Promoting sustainable livelihoods through high-value mountain products

(A Keynote Presentation, International Mountain Day 2015 - Dhaka, Bangladesh)


Mountains cover 22 percent of the world’s land surface and are home to some 915 million people, representing 13 percent of global population. With an area coverage of four million square kilometres, the Hindu Kush Himalayan region provides home to about 200 million people. The majority of people’s livelihoods in the HKH countries revolve around agriculture, which is being increasingly affected by climate change, migration, feminisation and other factors. 

The geographical conditions of the mountain areas are diverse and harsh in terms of landscape vulnerability and terrain structure. Undulating terrain, low fertility of soils, fragmented and small landholdings, inadequate irrigational facilities, minimum scope for modernisation of agriculture result into low production and per ha yield of crops. As a result, the mountain agriculture cannot compete with the prices and volumes of lowland production. 

Attaining sustainable livelihoods in mountain regions depends on high value high quality products that offer comparative advantages. Over generations, mountain people have developed unique, resilient and sustainable production systems adapted to their local environments which favour the production of some niche and mountain-specific products and services. Globalisation offers opportunities to market high quality mountain products, such as coffee, honey, herbs, spices and handicrafts at national, regional and international levels. 

Worldwide demand for quality, high-value and traditional foods and crafts produced in mountain areas is on the rise. Because of increased connectivity and mobility, mountain regions are now better connected to national, regional, and global markets where the demand for mountain products is growing. This offers new opportunities for mountain farmers to harness the potential of mountain niche products, especially high value specialty crops, and other mountain goods and services. 

There are two key factors that lead to the growth in high-value specialty crops: (i) there is a rising demand in local/domestic market for high-value food commodities, driven by rising incomes, urbanisation, and perhaps changing preferences, and (ii) at the same time, trade liberalisation has opened export markets in other countries where high-income consumers demand fruits, vegetables, spices, dairy products, etc. that are produced in clean/natural environments. 

Promoting mountain products is this year’s theme for International Mountain Day 2015. On the occasion of International Mountain Day, this paper is prepared to highlight how mountain communities in HKH region can improve their livelihoods by offering a large variety of typical products and providing crucial goods and services to national and international markets. 

High Value Products in HKH region

Mountain areas in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region have an abundance of diverse and high-value products with comparative advantages to other markets due to the increasing demand for high-quality products, unique natural resources, and traditional know-how. Specialty crops and value-added products offer opportunities for mountain communities to earn higher prices and increase profits. Fruits, nuts, root crops, vegetables, legumes, spices, condiments, tea, coffee, cut flowers and ornamental foliage are all considered high-value specialty crops that significantly contribute to the mountain economy. In addition, mountain communities offer non-timber forest products, cold water fish, honey, livestock products, handicrafts, handmade papers, pashmina and woolen products easily distinguishable and capable of fetching a better market price.

In Gilgit-Baltistan, production of apricot, cherries, figs, plums, peaches, pine nuts, walnuts, sea buckthorn, wild thyme, black cumin, chamomile, stevia, and silajeet is contributing to the livelihoods of more than 50 percent of rural households. In Nepal, high-value products such as ginger, turmeric, timur (Nepali pepper), coffee, orthodox, tea, cardamom, honey, medicinal and aromatic plants including yarchagumba (cordyceps) also provide a livelihood base to many rural households. For example, in the coffee value chain, more than 30,000 households produced 524 tonnes of coffee in fiscal year 2013/14, of which, Nepal exported about 65 percent. Similarly, Nepal produces about 4,500 tonnes of high-quality orthodox tea annually in demand in high-value markets. Likewise, large cardamom generates substantial income to rural farmers. According to the Trade and Export Promotion Centre, Nepal exported more than 4,900 tonnes of large cardamom valued at Rs 4.27 billion in the fiscal year 2013/14. 

Bhutan’s high-value products include apple, oranges, spices, medicinal and aromatic plants, incense sticks, handwoven clothes, and dairy products. Mandarin oranges are first in export earnings in relation to other horticultural commodities, with a gross product value of over $22 million. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest, more than 25,500 metric tons of mandarin were exported to Bangladesh and nearly 9,000 tonnes to India in 2014/15. The country also exported more than 5,000 tonnes of apples worth $3.5 million to India and nearly 1,400 tonnes worth more than $900,000 to Bangladesh in 2014.

