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All things cardamom

Sushmita Kunwar & Kamal Aryal

4 mins Read

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Maya Devi Gurung runs the Chandan Fibre Industry in Taplejung, which produces cardamom-fibre based products. (Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD)
Taplejung in eastern Nepal is turning into a cardamom business hotspot
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Maya Devi Gurung runs the Chandan Fibre Industry in Taplejung, which produces cardamom-fibre based products. (Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD)

In Phungling Municipality of Taplejung, Maya Devi Gurung is synonymous with cardamom fibre products. She runs the Chandan Fibre Industry, which employs 20 women and produces yoga mats, bags, rugs, and wallets, among other everyday products. What is the secret to her promising enterprise? A waste utilisation business model, and hours of hard labour and patience. Maya is very open about the unique production materials that fuel her enterprise: “People mostly look for cardamom pods, the stalks are always discarded. I realised I could make products from this waste, and it took me two or three years to learn how to make cardamom fibre-based products.” Cardamom stalks require three to four months to dry and intricate handcrafting thereafter to make quality fibre. Maya is still mastering her craft and business.

Her journey towards growing her own business, and that of many other entrepreneurs, started with Himalica (an EU-funded project coordinated by ICIMOD) and SABAH Nepal’s work on product diversification.

Maya is keen on helping others enjoy a piece of the pie and has facilitated several trainings as a resource person for cardamom fibre product development in eastern Nepal and Sikkim, India. When asked if she is worried about competition in the business, Maya is remarkably upbeat and magnanimous: “If that happens, I would be the happiest person in Taplejung. I want people to get inspired by my business.”

Cardamom and more. A perfect example of crop waste utilisation. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)

Also hailing from Phungling Municipality, Bhim Bahadur Gurung is another role model for large cardamom farmers and entrepreneurs in Taplejung. Bhim is a strong-willed entrepreneur, following in his father’s footsteps. Today, he is forging his own path in the cardamom business by exporting large cardamom pods and selling large cardamom herbal tea and spice mixes in Birtamod, Dharan, and Kathmandu. In 2019, he made a net profit of NPR 1 million after accounting for production costs of approximately NPR 200,000.

“Initially, the focus was only on large cardamom pods. When the Himalica Initiative was implemented in Taplejung, local communities learned how to develop diverse products using cardamom,” says Bhim.

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Bhim Bahadur Gurung currently employs around 25 farmers to produce cardamom in roughly five acres of land. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya, ICIMOD)

The COVID-19 pandemic has seemingly impelled people to make a conscious effort to adopt a healthy lifestyle. “The interest in consuming medicinal herbs has soared after the pandemic. People are exploring ways to strengthen their immune system. Taking this interest into account, we increased the supply of large cardamom herbal tea which contains gurjo (Tinospora cordifolia), pippali (Piper longum), and padamchal (Rheum australe),” shares Bhim. These herbs are packed with chemical properties such as alkaloids and phenolic acids and have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Challenges in unlocking growth

Despite carving their own niche in the national market, both Maya and Bhim face many challenges in sustaining their businesses. Lack of proper tools and equipment slows down production lines for Maya Gurung. She sends her products all the way to Kathmandu for the finishing. “Handicraft businesses are not prioritised enough by the local and provincial governments. I want to optimise and scale the business, but we need adequate workforce, finance, and marketing support,” says Maya.

Bhim shares a similar opinion on the marketing side. Though he has been leveraging local radio stations and the religious fairs at Pathibhara to promote his cardamom products, Gurung believes he can do much more to promote his business. He has opened an official Facebook account where he regularly promotes the benefits of large cardamom. Bhim asserts, “I know there is a demand, but we aren’t able to reach out to the wider audience due to lack of proper branding, certification, and marketing.”

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Nepal is the largest producer of large cardamom in terms of its volume in the world. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya, ICIMOD)

Looking ahead

Grown in specific climatic conditions, large cardamom remains a high-value commodity for countries like Nepal, Bhutan, and India. Entrepreneurs, community-led associations, and government and non-governmental bodies have been making efforts to profile and promote large cardamom as a niche product of the eastern Himalaya and enhance the livelihoods of farmers and entrepreneurs in the cardamom business.

With the conclusion of the Himalica Initiative in 2018, the Kangchenjunga Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KLCDI) has taken on the baton, organising various capacity-building trainings for large cardamom value addition and product diversification and pushing for the creation of a unique identity in the global spice market. However, there is still much more that could be done to support farmers and small-scale entrepreneurs like Maya and Bhim.

Farmers and small-scale entrepreneurs need cross-learning and capacity-building trainings to enhance their business skills and diversify their incomes. Farmer-entrepreneurs such as Maya and Bhim who are experts in their respective fields could become regional resource persons for trainings on value addition and product diversification. Likewise, cardamom production and processing can be improved with new and better technologies. Subsidies for the purchase of agricultural tools and equipment and training on their use could be a game changer for farmers and entrepreneurs. Farmers could also benefit from greater private sector engagement, entrepreneurship development training, and marketing support.

Cardamom-based products have the potential to transform and diversify rural livelihoods in the cardamom growing areas of Eastern Nepal. A push from the government, development agencies, and stakeholders at large could create tremendous opportunities for cardamom farmers and entrepreneurs.

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