With over sixty stalls at a popular weekly farmers’ market in the capital doing brisk business, the signs are all there to show that the organic food industry is growing fast.
--BY BIJAY LAXMI DUWAL
The way to Le Sherpa Farmers’ Market at Lazimpat bristles with cars, SUVs and vans on a Saturday morning in late August. The sound of heavy drizzle drowns out the chatter of the crowd at the courtyard of Le Sherpa Restaurant where the weekly Farmers’ Market is held. It is difficult to identify the stalls as they are blocked by large groups of Nepalis and foreigners with hand bags and umbrellas. Amidst the crowd, a signboard for Organic World & Fair Future (OWF), a Kathmandu-based for-profit eco-social company, stands out at the front side of the market.
OWF is among the vendors selling different organic food products at the Le Sherpa Farmers’ Market. Umesh Lama, chairman and executive director of OWF is busy with his team managing the stall and selling the products displayed at his company’s booth featuring over 26 various organic food products including oil, dried foods, legumes, fruits, grains and spices, but finds the time to say, “Basically, we bring 100 to 200 kg of apples every Saturday. Today, all our apples have been sold out. We have also brought proso millet from Jumla and today we sold up to seven packets of it.”
According to Lama, OWF has joined hands with the Mountain Partnership Agency, a part of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The agency has been assisting OWF to maintain the original taste and production of mountain foods. Lama says that the agency labels the products with all necessary information including the place of origin and also the recipe to prepare cuisines from it. Recently, the agency provided an electronic device to OWF so that it can tag the products by itself.
“This labeling helps consumers to separate organic and non-organic food products and also controls duplicate items,” says Lama. Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Dhading, Chitwan, Sindhupalchwok, Sindhuli, Nuwakot, Rasuwa, Kavre, Dolakha, Ramechhap, Okhaldhunga, Solukhumbu, Rautahat, Morang, Dhankuta, Panchthar, Kaski, Palpa, Bardiya, Salyan, Surkhet, Dailekh, Jajarkot, Bajura, Jumla, Rukum, Mugu and Humla are the major source areas of organic food products in Nepal.
At the left corner of the market, a team of Athoot Organic Farmer’s Group was also busy at their stall. Pushpa Kaji Shrestha, manager of the group was dealing with customers offering them fresh green leafy vegetables, cherry tomatoes, green chilies and radish, among other items. “Our customers include the general public to high level professionals, and celebrities including the famed music director Sambhujit Banskota,” he says. In just four hours- from 8am to 12pm- his group earned a profit of Rs 1,500 from sales. “As we are the producers and sellers, the profit is all for ourselves. We sell the food items on a seasonal basis. There is a high demand of our cherry tomatoes. Many of our customers buy vegetables at once which will be sufficient for them for three days.”
According to Ramesh Shrestha, food and beverage manager at Le Sherpa, health conscious people are the main buyers of organic foods that are grown without adding chemical fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides considered harmful for human health. According to Shrestha, “This market has been providing a platform to around 65 vendors from different organisations to cater to the demand for fresh, safe and organic foods with an aim to support and promote business of local producers.”
Like Le Sherpa, R&D Innovative Solution is also playing vital role in delivering healthy, safe local food products to customers. It also hosts a Farmer’s Market at the premises of the Dining Park Restaurant located at mid-Baneshwor from 7am to 11am on Saturdays. The company is also engaged in producing several safe food products and promotes agribusiness entrepreneurship in the country by training the farmers to use non-chemical fertilisers and pesticides to increase productivity, storing products without preservatives and accessing the market in proper ways.
According to Sunita Nhemaphuki, chairman of R&D Innovative Solution, “Safe foods products are grown naturally without using any pesticides, insecticides or chemical fertilisers. They are “superfood” products that have no negative health impacts. If we can supply safe food to consumers, the probable expenses for health treatment can be greatly reduced.” She has been running the agribusiness startup with her husband Damber Khanal who is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the company.
The food products produced by her company are ‘safe food’. “We don’t call safe food as organic at all because organic foods are naturally grown in a buffer zone which is not available in Nepal. There are many crop growing criteria for the food to be called as organic,” she mentioned.
According to Lama of OWF, organic food items cost 10 to 20 perce nt more than farm products being sold in the general market. Nevertheless, his company has been receiving regular orders from health conscious costumers because of the quality, taste and benefits of the products.
“Safe farm products are cheaper than imported food items. For instance the general price of a half kg bottle of Horlicks costs between Rs 500 to Rs 600 in the local market, whereas the readymade 1kg pack of millet flour from which Horlicks is made, costs only Rs 250. The ready-to-eat millet is available in the market which can be consumed by directly mixing it with water,” according to R&D Innovative Solution COO Khanal. “For farmers, the cost of production will be reduced as they do not have to buy pricey imported pesticides, insecticides and chemical fertilsers.”
According to Nhemaphuki, consumers are able to identify the original taste in safe foods. “Customers start loving their taste from their first consumption. They cooked faster than other foods. Once the customers know the taste, they purchase the products on a regular basis. We mostly supply superfood items like millet, buckwheat, barely and apple.”
Changing Perception of Consumers
According to Khanal, though many customers don’t care much about the packaging and labeling of the products, they are health conscious as customers today have become more aware about the use of pesticides, fertilizers and insecticides that are used while cultivating the crops.
On the other hand, consumer behaviour has shifted towards buying branded products. Things have also become clearer for consumers in terms of purchasing food products with good packaging and labeling displaying all the necessary information. According to Khanal, “Earlier, consumption of branded food products used to be considered a matter of luxury. Now people are realizing that the locally produced safe foods are beneficial to health.
Addressing these changing perceptions for safe foods, we are developing a cluster of producers who don’t use pesticides. We are producing technicians who have all technical know-how about preparing organic fertilizers and pesticides.”
The tech-savvy customers of today are not limited to shopping at local groceries or even marts. They keep themselves up-to-date about the products through the internet. R & D Innovative Solution is providing an online market service for safe food through its e-commerce portal www.agrinepal.com. Currently, the online service is available only inside the Kathmandu valley. “We are getting orders from at least one customer through our portal. We are offering free home delivery services to online customers buying food products up to Rs 1, 000,” says Khanal.
R&D Agricenters Delivering Safe Foods
R&D Innovation Solution has opened its production unit – agricenter- at various places in the country to distribute agro products to local customers. For instance, its agricenter at Bhaktapur supplies rice and season vegetables. Likewise, agricenter at Jhapa provides off-seasonal vegetables during the winter season. Meanwhile, the agricenters at Jumla, Ramechhap and Okhaldhunga are engaged in the trading of high hill agro-products, local potatoes along with barley and pumpkin, respectively.
The lack of proper infrastructure in transportation and storage of items has been one of the major challenges for organic food and safe food producers and distributors in Nepal. The people in the business want the government to do something about this by investing more in the transport infrastructure and storage facilities. Besides, other problems exist as well. According to Shrestha of Athoot Organic Farmer’s Group, producers aren’t able to produce organic farm products systematically in Nepal, since, “there is no certification mechanism to mark our products as organic.” And, similarly, according to Nhemaphuki, there is big difficulty in terms of sourcing safe food in Nepal.