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Entrepreneurship for mountain economy

Anu Joshi Shrestha

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The local government in Udayapur has recognized that organic farming addresses poverty while improving soil health and addressing environmental concerns. (Photo: Shyam Ghimire)

Mountain economy in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) suffers from skills gaps, a shrinking labour force resulting from outmigration, poor infrastructure and limited access to markets. Countries in the HKH have realized that entrepreneurship and enterprise development can be vehicles of economic development and livelihood enhancement and, as a result, improve wellbeing and end poverty in all its forms everywhere (SDG 1).

The focus on rural enterprise development has increased in the HKH region in recent years. The Government of Bhutan has launched a flagship programme on entrepreneurship, the Nepal government has acknowledged that private sector and enterprise are the backbone of its economy, Myanmar is opening up to more small- and medium-scale enterprises, and Bangladesh is trying to create an enabling environment for small and rural entrepreneurs. These are just a few examples of how rural enterprise development and entrepreneurship are gaining momentum in the region, more so than ever before.

Agricultural entrepreneurship, a case from Udayapur, Nepal

Twenty-three year old Jit Kumar Rai from Khotang district completed high school but could not pursue education further. He needed to find a job and earn a living. Having grown up in a family of farmers, he knew the work but did not see potential in subsistence agriculture. The remoteness of his village in Khotang presented market-access problems. He was looking for innovative practices and technologies that would help him enter the organic vegetable market.

Rai realized that it was important for him to have his produce stand out in a market dominated by vegetables cultivated using chemical pesticides coming in from the Terai plains and from India. Through work being done by the Support to Rural Livelihoods and Climate change Adaptation in the Himalaya (Himalica) initiative in Udayapur, he discovered that the cooler hill climate of the district allows farmers to grow vegetables that are considered “off-season” in the Terai and that these vegetables can fetch a higher price in markets.

With technical support from the project, Rai believed he could make it in the organic vegetable business. Leaving Khotang was not an easy decision for Rai to make. It was also difficult to convince his parents to let him start a business away from home. Getting a loan from the bank was “as difficult as climbing a mountain”, he recalls. He needed a partner to co-invest in the business and found someone with the same vision as his, Parshuram Dahal. With much difficulty, the two partners leased some land to start commercial farming. However, they soon realized that there was a major constraint they needed to find a way around: the availability of water.

They learned about rain water harvesting, plastic-lined ponds, waste water management, drip irrigation, and mulching to retain water and restore soil moisture through Himalica, an initiative of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) funded by the European Union. They realized that they could make use of the water resources available if they invested money in implementing these practices. They also joined a farmers’ field school run by the initiative and invested in improved technologies, buying a small tractor and other equipment, and building poly-houses and plastic-lined ponds.

A year after they started farming, Rai and Dahal were already earning USD 700 annually as gross income. Inspired by their success, close to 30 entrepreneurs have taken up vegetable farming in the district and are running viable businesses. Entrepreneurial ventures that provide technical assistance – seed banks and stores that sell agricultural supplies – have also been set up.

Udayapur Municipality has been encouraged to develop a clean market outlet for vegetable produce as well as provide additional technical assistance and seeds. The local government has recognized that organic farming addresses poverty while improving soil health and addressing environmental concerns.

Entrepreneurship in the mountains

Fostering entrepreneurship in the mountain context is a difficult task. Mountain specificities such as fragility and inaccessibility, as well as the lack of resources, limited access and unavailability of technical services present everyday challenges to entrepreneurs. In spite of these challenges, a number of young entrepreneurs such as Rai and Dahal have come up with innovative ideas and built successful enterprises by harnessing the comparative advantages of mountain goods and services.

Farmers see entrepreneurship as a means to improve farm earnings. (Photo: Shyam Ghimire)

Farmers see entrepreneurship as a means to improve farm earnings and women see it as an employment possibility within or near their homes, providing them autonomy, independence, and reducing the need for social support. For development organizations, entrepreneurship presents, among other things, potential for employment generation, especially in remote areas.

Becoming an entrepreneur is certainly not easy. One has to be committed, solution-oriented, and willing to take risks. In the mountain context, this is more difficult than in the plains where access to road and business development services is easier. Therefore, it is important to provide an enabling ecosystem for entrepreneurs to flourish.

Initiatives begun by non-governmental organizations and other institutions need to be continued by the government and policy needs to be developed to support small and rural enterprise in the mountains. If mountains matter to all of us, and if we envisage ending poverty and malnutrition in the mountains, we need to ensure that we do all that we can to support mountain entrepreneurs.

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