneurship in Assam, Kalyan Kalita, a teacher of Economics at Brahmaputra Academy of Assam says, "There are numerous organisations in the state, each a believer of different notions. But, unfortunately, none of the organisations could set up the required work culture.”

“There have been agitations which are really very important when we look at them through economic, social and other dimensions. However, many of these organisations are hampering the goal of a self-reliant Assam by not letting successful ventures come up. To fulfil the demands of the agitations, it is essentially important for the Assamese youth to be engaged in the businessess of their state,” he adds.

The present BJP government has continuously stressed how Assam has a geo-strategic locational advantage by being in proximity to the nation’s neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal; it is, in fact, India’s expressway to ASEAN.

With moves like the ongoing establishment of the 1st Multi-Modal Logistic Park at Jogighopa and the presence of Assam Start-up Incubation Hub in Guwahati, there have been a few attempts to foster entrepreneurship in the region. But, several issues still remain unresolved at the local level.

Speaking on the ‘Make in Assam’ programme, Kalita says, “Make in Assam is not a new idea. Even when we look deeply at its terminology, it is important to understand that it says 'Make in Assam', which doesn't necessarily means 'Make for Assam'. And we have seen many times that things are produced in Assam for someone else's primary consumption. However, with growing entrepreneurial ventures by Assamese youths, the gap between Make in Assam and Make for Assam will also get reduced.”

Staying connected to the roots, many entrepreneurs in Assam have arisen out of identifying their own local needs and products. Imparting the lessons on sustainability, are Startups like ‘The Tea Leaf Theory’ — an Assam-based tea company, which manufactures 100 percent biodegradable teabags.

Teaching similar lessons on sustainability is another venture named ‘Noi Mohi’ which is re-ingraining the traditional values of Assamese culture. This Eri silk speciality brand that co-creates handloom products with rural artisans using traditional looms, dyes and other local materials, emphasizes the need for ‘slow fashion’ in today’s world. The founder of ‘Noi Mohi’, Priyanka Kaushik says that if certain places of India have been termed as ‘Fashion Capital’ and ‘Financial Capital’, we should without a doubt call Northeast India the ‘Organic Capital’ of the country.

As an entrepreneur working with women in the rural sector, Kaushik says that some of the obstacles faced by rural entrepreneurs of Assam are with regards to access to funding, fewer buyer-seller meeting platforms and lack of innovative skill development and training programmes.

She also says that first-time women entrepreneurs have rarely benefitted from schemes like MUDRA due to a lack of better facilitation and monitoring.

In another instance, Sourav Jyoti Dutta and Jodumoni Bora, two youths from Assam have set up a platform for tea lovers where people get to explore various tea flavours based on quality, availability and taste.

The start-up named ‘The Chai Community’ deals with the all-round experience of a tea lover. With a vision to bring the legacy of Assam’s tea to the forefront, they dream of their enterprise being one of the leading tea chains of the world.

Jodumoni Bora and Sourav Jyoti Dutta, founders of The Chai Community at their restaurant. Image courtesy: Madhusmita Bordoloi

Talking about the lessons imparted by COVID-19 in relation to entrepreneurship, Dutta says, “The tough times of COVID-19 has taught the youth that in order to be well established in life, we can’t always wait for someone to provide us with jobs. We have to be job creators. It gave us a challenging attitude that we have to do something on our own.”

Speaking on the challenges faced as an entrepreneur in Assam, Dutta spoke about how the state lags behind in financial literacy or guidance at the operational level.

“Probably we could have been provided with a specific course in college on entrepreneurship development, where we are taught things like audit management, how to make SOPs, inventory management, software building, etc. That way we would have been benefitted by manifolds,” he says.

As entrepreneurs who are still at their learning phase, Dutta also feels the absence of adequate legal advice in terms of their start-up. There are many problems budding entrepreneurs of the state face and resolve every day in their own innovative ways. However, for these same reasons, many youths also shy away from venturing into any kind of entrepreneurial activity.

Just the way, Assam is inundated by floods during every monsoon season, every election season people of the state are inundated by several promises by the political parties.

While, on the one hand, the BJP is promising to make the state the most entrepreneurial state of India, creating 10 lakh entrepreneurs through the Swami Vivekananda Assam Youth Employment Yojana (SVAYEM) and support two lakh youths every year for the next five years. On the other hand, Congress has announced that it will set up an Information Technology (IT) hub in the state to attract major IT/Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) players to employ local talent if voted to power.

While promises like these are many, people of the state await for the political parties to realise that promises are meant to be kept.

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