India-Myanmar border, Moreh
Not all human beings are efficient in tackling disasters, calamities and pandemics that comes our way. But some people have a heart, like a drilling machine, drilling through every tough situation to penetrate and achieve their dreams and ambitions. Their stories re-enforces the saying that “when the going may be tough, the tough gets going”.
One such inspiring story is that of 22-year-old Benjamin Khongsai, a young entrepreneur from Moreh town in Manipur’s Tengnoupal District which lies along the India-Myanmar border and located about 110 kms from the state capital, Imphal.
Like many other self-made successful entrepreneurs the Covid-19 pandemic opened the doors for Benjamin as he had to take a call on what he wanted to do, especially after his studies were disrupted by prolonged lockdowns. With no other options, given that his classes were regularly disrupted, the 22-year-old decided to return home and do “something worthwhile.” At that time he was pursuing his 2nd year BA (economics) at St. Joseph’s college, Bangalore.
The decision to return to do something back at home paid off and what resulted is ‘Just MRH’ meaning ‘just Moreh,’ which is a unique start-up that brings food and cuisines from across the borders from various south east Asian countries to the borderland. “Sometime back this would have been unthinkable,” says Papau a resident of Moreh, adding “this is because Moreh is so remote although it is an important international trading post between India and Myanmar.” Another local resident, Smite who has travelled across the world thinks “it is also unlike the Poipet border between Thailand and Cambodia or the Maesot border between Thailand and Myanmar where the borders are more happening.”
Today, Just MRH which aims to bridge cultures through food serves some of the most exotic and authentic south east Asian cuisine for customers who come from various parts of the country as well as a large number of local residents of Manipur. But it wasn’t easy for this borderlander to be able to find a career of his choice in the remoteness of Moreh which has its own share of challenges especially since the closure of the international border post the Covid-19 outbreak. The fact that he was also not trained to plunge into trade and commerce, which is a popular choice for many locals living along this strategic international trading route, made it all the more difficult to make a choice. And like most young people, for Benjamin too “the frustrations from having to spend time under lockdowns at home started to grow.”
The doors opened for him with the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions in 2021 when he came across a career counsellor at Imphal. That one meeting created the zeal and ambition in him to initiate his own “start-up business.”
“I came back from Imphal and discussed my plans of establishing a start-up with my family,” Benjamin says, the brightness of his smile lighting up his face, even as he confessed at being pleasantly surprised that his idea would get the nod from his father a former army officer. Not just that, Benjamin also got an assurance from his father that the initial costs for the start-up would be borne by the family. Thus, the Just MRH gradually turned into a family business.
The idea behind Just MRH evolved with Benjamin’s desire to do something with food. But before he did that the 22-year old wanted to be sure that he had the resources to make his business venture successful and turn it into “a crowd puller.”
The resources that Benjamin had at disposal was a little money and a holiday inn, a family owned property nearby his house. Surrounded by different kinds of trees with a canopy and a pond beside, and situated just one kilometre west of the Moreh evening bazaar, adjacent to T.Yangnom village, the inn was just the “perfect location.”
Benjamin thought to himself, “in fact, these trees can normalize the scorching heat of Moreh, thus, a homestay for the family during the summer season.” Besides, “the ambience will be soothing for a person to chill out.” Recognising the fact the resources around his family property was rich, he decided to start a fine dining restaurant. The trigger for him was obviously “good and authentic cross border food,” but also the fact
that Moreh, is an international border, and “is the ultimate global ambassador.”
According to him, “such a place unites geographies, bridges cultures and taste buds from different communities.” However, he was still clueless about the job profile, the management and administration aspects of the hospitality sector. Backed by his knowledge of economics, he started doing an intensive ground research on the management of fine dining restaurants in Churachandpur town, which is situated in the southern part of Manipur. During his research, Benjamin came across “a Kuki guy working in Malaysia as a chef.” “The chef responded to my call positively, and agreed to join me in my mission to start a fine dining restaurant”, Benjamin recalled, as he exuded confidence about the decisions he took on his start-up venture.
Just MRH was launched on December 6 2021 especially at a time when the political situation in neighbouring Myanmar continues to be in turmoil and the entire world, no less the borderlanders of Moreh and other districts of Manipur were emerging from the pandemic. Those who visit Moreh frequently for work and also for shopping along the border feel that “the fine dining restaurant has been set up at an opportune time when people that reside along the borders and also elsewhere want to take a break and get some mental relaxation.”
Benjamin had a clear vision of what he intended for his newly launched gourmet enterprise. About the name of the restaurant, he believes, “Just MRH is the other best name for Just Moreh.” He is also of the opinion that, “no other place in this world can replace or replicate Moreh,” and hence, the name.
The USP of ‘Just MRH’, according to Benjamin, “is the amalgamation of creative ambience, flexible food menus, heart warming music and prompt service”. In his view, “creative ambience, is about changing the feel of the place according to themes of different seasons.” His idea of “flexible food menus,” is about changing the menu every three months and incorporating cuisines spanning across Malaysian, Thai and Chinese food items. The set-up also provides “special decorations was are made for birthday parties and any other sort of corporate parties.”
“Most of the guest’s preferred cuisine is Malaysian. The ‘lemon fish with gravy’ and ‘stir fry octopus’ is a hit with first timers,” he says, adding “the music preference defers differs from day to day. Pop, slow music, soft rocks enlightens the guests here. No doubt!” “The stewards are trained and well groomed and serve the guests with respect and dignity.”
The Just MRH is fast becoming a preferred dining spot for VVIPs, political parties, businessmen and corporate offices. Home deliveries are also available within the Moreh town.
Benjamin’s story has both a social and economic side to it which can inspire other borderlanders. The nod from his father allowing the son to follow his dream is something that is unusual, especially among the conservative tribal community in Moreh. Generally speaking in tribal societies, a start-up must entail an elderly aged man who has good connection with the local MLAs or a person belonging to a rich business
family. Benjamin’s story is welcome change which sets aside the older narrative.
In fact, the 22-year-old from Moreh town sets an example for young aspiring entrepreneurs to follow their dreams and become an able contributor to the local economy. Furthermore, with Moreh being the main connecting link for India’s Act East Policy, serving Malaysian cuisine in Moreh will accentuate or strengthen social connections between people across borders, visitors from around the globe and surely provide a lot of idea and food for thought to policy makers.
On the other hand, Moreh which is also infamously known for its informal business, low rate of employment and problems of drug abuse, would stand to gain once such ventures go viral and catches up with more people from the younger generation. Such start-ups can only but ensure employment for the educated unemployed. Besides, it will also be a paradigm shift in business or start-up plans for the skilled and educated youths.
The success of the start-up will hopefully also elevate social status of people to respectable levels in the otherwise close-knit borderland society. Benjamin has shown the way and his initiative has now made him a member of the information and publicity board, of the Innpi Chamber of Commerce, which is one of the constituent members of the Kuki society, approved by the Kuki Innpi Manipur.