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On 12 June 2017, a bus carrying a group of Bhutanese farmers from Barshong gewog—seventeen men and five women—descended to the warmer plains of Gelephu. Accompanying them was a team of officials from ICIMOD, Barshong Gewog, and livestock and agriculture extension agents. An incessant rain started pouring as the worn-out vehicle made its way downhill. The passengers scrambled to find shelter as the roof leaked and soaked all of us on the bus. The driver urged us to remain seated lest the traffic police issue a fine and muttered that the welder had not done a good enough job fixing the roof the last time the vehicle got into an accident.
At this time of the year, Gelephu is excruciatingly hot and humid, with temperatures hovering over 40 degree Celsius and coolers fanning hot air as if through an industrial blower. Each one of us looked like a water buffalo that had just emerged from a pond—drenched in sweat and discomfited by rain.
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The farmers were on a five-day exposure trip to Gelephu organized by the Support to Rural Livelihoods and Climate Change Adaptation in the Himalaya (Himalica) project. Our main priority was to visit Sherchog Women’s Group, an organization formerly known as Sherchog Women and Youth Group, now operating under the SAARC Business Association of Home Based Workers (SABAH), Bhutan. The group was founded in 2011 by a 48-year old social entrepreneur Aum Chimi Dema.
Dema is with Gelephu Municipality where she has been working as a senior administrative officer for the past 28 years. She has four children and two grandchildren. She first decided she wanted to start a social enterprise—to help her family and others like her—20 years ago. Even though both she and her husband worked, their combined monthly salaries lasted them just a few days past the end of each month. She saw that many more people around her lived in more precarious situations than hers. This realization gave her a compelling reason to starta social enterprise and help wherever possible. When we met her, Dema said, “I have been working only in Sarpang district for over a quarter of a century, and during that time I saw many young men and women struggle on a daily basis. Divorced mothers struggling as daily wage labourers in the Gelephu heat, orphaned young people without anyone to fall back on, a few fending for their disabled spouses, those ill-treated by their drunken spouses, and others who had gone undercover as prostitutes to make ends meet.”
The Sherchog Women’s Group, operating out of Dema’s rented apartment, produces various types of pickles from fruits and vegetables. They do everything under one roof—grading, peeling, washing, processing, drying, and packaging. They market or sell some 20 odd items such as bamboo shoots, fruit juice, candy, sauces, ginger powder, rice pappad, honey, and other products made from local materials through SABAH Bhutanoutlets. As the farmers from Barshong toured the factory, they saw products on display inside a glass-framed box, which also doubles as a sales counter; visited a room where finished products are stored for dispatch; and saw drying machines in one corner of a room where a group of women was chopping ginger.
Maintaining a high level of quality, hygienic standards, and food safety to ensure customer loyalty is very important to Dema. She shared with the farmers the do’s and don’ts of the food business industry, including tips on reducing waste and improving drying methods, and spoke about the importance of maintaining accounts and records, and pricing and marketing strategies. She also shared information on how and from where Sherchog Women’s Groupsourcesits raw materials. Dalle chiliesare mostly sourced from Tsirang and Wamrong in eastern Bhutan; gooseberries from Tsirang, Zhemgang, and Gelephu; and ginger (1,000-2,000 kilograms at a time) from Umling in Gelephu. An assortment of vegetables is sourced from local vendors but most come from Trongsa and Tsirang. Farmers in Barshong grow ginger, beans, cabbage, and cauliflower in substantial quantities. Even gooseberries are available aplenty in the wild. Sherchog Women’s Group could be a potential buyer for their produce.
The group next visited the National Piggery Development Center (NPiDC) and the National Research & Development Centre for Aquaculture (NR&DCA). At NR&DCA, the farmers were given an orientation on the kinds of support the aquaculture center provides. They also saw an aquarium where Mahseer fingerlings were being raised. At NPiDC, officials gave the farmers a tour of their facility. The centre supplies piglets to pig breeding centers in Lingmethang in the eastern region and Paro in the central region. The farm maintains three pure line pig breeds: the Duroc Jersey, the Large Black, and the Saddle Back.
On the last day of their visit, the farmers interacted with vegetable wholesalers and traders in Gelephu vegetable market to understand demand and supply scenarios, and the challenges and opportunities of marketing. It was an eye-opening experience for the farmers. On the way back, the farmers visited Tshering Wangdi’s farm in Patshalingtoe village in Tsirang to learn about integrated agricultural and livestock management practices associated with poultry, micro-dairy, and improved beehives.
The exposure trip opened the eyes and minds of the participating farmers to many possibilities, including the adoption of appropriate agricultural technologies and practices in their own farms. The learning here is that theoretical knowledge does not excite farmers as much as on-the-ground practical realities, demo sites, and possibilities to interact with progressive farmers, traders, wholesalers, and experts. Such an exposure trip can only strengthen their capacities and in turn help them become progressive and successful farmers and inspire others.
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