In the hill districts of Bangladesh, there are a range of products grown in ‘jhum’, the soil left after slashing and burning, which are ‘organic by default’. Weaving, bamboo crafts, and a unique style of food preparation using ingredients collected from the forest, are some of the key attraction for locational marketing.

In mountain regions of China, products such as walnut, tea and garlic not only support local food security and livelihoods of most farmers through generating high income, but also significantly contribute to the national economy.  Similarly in Afghanistan and Myanmar, fruits, nuts, handicrafts, and precious stones provide a livelihood base to mountain communities. 

In addition, tourism-related services such as skiing, climbing, cultural heritage or nature trails that allow visitors to discover unique biodiversity are also some of the offerings provided by mountains and mountain communities. If sustainably managed, tourism can provide an opportunity for development in mountain regions.

High value mountain products can be categorised into two groups: 

Crops grown only in mountain areas, such as staple food (naked barley, upland sticky rice, amaranth, fox-tail millet, finger millet), fruits (apples, pears, oranges, kiwi, strawberry), nuts (wall nuts, cashew, apricot, plums, peach, cherry and others), vegetables (asparagus, ferns, mushrooms), legumes (horse-gram, red kidney beans, black eyed beans, black gram), spices and condiments (cardamom, Sichuan pepper, garlic, ginger, onion), tea and coffee, and cut flower and ornamental foliage plants (chrysanthemum, gladiolus, anthodium, orchids, and roses). Due to specific characteristics of mountains and variation in micro-climatic conditions, though mountain areas offer great diversity of the products but there are limitations to go for a scale. On one hand, this makes it difficult to bring private sector investment to smaller pocket production, but on the other hand, due to limited supply of the products in the market place, these products are considered rare and fetch premium prices.

Crops are grown both in mountains and plains, but those grown in mountain areas have some unique attributes. There are number crops which have comparative advantages over those grown in the plains, due to seasonal differences, climatic conditions and farming practices. These crops include, but not limited to root crops (colocacia, potatoes, yam), vegetable crops (broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, radish, tomato), legumes, (beans, peas, lentils, black grams), spices and condiments (black pepper, garlic, ginger, onion, chilli), and tea and coffee. For example, in large parts of the plains in South-Asian region, potato is grown as winter crop, whereas in mountains it is grown as summer crop. Due to better resistance to diseases, mountain potatoes fetch a higher price as seed and are also considered tastier than the ones grown in plains. Similarly, cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes, broccoli and other fresh vegetables and salads are sold as ‘off-season’ products at higher price to markets in plain areas. Coffee, grown under partial shade in colder climatic region, is considered higher quality than the coffee produced in plains. As a result, rich indigenous knowledge has evolved through the application of adaptive practices to grow crops in diverse geophysical environments. Mountain farmers also offer some specialty crops, such as ‘Jhum’ products which are ‘by default organic’ and have unique taste.

Challenges to harness high-value market

Mountain people typically face many difficulties producing, marketing and selling high-quality, high-value products. Weak communication infrastructures; lack of information, training and expertise in new agricultural and other technologies; lack of registration; certification and labelling to protect products; inadequate marketing skills; lack of wider market access; high transport costs; and unfair trade all pose obstacles. Because of the terrain and micro-climatic variation, mountain farmers don’t have the scale or volume, which makes it less lucrative for private sector to bring processing and value adding facilities closer to production pockets. 

Mountain people rarely explore the market potential of high-value products. Though there is a wealth of indigenous knowledge about farming culture and uses of traditional crops, many of them such as foxtail millet, buck-wheat, horse gram, colocacia, and their health attributes are not well known to the consumers in plains. In many development endeavours in the past, the major emphasis was given either on monoculture based cash crop farming or on maize, wheat and rice cultivation with an intention to cater the staple food requirements of increasing human populations. Indigenous knowledge and the ecological importance of diverse traditional farming system have been overlooked in the past. Many of the traditional mountain crops (e.g. horse gram, sticky brown rice, perilla, buckwheat), are being driven way due to the lack of appreciation of the different values associated with these crops, which are not reflected in their respective market prices.  

