The Untold Story of Tikendrajit Akoijam and YVU | Milaap

The Untold Story of Tikendrajit Akoijam and YVU

Tikendrajit Akoijam has a number of visits to conduct today. An employee of the dairy division of his company accompanies him along with a driver, who doubles as security, a security guard who doubles as a handyman and myself - a Milaap Fellow.

Along the way, soldiers stop us for a routine check because we’re in one of the most volatile areas of insurgency activity in Manipur. They ask the five of us to step outside the car as they search the interior. Tiken, seated in the passenger seat, is used to this. He calmly explains to them who he is, how we’re headed to a village and even cracks a few jokes in the meantime.

The soldier recognises the name of Tiken's company and instantly perks up. He may be from Tamil Nadu, but having lived in Manipur for army duty, he’s not only bought Youth Volunteers' Union’s (YUV) milk but heard about the good work they do all over the state.

Tiken relaxing after visiting one of the dairy farmers

Tiken founded YVU after high school in 1972. He was selected for an engineering degree by the state government but his father didn’t have enough money to send him out of state. Instead, his father wished for Tiken to get a government job. But Tiken persevered with his intention of working somewhere that would do some actual good for the Manipuri people. “I didn’t want to work for the government. My father was very angry with my decision. But when he saw YUV's work he was very happy.” Tiken’s father even gave him Rs 325, which went a long way in those days.

YVU’s story is Tiken’s story and it epitomises its founder and his intentions with the company. “When we returned back from school, neighbouring villages were underwater due to floods. I asked some of my school friends to help me and they helped.” Tiken and his friends, the self-professed Youth Volunteers Union, made arrangements for the people to stay. Every evening they gathered and with no money, started doing simple social work like cleaning the markets, adult literacy programs, dredging waste from ponds.

“Every evening 10 of us went to different villages to teach. We wanted to ensure that they could at least write their name in English and Manipuri,” said Tiken.

He started a local library in Thoubal district -  where the current head office of the company is based. The library received books from dozens of bookstores across India, ones he had previously written to. Newspapers became essential as, at the time, locals couldn’t even afford them. From there, he organised inter-village games right from a sub-divisional level to state levels games. As the work they did grew, so did the company. They organised a three-day festival every year with sports, cultural events and music programmes. After nearly 10 years of running YUV with no income or profit, Tiken finally received a grant of Rs 45,000 from the social welfare board.

Ensuring contact details are up to date while showing off recent photos on his camera to an employee

After nearly a decade of helping out the people from various locations, Tiken and his crew could finally have a piece of land that they called their own. They leased a piece of land for the next 20 years and started to provide training for rural women. They purchased materials and equipment from nearby Guwahati. The women were employed in the profession that they were trained in, but with no support past that initial grant, Tiken and his band of volunteers were finding it hard to keep YVU alive.

“I wrote about 1000 letters to different organisations. All our plans, was cut off because of the floods in 1980.” EZE (Evangelische Zentralstelle für Entwicklungshilfe), an evangelical Germany-based development association had shown an interest. But with floods, their planned visit was cancelled and all the hopes Tiken had for the future seemed to dissolve away.

He wasn’t disheartened, though and kept writing letters. Eventually, EZE responded and asked Tiken to write a proposal. “I told them that I did not know how to write a proposal. I had never written one. At the time, I couldn’t even speak fluent English. How was I to write a proposal for them?” In a serendipitous turn of events, the EZE employee who came to visit Tiken wrote the proposal for him. This allowed YVU to have its first foreign-backed project: a training centre for rural women.

The success of the initial project was so great that they stuck up a contract for 22 years, 10 years more than their normal contract with NGOs. From 1980 to 2002, YVU and EZE worked together to help the poor in Manipur in a variety of ways. They collaborated on creating the first micro-finance company in north-east India.

In 1993, EZE sent him to London for an entrepreneur training program at the management school of Oxford. He spent a few months there. Initially, he gave away grants to the local people for expanding their businesses. He gave them money with no cause for repayment. When he returned to check on them, he said “They kept the money, ate the animals and rarely expanded their businesses. Money was wasted. I was disgusted.”

Tiken speaking at YVU headquarters with his son, Biken (with the glasses), in the background

With no liability on their part, the locals found that they could take advantage of Tiken. YVU installed hand pumps for water all over Manipur, but when he returned to check on them, he noticed that most were broken; the locals had figured it was YVU’s problem, not theirs. “I had no idea what microfinance was before London. Even afterwards, it was hard to implement it in this society.”

Finally, in 1996, Tiken struck upon the idea of repayment and loan schemes. On October 2, 1996, Tiken’s friend and his wife signed on scrap pieces of paper to give the initial funding for YMF. Along with Rs 2.5 lakhs from EZE, YVU started YMF, the micro-finance division of the company. Twenty years later, YMF operates in two states with plans to expand further. They have 100% repayment rate and have helped thousands of women fruitfully expand their businesses. Their mission is simple, clear and it’s working: alleviate poverty in the impoverished.

Tiken alongside his daughter, Bikeswori, enjoying a cup of chai after his birthday celebrations

Today, 42 years after Tiken and his friends decided, on a whim, to help out neighbouring villages, YVU operates in three states in the North-East. His son is the Managing Director and his oldest daughter also works for the company with his youngest daughter set to join the staff after graduation. They’re truly a local, family-based company. Their growth and scope are nationally renowned and his name is the first to be spoken when companies think about investing in Manipur.

Tiken has received the national award, the national youth award and cash prizes for his work with YVU, but that hasn’t stopped him from still being connected to the people he started helping decades ago: on our visit to the farms, he knows each of the farmers by name and asks about their family. They sit around joking, chatting and he greets each of them like old friends, like brothers. “They are my kin. They are also Manipuri. If I can help them, why don’t I?”

The author Dhruva Balram is a Milaap Fellow based in Thoubal, Manipur working with Milaap's field partner Youth Vounteer's Union.