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Umklai Integrated Cooperative Society in RiBhoi District of Meghalaya ( “Scrubbing away poverty to prosperity through Sponge Gourd (Sohprew) the Indigenous Loofah”)

Umklai village, a small quiet hamlet lying a
little off the main road from the hustle and bustle of the national highway, skirting the busy Nongpoh market is fairly nondescript, as villages go, but on the slopes surrounding the little hamlet, dangling from clumps of trees is a wonder plant-the Sohprew.

Used centuries ago, by the Khasis as a natural body scrubber, sponge gourd, or the humble Sohprew as the Khasis call it, has today metamorphosed in its modern avatar into an eco friendlyloofah, which has a huge demand Fig:Luffa both in the domestic & foreign market. As per recent reports, globally the demand for the organic loofah is 50 lakhs annually, and Meghalaya presently produces only about 1.5 lakhs which reflects the huge potential and market.

It is a niche product which has become an indispensable item of both use & luxury in various categories of spas & resorts. It is commonly sold dried unpeeled in its raw form at various markets and haats in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills.

It’s a widely known that every day a human being sheds 4% their skin cells. Which is anatural regenerative process. If however the dead skin is allowed to remain, it settles as a thick layer and becomes impervious to moisturizers. Exfoliation involves vigorous skin massage, either and with the hand, a body brush,loofah or mitt and Loofahs are highly effective instimulating blood circulation, loosening dead cells and leaving the skin, soft, supple and glowing, exfoliation also loosens the blockages that help decrease the likelihood of ingrown colour, besides improving circulate on. Loofahs also softens those areas prone to hard skins, such as heels, knees, and elbows. Overall Luffahave a highly therapeutic effect& more so, in the case of Sohprew, which is organic and natural!

The Managing Committee of the Society which comprises 7 members, under an innovative Loofah farmer Shri. Him Synkli who informed that they have been regularly participating at Trade Fairs and Exhibitions in the Region and also at the national level, where their Sohprew products are proving to be quite a hit.Sohprew making (valued added items) was started by Shri. HimroseSyngkli since 1994 with 40 nos. of Luffa which were carried to Exhibition at Goa through District Industries (DIC) in 1996. On seeing the commercial potentiality, the nos were increased to 200 by 1997-1998 which were sent to KamaykhiaMandir (Tourist destination) at Guwahati.

By the year 2000, the finished products were sent to various retail outlets in Nongpoh. Now the products can be seen in places like Guwahati, Shillong, Tourist Centers, etc. However, the actual shape of his business took a new turn when the then District Horticulture Officer,Ri-Bhoi who encouraged and help in realizing the potential of this venture by assisting in providing Water Tank, Sewing Machines for value addition and also brought new areas under cultivation of Sponge Gourd.

About 15 units were brought under area expansion in 2004-05. At present (2010) the production capacity of this Unit is 36000 nos. which were already sold. However the real prospect of this project could be realized only by bringing new areas under cultivation with latest Technical

Know-How together with improving the producing capacity of this unit by upgrading the Machineries as well as Post Production Treatments.

Besides, they have also received several inquiries from interested buyers and orders from Resorts in Assam and from within the state. A Government team visiting Israel also took bulk items to showcase the product to buyers in Israel recently. It is not surprising to learn that 2005, at North East Trade Expo organized by DONER, at PragatiMaidan, New Delhi, the “Sohprew” won the most Innovative Award.

The Umklai Area Integrated Cooperative Society whose totalmembership is about 50 members decided to boldly foray into the hitherto inchartered enterprise of massproducingSohprew – 100% natural loofah on a commercial basis along with value addition. For this innovative attempt help came in the form of the ICDP (Integrated Cooperative Development Project), financed by the NCDC, and facilitated by the Office of the Registrar of Cooperative Societies, under the Cooperation Department. An amount of Rs. 1.35 lakhs was provided under Share capital Contribution, loan component availed by the Society amounted to Rs. 1.65 lakhs, with the total cost amounting to Rs. 3.00 lakhs.

For long, the members of this society had been growing the sponge gourd in their village and in surrounding areas, thereafter processing the harvested product in its most rudimentary form &selling the same at the local market at Nongpoh , while fetching a very meager & insubstantial price which was not enough, and that too much was being spent for so little, Under
the Leadership of Bah Him Syngkli, the chairman of the Society, the Members applied for a paraphernalia in an effort to give value addition to their Sohprew. A more finished and packaged product was gradually fashioned to make  the product more designer and user friendly.
Presently ,besides, loofahs of different shapes & sizes, an impressive range of product
diversification has occurred which has dramatically transformed the product range. A plethora of items are now rolling out of this new unit which  include an eclectic array of products that range from one of a kind novelty products like sohprew  magnets, enlivened with a hint of orchids, to Sohprew decorative items in the shape of monolilths, pen stands, bathroom slip-ons, and even handbags.
            As a vibrant, successful & dynamic cooperative society besides, providing regular dividends to its immediate primary members, this activity is also creating  avenues of alternative livelihood for village residents & also  playing a significant role towards augmenting additional income of not only for Umklai village but also for the surrounding areas. Employment and jobs are being created through  teams of workers who give  the finishing  touch to the loofahs like plucking ,cutting, soaking, drying  & designing the finished products into various shapes and forms, etc. Women are generally involved in the sewing and stiching  and in the more delicate aspects which go into giving  the product a finished look. This overall, is creating a virtuous cycle, which  in turn is emboldening the society to attempt newer and more creative products& designs.
          The future prospects are bright, and emphasis has to be laid on more product diversification, distribution, generation of adequate volume to meet the demand and on better and wider marketing. Another challenge facing the society is easy availability of the raw product which at present is being grown abundantly only in and around Umklai village
          What is laudable is the humble attempt by a small & determined Cooperative society to market & produce a unique indigenous niche product the Sohprew which not only is 100% organic and natural but also therapeutic and in great demand in the present day and age where such products are widely in use in homes, spas, resorts& boutique hotels the world over in a world which is increasingly inclined towards the natural where organic is not only the flavor & fashion of the day but is here to stay as well!