--BY MANISHA BALAMI
Any kind of crisis can be good. It wakes you up. These are the words of Ryan Reynolds, a Canadian-American actor, producer and entrepreneur. Shanti Shakya Dolma can very well draw an analogy between what Reynolds said and her life experience, as her desire to become an entrepreneur was also born out of crisis.
Shanti grew up in a strict household where her boundaries were well defined by her British Gurkha father. Like many army personnel, her father was a stern disciplinarian who dictated what his children should do. Yet one thing he was lenient about was education. “He let us study whatever we wanted to,” recalls Shanti, who was born in Myanmar and migrated with her family to the eastern Nepali city of Biratnagar at the age of 12.
This liberal attitude of her father helped her move from Biratnagar to the capital city, Kathmandu. The youngest among 10 siblings, Shanti expressed her desire to join a school in Kathmandu after she passed Grade 10 from Aadarsha Balika Secondary School in Morang. Her sisters were already living in Kathmandu at that time. So, her father did not object to her decision and let her pursue her dream. Once in Kathmandu, she enrolled in Padma Kanya Campus, the girls-only college, from where she obtained her high school degree.
Kathmandu is a lot more vibrant than Biratnagar, and migration from different parts of the country has helped this city become much more tolerant and freer. Far from home, Shanti was enjoying her freedom and independence, and making new friends as well. This was when she met and fell in love with a Shakya man. By the time she was pursing her second year of a Bachelor's degree, Shanti, who was 22, had married with the man without permission from her family.
Things quickly changed once she decided to marry soemone from another caste.
Shanti is from a Tamang family, whereas her husband hails from a Newar background. Inter-caste marriages are not as frowned upon today as in the past in Nepal, but Shanti's parents were conservative. In the eyes of Shanti's parents, her decision was an act was a gross misconduct. And they punished her by severing relations with her for five years after her marriage. "My parents accepted our marriage only after our daughter was born," says Shanti.
The decision made by Shanti's parents to cut-off ties probably would not have mattered much to the couple had her husband's family accepted the marriage. But Shanti's in-laws were conservative too. This left the two with no option but to rent a room and live on their own. Fortunately, after four months of marriage, Shanti's in-laws invited them to stay with them. But they had to move out and live on their own again after the death of Shanti's father-in-law.
That was when the two decided to move to Kakani, about 22.5 km far from Kathmandu, and start a venture of their own. In the hill station of Kakani, the couple leased six ropanis of land and started planting strawberries, as the fruits were high in demand at that time. The venture, however, failed to take off, as they "did not know much about farming". They then turned to livestock farming and started rearing goats. This venture did not succeed as well because of "their lack of knowledge on growing animals".
Two consecutive failures in business left the couple broke. Their financial condition was so bad at that time that whatever little savings they had were not even enough to cover the tuition fees of their daughter. What disturbed them the most was the school's decision to expel their daughter, as they could not pay her fees on time.
"This helplessness ignited the desire to do something in life, at least for the sake of my daughter," Shanti says reminiscing about the days of her struggle. Had she not come across this moment in life, she probably would have never become a successful entrepreneur.
"I had wanted to become a businesswoman from an early age. But if my husband's agro-business hadn’t failed I wouldn't have become an entrepreneur," Shanti, founder of Kakani Himalayan Natural Dyes, says.
Shanti made a foray into the business world by joining a cooperative run by women in Kakani. Simultaneously, she got enrolled in a skills training programme operated by Business and Professional Women Nepal, a non-governmental organisation working in areas of socio-economic empowerment of women and inclusive development. That was where she got introduced to natural dyeing.
The training programme did not only teach her about dyeing procedures but offered classes on accounting and marketing as well. In those training sessions, she also got the opportunity to listen to stories of women entrepreneurs like Laxmi Sharma and Ambica Shrestha, which motivated her to start her own business.
She still feels obliged to the NGO that provided the trainings as they were a stepping-stone to making her mark in business.
Shanti started her business in 2008 with four other women from Kakani. Each of them contributed Rs 1,000. She named the company Kakani Himalayan Natural Dyes, which began production in 2010 – two-and-a-half years after setting it up. The company was formally registered in 2011.
Shanti and her partners chose to use natural dyes to produce goods as they are environmentally friendly and are extracted from plants available in local forests or markets. Shanti's company extracts colours from wild plants and herbs such as banmara, titepati, chutro, harro, khayar, rittha (soap nut), walnut covers, and skins of pomegranate, onion and other vegetables and fruits.
