Bhutan’s ‘spicy’ journey to preserve the country’s taste for chilli peppers

Farmers win the battle against climate and terrain to start domestic chilli cultivation

Traditional to diets but not to farms, chillies have been a historically important import. ©Bhutan Department of Agriculture/Sangay Dorji


In 2016, when food safety issues arose and the Government of Bhutan announced a ban on the import of chilli peppers, or ‘chillies’, from the traditional suppliers, the country was left baffled. Chillies have been used extensively in the Bhutanese diet since ancient times, but thus far, the country had depended heavily on imports of the commodity. Much of the country’s farming communities were ill-prepared to grow chillies; the climate and topography posed additional challenges.

Yet, a group of farmers in Karmaling, one of the most remote Gewogs (group of villages), became some of first in the country to explore the uncharted territory, knowing that growing chillies would not just be good for their cooking traditions but would also fill a gap in the market, offering welcomed additional income.  

Karmaling, in Bhutan’s southwestern Dagana Dzongkhag (district), is connected only by farm roads that can’t be used during summer due to rain and landslides. The Gewog is located at an altitude ranging from 120 to 570 meters above sea level, a sub-tropical zone where high temperatures and relative humidity are difficult contenders for both the chilli plants and the farmers.

“We were able to achieve success only after several failed attempts, each time prompting us to modify our methods,” recollects Sangay Dorji, Senior Extension Supervisor from the Bhutanese Department of Agriculture. 

“We didn't expect chillies to grow well here because there was no history of growing chillies in our village,” reminisces Sancha Bahadur Subba, a farmer from Omchu village in Karmaling.  “Now I am very happy because we are sending surplus produce to other Dzongkhags. Indeed, we are earning good income from chilli."

Through an FAO-supported project and help from government extension agents, farmers discovered the right method to make chilli cultivation a success. ©Bhutan Department of Agriculture/Sangay Dorji

Uncharted territory

Apprehensive of the new and unpredictable situation, farmers initially did not want to risk their efforts. At first, the government extension officer was only able to persuade six farmers for the task.

Nonetheless, with chilli seeds from the FAO-supported project called the Food Security and Agriculture Productivity Project (FSAPP), these farmers set out to try.

They soon faced their first hurdle. Chillies in the nurseries started dying due to the high temperature and humidity of the area. The additional heat in the prepared greenhouses was unconducive for chilli cultivation.

To resolve the issues, the farmers adopted a different potting method. “In this new trial, we used cups with a better and well-prepared potting medium,” recounts Sangay. “Each potted cup is then planted with a single seed.” The potted seedlings were then kept in a corridor or a roofed shed to protect them from poultry or other threats. 

With this seedling preparation technology, almost all of the plants survived, and this method required less space and gave better protection than planting the seeds directly in the soil.

Encouraged by this success, the farmers started using other sustainable technologies that had been provided by the FSAPP to improve the crop yield, including drip irrigation facilities and protective coverings for the plants.

With FAO delivering technical assistance to the FSAPP project, the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program provided funding and Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forests implemented the project under the guidance of the World Bank.

The FSAPP has also funded four major irrigation channels so that villages receive enough water to grow crops. Imparting the best practices in agriculture, strengthening capacities on nutrition and linking farmers to schools or markets to sell their products, all proved extremely useful to chilli production as well.

Despite initial struggles, Bhutanese farmers learned to cultivate these important chilli crops to improve their livelihoods and reduce the country’s reliance on imports. ©Bhutan Department of Agriculture/Sangay Dorji

Innovate and improvise  

Besides practicing mulching and employing the drip irrigation systems, the Karmaling farmers also utilized another innovative technology, a set of locally-developed mulch punching machines.

The punching tool makes small holes in the soil bed that are then filled with manure. The young seedlings are able to better establish themselves once transplanted into the holes. Sangay explains, “We discovered that such a technique ensured an efficient nutrient supply and served as a water reservoir to the young seedling.”

The first commercial chilli production in Karmaling began in 2018 with net production of 14 metric tons. As the national demand for the commodity increased, the production rose steadily to 28 metric tons in 2020. By the end of 2020, the chilli cultivation from Karmaling alone sold in markets in over 6 Dzongkhags including the country’s capital, Thimphu.

“I did not have any experience with chilli cultivation. However, we are grateful for the support from the project because all my household expenses are met through the sale of chillies,” enthused Ganga Maya Mongar, one of the female chilli growers from Senchumthang village. “I earned about BTN 140 000 (USD 2 000) this year just through the sale of chillies. It is a huge income for us. I am now expanding my cultivation to 0.70 acres in the coming season."

Commercial chilli farming has ultimately improved the incomes of 70 percent of households in the Gewog. Out of the total 291 households in the Gewog, 198 of them are chilli growers. Over 22 percent of them are female. The Karmaling Gewog now proudly stands as one of the biggest suppliers of chillies in the country.

Farmers had never imagined in their initial days of struggle that the chilli production would scale up to such an extent. “It gives us great pleasure to realize our hard work has paid off and we contributed not only to improving livelihoods in our community but also to making our country a little more self-reliant,” Sangay concluded.

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