Local boy turned honey salesman extraordinaire
1996. That was the year Miller joined Keystone.
He still recalls the one-hour-long interview with the founders.
– I was a local boy and they wanted someone to help with information. They asked for English knowledge but I did not have any then.
But he did tell them about his civil engagement in Kotagiri and especially about one eventful night at St Mary´s church.
– There had been thieves in our church, stealing the collect money and we were a group who stayed there overnight for a week. One early morning two thieves broke in and tried to take the cash.
Miller, however, stopped the men in their pursuit and they were sent off to the police.
I told Pratim this story and he said “you are hired”, Miller says with a laugh.
Competing with Keystone
And laughter is one thing that seems to always come easy for this Kotagiri-born and raised Catholic. By colleagues, he is described as a jovial character and whenever you spot him he always has a smile to offer you along with any help or advice you might need. He joined Keystone not long after its inception and during these 20 years with the organisation he has gone from local boy to salesman extraordinaire, being the senior most member of the Last Forest Enterprise team which 2017 comprised of 32 employees.
– We are competing with Keystone now, haha.
Nurturing a baby
LFE became an institution of its own in 2010 and Miller then resigned Keystone together with 13 others and started building the marketing organisation from scratch.
– LFE was the baby and our mother was Keystone. Our starting target for the first year was 3 million in revenue, our target for 2017 is 32,5.
Honey is the top seller and remains at the heart of the business, and Miller, who as a kid used to watch his grandfather tend to the family´s beehives, has now become a seasoned honey man, knowledgeable about both bees, value addition, honey-quality as well as the ancient art of harvesting. A knowledge he adamantly conveys to buyers.
– I explain to our traders our mission, why we are working with the tribals. We are working with the fair trade principle, not only for our own local produce but also buying fair trade from other parts of the country. I explain to them the honey hunting process. That it is not only a one day job. How they collect the vine for the ladders in the forest and make the bamboo steps and the baskets with the sticks. It takes ten people a week to make one ladder. At five o´clock in the morning they set out, it is a very difficult and dangerous task, says Miller who every year gears up to follow his friends out to roam the honey-rich woods and cliffs of Nilgiris.
He describes the experience as something out of this world.
– You can see the bees flying out into the skies. This is the magic.
Speaking loveable marketing words
And it is this experience he tries to convey to buyers when approaching them with honey produce. That they are doing more than buying a product, they are supporting not merely a livelihood, but an ancient, magic tradition.
– It is our people that are doing this and I try and speak loveable words about it.
Back before Keystone started its work, the honey hunters would turn to what Miller calls “crude marketing” – selling their forest-goods for a pittance.
– We would ask them: “why are you selling this for less than it is worth?”.
With the value-addition, training and productions centres, the traditional livelihoods of the forests are now paying off and also attracting the younger generation. At the moment LFE supports 165 honey hunters, ranging in age from 17 to 60.
And Miller has been a part of it all. From those first field visits to the honey hunter villages to the successful business that is now securing a livelihood for hundreds.
– In the beginning, we would weigh the honey in bottles at the local post office, carrying down 15-kilo jugs of honey.
Today the honey is being swiftly and smoothly operated through the production centres, packaged and tested at LFE headquarters, gushing out more than 16 tonnes a year. And every week Miller loads up his jeep to go market it.
– I travel between 200 och 1000 kilometres a month.
And how much honey he eats in between?
– Only three times a month or so now. I have been eating honey for over 20 years, my tongue cannot handle it anymore, he says with a laugh.
Text: Heidi Hendersson