SUNITA SHRESTHA : Weaving a Tapestry of Women Empowerment

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SUNITA SHRESTHA : Weaving a Tapestry of Women Empowerment

This inspirational entrepreneur persevered her way to success while helping women along the way.

--BY MANISHA BALAMI

“A person needs three names in his/her life– a name given by the priest during birth rites (nwaran), a name given by the family, and finally a name that you earn through your work,” says Sunita Shrestha, proprietor of Nephand Felt and Leather Works. Shrestha believes that in today’s world, women should not stay idle but be independent, not only for themselves but for the sake of the society and country as well.

Shrestha, who was born in Sindhupalchowk, was always interested in handicrafts. As a child, she used to paint, knit, sew and make different items such as table cloths, cushion covers and fan covers. Since there were no training institutes or trainers in her village, she, along with her friends, learned through practice.

Although Shrestha grew up in a society where girls’ education was not a priority, she never gave up going to school. With her strong desire for learning, she completed her SLC from her village. Then, she came to Kathmandu to pursue her higher education. Shrestha’s example is a beacon of hope for many other women who are born in a family that does not prioritise female education.

Along with her studies, Shrestha started earning when she was 17 years old. She had started working in a paper factory where she found many women looking for work in the factory. That was the time when she felt the desire to generate employment opportunities for such women. “Many women came to the factory looking for a job. Many of them were victims of domestic violence but I could not do anything,” she says. After doing some research she found an organisation named Eco Himal which provided knitting work to women. “I went there and spoke to the authorised person there. They were very positive about my proposal about giving employment to other women,” explains Shrestha. She shares how joyous she felt at that time as she could give work to other women.

Shrestha was married while she was doing her MA at Tri Chandra College. As she was married in a joint family, she got engaged in household work and she could not continue her studies. She says that she still regrets that she could not complete her post-graduate degree.

Since she had started working from a very young age, she could not stay idle for a long time. After three years, she started working in different organisations. Later, her elder brother who used to run a paper factory, recommended her to do felt work. Though Shrestha had no idea about felt, she did market research and learnt the essentials. She went to various places where felt was manufactured. She then decided to start her own company. Hence, in 2065 BS she started Nephand Felt and Leather Works.

It took her between Rs 500,000 to Rs 1 million to set up a factory. She now produces decoration pieces, slippers, bags, hats, wall hangings, mats and flowers from felt.

Though her family did not support her when she started her business, she says that her husband was very supportive. However, now the situation has changed and now her family too supports her. “If they hadn’t supported me, I don’t think I could have reached this level,” expresses Shrestha.

The stereotypical mindset of society towards women was a challenge in her initial days. “People used to believe that a woman should only look after the family, make good food and make the family members happy,” she states. Nevertheless, she now believes that, with time, the perspective of the society is changing.

Shrestha says that most women face a financial challenge while starting their own business. She, too, had to face that challenge but she managed the investment by herself from her own savings. Also, as the procedure to manufacture felt is done manually and machinery is not required as much, the investment was affordable to Shrestha. She thinks that as women still do not have property assigned in their name, the majority face financial problems.

Apart from this, the subsidised and collateral-free loan to women entrepreneurs is also not easy to access. She shares her recent experience where she was asked to wait for around six months when she applied for a loan. “It’s not that the policies are not implemented. The procedure of getting it is not easy. So I think it would be better if it is made hassle-free,” she said.

A board member of the Federation of Handicraft Association of Nepal (FHAN), Shrestha is also a board member of the Community Child Rescue Center (CCRC), an organisation that works on behalf of children. Shrestha believes that it is important to contribute to society.

Shrestha has been a member of the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal (WEAN) cooperative for over two decades. She shares that her products are mostly marketed as well as exported by WEAN cooperative. Lately, she has been trying to export her products abroad directly. She shares how, during the time of the 2015 earthquake, the organisation gave a huge order to her. “It was such a relief at that time. Similarly, at present also, they have given an order to us so that we can get some support,” she added.

Around six years ago, she joined the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal (FWEAN), an organisation that aims to redefine the perspective of women entrepreneurship. She says that joining the organisation has been very beneficial to her professional and personal growth. “I have been able to participate in many training sessions through FWEAN. Likewise, I have met other entrepreneurs like me and have been able to share as well as learn many things from each other’s experiences,” claims Shrestha.

The lockdown and prohibitory order imposed by the government to control the spread of coronavirus have affected her business as well. She says that orders are only at 25 percent at present. Besides, the raw material that they import from China is also stuck. Likewise, the closure of the local market has affected their sales as well.

At present, she employs 15 full-time staff and around 10 are paid on a piece-by-piece basis. “99.5 percent of the workers are women in our company. So after the lockdown, many of them have not been able to come to work and their source of income has also been hampered,” she mentions.

However, she states that to help them, she has been giving them materials to work from home. When the lockdown was eased, the work of manufacturing felt from soap water and other procedures were done in the factory. Now the final products are being made from home. Before the lockdown, Shrestha asserts that around Rs 50,000 to Rs 1.5 million sales were done monthly. Now she expresses her sadness at sales being at zero during the peak season.

However, she is trying to make the lockdown productive by making sample pieces for shops and stock.

A member of the Lions Club of Kathmandu, Shrestha is passionate about being a social worker. After expanding her business and creating employment to as many women as possible, she aims to keep working for the benefit of children and senior citizens.

Currently, the local market, as well as the international market, is completely closed. She believes that it is very important to apply the concept of ‘Be Nepali, Use Nepali’. If this concept is applied by the majority of Nepali people then it will be easier for the local entrepreneurs to survive, even in such a crisis. “Our dependency will also decrease to some extent,” she states. “So, it is very important to use local products and promote it,” Shrestha concludes.

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