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18 Dec 2020 | RMS

Bouncing back from COVID-19 by promoting green enterprise in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Anu Joshi Shrestha, Nand Kishor Agrawal & Sanjeev Bhuchar

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Developing green enterprise that can align social and economic goals with cultural and environmental ones is key to sustainability, especially in the mountains. Communities in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) face challenges old and new, like inaccessibility and climate change. Yet, the availability of, and potential for, high-value niche products, along with an improving infrastructure and greater digital connectivity, provide enterprises in this region comparative advantage. But to be sustainable, an enterprise needs protection from adverse environmental impacts, and greater resilience.

 

This imperative has become all the more urgent due to the impacts of COVID-19 in the HKH. There is now an additional need to help entrepreneurs develop strategies that enable them to manage risk. Developing “mountain-specific entrepreneurship skills for youth and women” and creating green job opportunities, both on- and off-farm, is especially important. Enabling conditions include the right policy and institutional environment in which innovations can develop. Carefully selecting mountain products and services for the promotion of green enterprise helps sustain business and reduces environmental, social, and economic risks in the long run. While it may be more expensive and time-consuming, adopting a green and resilience-focused approach is a crucially important paradigm shift. We focus here on ongoing work by ICIMOD and its partners towards developing the resilience of small enterprises in Bhutan, Myanmar, and Nepal.

Promoting green start-ups in Thimphu

The Royal Government of Bhutan has launched a flagship programme to promote green entrepreneurship. ICIMOD’s Resilient Mountain Solutions (RMS) initiative collaborates in this programme, working closely with the Department of Cottage and Small Industry (DCSI) and its start-up centre in Thimphu. This is aligned with ICIMOD’s emphasis, particularly after the pandemic hit, to support mountain entrepreneurship through innovation and start-up initiatives. The centre aims to create a sound entrepreneurship ecosystem with a focus on production, manufacturing, and IT services for green business. Bhutan’s 12th Five Year Plan (2018‒23) aims to promote 77 such enterprises; thirty have been incubated so far in the start-up centre.

The start-up centre is the first of its kind in Bhutan and could be a model for the entrepreneurship development that the government plans to promote. Rigorous criteria are applied to select only those enterprises that try to minimise environmental damage through technological innovations, using environmentally-friendly raw materials, recycle and reuse, avoiding plastic, etc.

ICIMOD and its partners have embedded resilience at every step of the process. The RMS initiative emphasises resilience in already-existing plans and supports capacity development programmes to promote sustainability and manage risk. It also builds the capacity of mentors to support entrepreneurs. This is the only way to reduce the failure rates of start-ups, and aid in greening enterprises and economic growth.

Expert agencies like Antarprerana Pvt Ltd, Nepal were brought in to develop incubation management skills for the start-up centre. In order to enhance knowledge and help build networks in the region, meetings with government officials and entrepreneurs in India and Nepal were organized. In addition, business training and other kinds of support enabled entrepreneurs to refine their ideas and promote their business in various forums and receive acceleration funds.

 

Thus far, RMS, together with DCSI, has supported 30 entrepreneurs, 16 of whom are women. Their enterprises include those dealing in agricultural products such as vegan meat, buckwheat noodles, traditional grain cookies, and other processed food, herbal tea, etc. Some enterprises specialise in non-plastic, alternative products such as recycled cloth bags, reusable cotton pads, packaging, and wooden educational toys. Other start-ups produce tourist souvenirs, using local products and raw materials. This includes traditional green pigment paintings, sculpture, crochet work, organic soaps, tea, essential oils, and chocolate.

In this manner, RMS has been helping entrepreneurs in Bhutan in withstanding and adapting even to huge shocks such as COVID-19. Most had been focusing on the tourism market, massively impacted by the pandemic. Many have now turned to the domestic market; for instance, Ms Karma Yogini has shifted from making cloth sanitary pads to masks and her business has improved. However, Sangay Wangmo, who sells sculpture and crochet work to tourists, feels uncertain about the future. She has therefore been trying to build her network and hone her skills by attending online classes. The government has also initiated the National Resilience Fund and the Economic Contingency Plan, aimed at helping different sectors, including tourism and agriculture, in this unprecedented situation so as to build the resilience of small businesses and cushion the impacts of job losses and salary cuts.

Bamboo value chains in Myanmar

A prominent example of green enterprise in Myanmar has been the creation of value-added bamboo products. This has been promoted in the hilly townships of southern Shan State. Bamboo is used to produce food, charcoal, baskets, and other products, and in construction. It has provided income for most mountain communities in Myanmar.

 

In Myanmar, ICIMOD’s Himalica and RMS initiatives, implemented by the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development, focused on enriching bamboo plantations by using pest-resistant varieties, and ensuring the marketing of hand-crafted, value-added bamboo products. Himalica research revealed that local bamboo producers would earn more if they processed the bamboo products themselves. Capacity development initiatives included enhancing people’s skills in developing bamboo product-based enterprises, while simultaneously supporting improved water management and resilient agricultural practices. Bamboo producers were encouraged to participate in trade fairs, develop commercial links with tourism industries, and sell their products through the social media. All this has improved the resilience of small and medium enterprises and helped small farmers.

Boosting female-led entrepreneurship in Kavre, Nepal

In Nepal, the focus of RMS is to promote not just green but also inclusive entrepreneurship in the agriculture sector. The emphasis is to help women develop mainstream businesses and build resilience through product diversification, capacity-building, and by increasing their sources of income generation.

 

The entry point in this process was the promotion of organic vegetables in Kavre district. ICIMOD has been working with the Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED) on the production of vegetables using climate-resilient practices. SABAH Nepal, a home-based workers’ association, encourages female-led green entrepreneurship through building capacities on the basis of their skills and traditional knowledge, product diversification through value-addition training, and making the products market-ready. Important initiatives include forming groups for the aggregation of vegetables, and ensuring quality consistency; pesticide-free vegetables, fruits, and dairy products have also been promoted.

Another important intervention that has boosted resilience has been the strengthening of the capacity of women in non-farm economic activities such as sewing, knitting recycled and reusable bags, and making masks. In addition, entrepreneurial training, visits to SABAH Nepal’s trade facilitation centre and processing plants, and the promotion of financial literacy have greatly helped the women run sustainable green enterprises. They were trained in negotiating the digital world and how to run businesses on a digital platform. These women now get orders from vendors online, and use apps to receive payments. All this has enabled them to cope with the shocks of COVID-19 more successfully.

To conclude, the ongoing resilience-building work in Bhutan, Myanmar, and Nepal by RMS reveals that context-based green enterprises and entrepreneurship have a lot of potential, and can be part of an adaptation and resilience-building strategy in the Hindu Kush Himalaya, during and beyond COVID-19.

 

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