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Spice profits uplift community in Nepal

A group member beside a spice mill paid for by TeleFood (FAO/22522/G.Diana)

Women weigh and bag spices (FAO/22559/G. Diana)


The farm families of Bhaktapur district
in Nepal's Kathmandu Valley know they have something special in their traditional spice crop. Centuries ago the spices were so highly prized by Nepal's northern neighbour that the valley was known as the "Chilli Garden of Tibet". But the farmers also know that at harvest time, with 1 000 tonnes of fresh chilli, garlic, ginger and turmeric on their hands, they are only offered low prices by outside mills, which dry, grind and sell the spices -- and keep the profit.

The situation started to improve when FAO's TeleFood Fund provided US$9 500 to a Bhaktapur women's group to build a small processing plant in the heart of the spice-growing area. TeleFood raises awareness worldwide about hunger, as well as collecting donations from the public for small projects that help the poor grow or buy enough food for a healthy life.

The Creative Women's Group, composed of 52 women, proudly welcomes a visitor to the plant, located down a dirt track 15 kilometres from Kathmandu. Inside, the smell of ground spices is so pungent that the women employed to weigh and bag the spices wear gauze masks across their noses and mouths to protect their lungs from irritation. TeleFood paid for the building, dryers, mills, scales and heat sealers for packaging. The Nepalese government provided training and guidance.

"All the profit we make is used to run and expand the business," says Khettri Chettri Gauri, the group's chairperson. "We also give loans from our 15 000-rupee operating fund to members who have family emergencies. The plant creates work for some of our members as well."

Group members all live within walking distance of the plant, mostly on small farms that grow rice, wheat, maize and spices. Ten of the members have no land. The project buys spices from an additional 300 farm households.

Although the project targets district women, Mrs Gauri is quick to point out that the whole community supports it. "Both men and women are involved," she says. "My husband is an agricultural technical assistant, he gave me the idea for this. Husbands and brothers help in all ways. For example, they showed us how to do the accounts."

The women's group has a market of over 2 million people on its doorstep, and a product that is used daily in the national dish of rice and curried vegetables. Nevertheless, they find it difficult to compete with cheap, mass-produced spices, both local and imported from India.

"The women are having some trouble in selling," says Huma Kumari Bokkhim, a food technologist with the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. "They have to convince shopkeepers to stock their product and then pick up the money later. What the group must do now is develop the market for premium quality spices, which would cost slightly more, but would appeal to consumers who appreciate the superior taste of the spices from this district."

Lakshman Gautam, a senior programme officer at the FAO office in Nepal, elaborates on the marketing issue, crucial if the plant is to survive and expand to process more and more of the local farmers' harvest and start paying dividends to the women's group.

"The women are learning about business," Mr Gautam says. "They thought that the middlemen's profit should go to them. They had to learn how the system works and how they can profit from it." The government is also advising them on how to create a brand for their spices, so they will become a household name. "There are many discriminating buyers here and the supermarkets are slowly starting to stock the spices," he adds.

One change TeleFood has already brought to the area is a belief in collective action. The project has acted as a catalyst for 35 to 40 new agricultural cooperatives.

"We are the luckiest cooperative in the area, though, because we have TeleFood support," says Mrs Gauri with a smile.

14 May 2001 

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©FAO, 2001