This startup is changing the ways traditional food items are produced and sold in the market.
--BY MANISHA BALAMI
As a country with large ethnic groups, Nepal has a large variety of nutrition-rich traditional food and cuisines. However, traditional foods are only available and consumed during certain festivals. For instance, Chaku (a traditional Nepali sweet made up of concentrated sugarcane juice, jaggery, ghee and nuts), which is native to the Kathmandu valley, is mainly consumed during Maghe Sankranti. Similarly, Thekuwa, which is made up of wheat flour, melted sugar, ghee and other condiments, is basically consumed during Chatth puja.
Over the years, many ethnic food items have become commercialised due to the interaction between people of different cultures and regions leading to cultural integration. Nevertheless, the commercialisation of ethnic food items has generally occurred on a small scale and there is also a lack of modern packaging and promotion of such food.
Observing the opportunities in this largely untapped segment of the food market, some aspiring youths have taken a new approach to commercialise ethnic food items without distorting the originality by establishing Ethnik Foods.
Ethnik Foods was born after four students from the Peoples’ Dental College, Monika Kumal, Suraj Pandey, Pranab Ram Rajbhandari and Raju Raj Shakya participated and won the 2020 on-campus finale of the Hult Prize organised at the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Every year the theme of the Hult prize changes and last year’s theme was ‘food for good’. The four friends then came up with the concept of ethnic food diversity. After a brainstorming session, they came up with the name ‘Team Ethnik. Out of 40 teams that participated in the on-campus finale, Team Ethnik was named the winner; it is now preparing to participate in the regional competition of the Hultz Prize.
After winning the on-campus finale, the team was motivated to do something on their own. However, being students of medical science, they needed to know how to start a business. So, to understand the market, they researched on opportunities in the business of food production. After some study, the team started Ethnik Foods with an investment of Rs 25,000. Initially, they launched ‘Chaku’ as their first product on the day of Yomari Punnhi. Currently, they source locally produced high quality chaku in bulk and wrap the chakus in silver coloured foil in small pieces. They also do the packaging by themselves.
“Not only chaku, we are working to bring other ethnic food varieties found in Nepal. For this, we have planned to add more capital,” says Monika.
As the four are friends-turned-business partners, they understand each other well. To operate the company smoothly, they each have a separate role. Kumal is a public relations officer while Pandey looks after marketing. Similarly, Rajbhandari handles the overall operation and Shakya looks after the finance/accounts part of the company.
At present, the startup is producing packaged Chaku. A month ago, the company launched its product by organising the Ethnik Chaku Fest at Astrek Park, Thamel. Since the launch, they have been selling neatly packaged 400 grams of chaku at Rs 200 per packet.
Usually, chakus found in the market are big in size and are only widely available during the Makar Sankranti festival. But the chakus sold by Ethnik Foods are small bite sized pieces which makes consuming them easier. “Also, our products are soft, smooth and chewy and hygienic compared to other chakus found in the market,” says Pandey.
Similarly, they are now producing Khapse, a Tibetan/Sherpa biscuit that is traditionally prepared during the Loshar festival. They are planning on producing pustakari (a traditional Nepali candy) as well. In the meantime, they are preparing to launch Thekuwa in the local markets of Kathmandu.
According to them, there is a need to popularise ethnic food so as to lessen the consumption of junk food. “We aim to commercialise the local food items of Nepal to slowly replace junk food in the market,” says Kumal.
The company has been using social media for promotion and marketing purposes as well as for sales. Customers can place their orders and get the products delivered to their doorstep via the group's Facebook and Instagram pages. Recently, they've also started a dedicated website ready for online sales. In two months, the company has sold its products to around 300 customers.
Besides Kathmandu, Kumal says that they have received orders from cities such as Hetauda and Pokhara. According to her, the company is planning to tie-up with courier service providers to expand its services. “There are orders from abroad as well,” she mentions, adding, “Nepalis residing in United States, Japan and Australia have ordered or made inquiries about our products as well.”
As all team members are from a medical science background, the major challenge was that none of them had any idea of how to run a business. But they are thankful to have received support from people who they call their mentors. They also say that the continuous support from their friends have helped them to move forward.
Like many other aspiring youths in the startup scene, they also faced difficulties in managing finances at the start. They raised the funds on their own and have been managing the finances by themselves. Similarly, finding a suitable place for production and packaging was difficult at first. Moreover, they also found it difficult to manage their time between their college studies and their business.
The founders of Ethnik Foods claim that customer response has been overwhelming. As the demand for their ethnic products is growing, they see business gradually expanding. “Our main target is to bring as much as we can into the market and we are working on it,” concludes Kumal.