I live five minutes away from Bhatbhateni. My favorite place to shop in the area is—no, not the supermarket, wrong guess…its Organic Garden. Set in a small Rana-style house a little away from the road, Organic Garden is a two-in-one deal: a garden restaurant with an organic store. While the restaurant serves a delicious wild boar burger, gigantic salads, and Jumla red bean soup, the store is filled with hemp seeds, stinging nettle soup, and dried frogs. Yes, that wasn’t a typo (Frenchmen, rejoice!). I wrote “frogs”—riverine amphibians dried to a slender if rather smelly tidbid and displayed proudly by the glass windows.
Samir Newa, a founder of Organic Garden, said his interest in providing people with local produce started with a simple desire. After traveling in 65 districts in Nepal and sampling their delicacies, he wanted to know: how can I get these products in Kathmandu?
He never liked Coke, and he wondered what could be a local alternative. From his own experience, he knew Nepal was a storehouse of natural riches. Rhododendron could be used to make juice. So could antioxidant-rich fruit seabuckthorn and bael.
In 2004, with a $ 50,000 seed grant from UNDP, Samir started a social marketing business to distribute organic local produce. He wanted a business, rather than an NGO, because a business shows enterpreneurs that local produce are viable and can be commercially distributed in the domestic market. If the farmers were paid well, he reasoned, the entire business would profit. He called this business Organic Garden. Today, the store features not just grain from Jumla and Mustang, unique products like silom seeds, river seaweed and the aforementioned dried frogs, but also shelves full of rhododendron and seabuckthorn juice.
Just four short years later, Samir is riding high on the organic wave: he will soon open three stores in Maharajgunj, Sanepa and Bakundol. Profit is not the main incentive. “I could be making five lakhs a month running commercial stores,” he says. His main goal is to encourage the practice of organic farming inside Nepal. “Organic products,” he says, “is going to be Nepal’s biggest business in a few years.” There is an explosion of demand for organic goods in the West, and it is only a matter of time before distributors come seeking products. But Samir says his main market is domestic, not international. Increasingly, customers who walk into his store are not just savvy expatriates but curious locals who get hooked on the fresh produce and come back for more. ““We’ll eat less, but we’ll eat produce without poison, people tell me,”” Samir says.
Ensuring organic products in Nepal is not easy. The process involves months of negotiation with local farmers. “We go to the villages, talk to the people, work with the community, and share the profits,” he says. The concept of “organic” is based on trust. The producer and buyer have to know, and trust, each other. The process of certifying in Nepal is complicated. Often the agreement to go organic may be based only on a verbal promise. Samir says the community is involved, and cross-checks the farming process. “This social collateral is more valuable than signing papers,” he says.
Organic produce has skyrocketed in America and Europe, but remains undervalued in Nepal. One factor is lack of awareness (I remember my mother telling me about the harmful effects of chemicals and pesticides in the late 70s, so perhaps its a backsliding of awareness). During a program with 32 graduate students of Environmental Science, only three people raised their hands when asked about “organic”. “Agriculture,” says Samir, “became devalued in Nepal. People saw it as an occupation only for those who couldn’t go abroad, those too stupid to do anything else. They thought it wasn’t profitable. They’d rather leave the profession than learn to put on gloves and boots to shovel manure.”
Today, about 16 organizations are registered as organic NGOs in Nepal. Forty-nine suppliers from 32 districts send produce to Organic Garden. The place has also become a networking hub of sorts: farmers wanting to learn about organic methods, government officials interested to make policy, and researchers all converge in this old house.
There’s a peak of interest amongst commercial vegetable farmers to go organic. Partly, it’s the rise in the price of chemicals. Partly, it’s farmers’ observing their soil’s deterioration. The land, Samir says, “turns to cement after a few years of using urea.” Partly, it’s the knowledge that they have become dependent on the outside world.
The need to spread the word was pressing, so the Organic Garden crew went to Palubari Community School and partnered with Hostay Haisay, a local organization. Schoolchildren were taught the philosophy of organic farming in Nepali. They returned home and discussed this with their parents in the local language, Tamang. “We saw immediate results,” says Samir. “An outsider who comes and tells people to forget years of inculcation about the benefits chemicals and pesticides is not going to get far. But if its their own children, explaining in their own language, farmers listen.” Now Samir is trying to introduce this lesson in the public school curriculum.
Farmers in Nepal intuitively know the downsides of pesticides. “A poison that kills insects will kill humans as well. Its not that hard to figure out,” Samir says. Farmers will use organic produce for their own consumption, but sell the ones with pesticides for the market. The organic commitment, says Samir, is a favor from farmers who gift their excess produce to city dwellers.
Samir doesn’t like to hear farmers being labeled “poor.” “They are cash poor, but resource rich. They live like Maharajas. They have the wealth of the forest at their disposal. Their storage is full of grain. They don’t need cars. If they need to get someplace, they can easily walk for fifteen days.” This romantic view of village life is one that not many people share, but at the core of this visionary’s statement is the ideal of self-reliance. Despite the desire for globalization, many farming communities are self-sufficient and self-reliant, and that by itself is their wealth.
“Our country was richer a hundred years ago. The English and the Indians were never able to take over Nepal is because we always had food,” he says. “We used to have dhukuti storerooms in the old days. They would be filled with grain for an entire year.” Today, refrigerators are our modern dhukuti—a rather inadequate replacement.
Challenges remain in Nepal. Knowledge about bio-fertilizers and pesticides is missing. Also, farmers don’t have the luxury of time. “I’ve had farmers tell me better to die of a slow poison in 20 years time then to die tomorrow of starvation,” Samir says. Yet for those with long-term vision, it’s clear that organic is the way to go. Not only does the land produce more, but the cost of production goes down. There is more profit in the long run. Whether Nepali farmers will find this cost-benefit analysis persuasive remains an open question; but the people who buy the food (my kitchen looks like a mini Organic Garden, minus the frogs) may have the final word.