Consumers don’t always distinguish mountain products (particularly those products which are also grown in plains, e.g. honey) from others when displayed in the marketplace. The cost of production of many such products are lower in plains, thus mountain farmers face increasing competition with products grown by large holders in plains due to lack of proper traceability mechanism for geographic origin. Beekeepers in the plains can get 50-60 kg/colony/year from the European honeybee; whereas beekeepers in mountain areas hardly get 10-12 kg/colony/year from the native bee. Both honeys look alike, but mountain honey has some unique ingredients that make it more hygienic and healthy. A lack of collective marketing is also a challenge. The HKH region is the largest producer of ginger in the world; China ranks as the world's largest producer followed by India and Nepal, but common standards and collective labelling are lacking. Regional efforts for making use of common facilities (e.g. internationally accredited laboratory and certification scheme) and having a collective brand are lacking in the HKH region. 

Though the potential to increase incomes and improve the livelihoods of mountain farmers exists, there are challenges to overcome. How can we transform mountain farmers’ products into high-quality and high-value ones? And how can we enable mountain people to compete in markets and fetch premium prices for their goods and services at national and international market?  

Potential to tap into a high-value market

There are number of success stories from the different pockets of mountain areas, where communities harnessed opportunities to increase income and manage their cultural and natural resources in sustainable manner (Annex 1). There are number of ways to tap into high value market, including:

Labelling and branding: Collective labelling (i.e. one region, one product, one standard) and branding are important areas for collaboration to tap into high-value markets. Many consumers seek more wholesome products which reflect their values. Customers, if they know who grow their food and how they grow it, then they are willing to pay more. For which, proper labelling and branding to assure ‘product origin’ and its ‘genuineness’ is important.  

Linking small farmers with customers is key to improving livelihoods. Consumers trust small farms more than large industrial farms to produce safe food responsibly. ‘Farmer-owned cooperatives’ and other ‘joint marketing setups’ need to be developed to get small farms connected to the customers in high-value markets. 

Value addition, particularly in agriculture, entails changing a raw agricultural product into something new through packaging, processing, cooling, drying, extracting or any other type of process that differentiates the product from the original raw commodity. Adding value to agricultural products yields higher investment returns, creates opportunities to open new markets, extends the producer’s marketing season, and establishes new recognition for farms. However, value added products are not without challenges, for example, if farmers are interested in making jam instead of selling fresh fruits, they need to obtain a license to produce and sell that product to the market, and they must carry liability insurance to cover any sort of illness or other food safety issues that may arise. 

Strengthening linkages between value chain actors, service providers and enablers is important in achieving sustainable growth. Strengthening farmers’ groups and cooperatives ensures bulk supply and improve bargaining power. Strengthening business relationships of producer groups and cooperatives moves into joint processing and marketing adding value. Encouraging producers to take up some pre-processing functions such as cleaning, sorting, grading, etc. instead of supplying unprocessed products, streamlines production. Improving access to information and services benefits all allowing groups and cooperatives to tap into high-value markets.

Promotion of landscape products: Over generations, mountain people have developed unique, resilient and sustainable production systems adapted to their local environments which favour the production of niche and mountain-specific products and services. Efforts are needed to make these products available and familiar to the mainstream market in the one hand, while on the other hand the customers are to be encouraged to visit the areas and purchase goods and services through marketing of locations and destination management of the landscape where these products come from. There are number of such products such as foxtail millet pudding, buckwheat pancake, upland sticky brown rice wrapped with banana leaves, which have unique taste not only because of the raw materials but it is also because of years of experience in trying and improving techniques of food preparation.

Aesthetic and cultural products: The existence of traditions and know-how relating to land management in mountain areas, food processing, hand-loom and wood craft is an opportunity for mountain communities to harness opportunities of homestay tourism. With  policy support and development interventions, incentives can be created for mountain communities to conserve nature, culture and traditions, and thereby marketing of locations to tourists.