"The colours extracted from these plants are not harmful for the environment and people’s health, whereas chemical dyes are like a slow poison as they are laced with harmful vapours and toxic materials, which are not only bad for our skin but for groundwater, aquatic life and the ecosystem,” Shanti says.
The downside of natural dyeing is cost. It is 50 percent more expensive than chemical dyeing, as everything has to be done manually, which is time consuming, according to Shanti.
When Kakani Himalayan Natural Dyes commenced its business, its production was limited to those of face masks, which are largely used in urban areas like Kathmandu where dust pollution is an endemic problem. The company probably would not have faced much problem in marketing its products had they been made of ordinary materials. But they were coated with natural dyes, which were not well tested in the market. It was no wonder then, that even after two years of starting production, the company's revenue flow had failed to grow, whereas its debt had surged to Rs 200,000. This caused jitters among Shanti's partners, who wanted to divert investment to a venture that gave quick returns. Ultimately Shanti and her partners decided to part ways. This left Shanti all alone. But she did not lose hope. Instead, she showed the resoluteness of an army man's daughter and decided to run the show on her own.
Her decision to stand her ground soon started paying off. Clients who bought her products started noticing that the colours were not fading even after a few washes. This was a validation that natural dyes are as good as chemical dyes. Over the time, she started using natural dyes on shawls her company produced. Again the products were well received by the market.
At that time, her company was not only using natural dyes but producing goods using natural fabric made of hemp, allo, bamboo, cotton, pashmina, cashmere and silk collected from Bajura, Lubhu, Bhaktapur and Parbat. This was an icing on the cake for consumers looking for products made of natural raw materials. In no time, demand for her company's products was growing. She responded by hiring women from Kakani and providing them training on natural dyeing and fabric production, helping generate employment opportunities and transfering skills in the hill station.
These initiatives helped her bag the Surya Nepal Asha Social Entrepreneurship Award in 2012 for promoting local products and empowering women. The award is given to Nepali social entrepreneurs who create value for ‘People, Planet and Profit'. The award not only helped her carve a niche for herself in the domestic market but gave her a purse of Rs 100,000, a sum which she badly needed at that time to expand production.
With the money Shanti bought more dyeing pots. "The colour of the dye differs according to pots," she says. "A copper pot generates a different colour, whereas an iron pot creates another colour." Since she did not have an adequate number of pots at that time, she used to borrow them from neighbours. “The colours generated from pots available with me at that time was enough to dye only 15 shawls a day,” she recalls. "The prize money helped me buy materials to expand dyeing to 40 shawls a day." Gradually, she expanded her product line to scarfs and knitwear as well.
Today, she employs 10 dyeing masters and 15 knitters, all of whom are women from Kakani. Her husband, son and daughter also support her in the business. “Since my health condition deteriorated following multiple surgeries to extract an ovarian cyst, my daughter has been overseeing the entire operation,” Shanti says.
The company that was established more than a decade ago with a capital of Rs 5,000 is now worth Rs 1.5 million. Over the years, the company has not only tapped the domestic market but sold its products in countries such as the US, Spain, Australia, Holland, Japan, Korea and France. Shanti had also opened a showroom at Babar Mahal Revisited in Kathmandu to promote sales, which she shut down two months prior to the start of the lockdown enforced to contain the spread of Covid-19. Her products are now on display at Timro Concept Store in Jhamsikhel. Today, her company also provides dyed fabric to Nepali brands such as Ekadeshma, Karuna Wears and Hemper.
"All of my products are handmade, so they are comparatively expensive than other domestic or imported goods," Shanti says. "Yet more and more Nepalis are showing an interest in my products, though there are people who are still hesitant about using Nepal-made goods."
The success achieved by Shanti in the business world has encouraged her two children to become entrepreneurs as well. "My children are planning to launch their own brand," says Shanti, adding, "Strong dedication, patience and the ability to take risks are some of the qualities an entrepreneur must have, albeit easier access to concessional loans pledged by the government for women entrepreneurs would encourage more females to become entrepreneurs."
When Shanti joined the business sector, she neither had much money nor the know-how. In those days, people used to tease her saying she would have made more money had she sold dry meat than dyed clothes, as they thought she was only wasting her time. Even her partners had abandoned her as they did not believe the business would take off.
"But I had the confidence," says Shanti, who now donates two to five percent of her income to Kakani Ganesh Lower Secondary School, a community school, to provide scholarships to needy children. "And I was patient too.Time can fix everything.”