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Last updated on 30 April, 2020

Preserving Bhutan’s heritage foods: How trailblazer Kesang Choedon’s innovative food enterprise is helping the country’s organic drive

(In this series, RMS is featuring the profiles and success stories of noteworthy entrepreneurs from our Regional Member Countries. Most of the featured entrepreneurs employ an innovative mix of traditional and modern practices to enhance the resilience of their enterprise and of their business sector. We hope their stories will encourage others in the HKH region to build similarly green, resilient enterprises too.)

Kesang Choedon shares her work during the regional symposium on organic agriculture organized by ICIMOD and MoAF, Bhutan, in Paro in December 2019. Choedon’s enterprise – Chuniding Food – has been instrumental in promoting organic and indigenous foods in Bhutan, involved from the early stages of the food-production value chain – from the sourcing on up. (Photo: Choidup Zangpo)

 

Bhutan is famous for its unique culture and traditional food. With changing lifestyles, however, many Bhutanese are increasingly preferring Western culinary offerings. In the face of this culinary shift, there are still a few who believe in the importance of preserving and promoting Bhutan’s authentic local and natural food culture and heritage.

One of them, Kesang Choedon, a retired Lt. Colonel, has been working to do just that, for close to a decade now. It was Choedon’s passion for food and the desire to promote her country’s food culture that led to the birth, in 2015, of Chuniding Food, the first innovative organic and heritage food enterprise operating at a national scale in Bhutan. She also runs the popular Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant and Chuniding Resort in Thimphu. The latter institutions provide patrons an authentic Bhutanese dining experience built around locally sourced and organic food.

Chuniding Food focuses on the revival, preservation, and innovation of traditional Bhutanese food. It encourages local and organic food production practices that also create employment opportunities. It embraces all the principles the Royal Government of Bhutan has adopted (articulated in the “Flagship Programme on Organic Sector Development for Sustainable Food Security and Livelihood” of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests) towards achieving food self-sufficiency.

Before setting up Chuniding Food, Choedon, who was trained in the prestigious Indian Police Service, was one of Bhutan’s first two women police officers. She served for 23 years in the Royal Bhutan Police force, from which she retired early to fulfil her dream of working full time in the food sector. During her police service, her travels around the country provided her the opportunity to communicate with farmers and understand the value of local food and local hospitality. She keenly partook of all kinds of Bhutanese delicacies, which further inspired her to venture into the culinary profession. When she was growing up, food and the preparation of meals were central activities in her day-to-day life. And she has been able to build on those experiences to become a self-taught chef specializing in Bhutanese cuisine and food culture and an entrepreneur who is modernizing Bhutan’s heritage food sector.

At Chuniding Food, Choedon has not only preserved traditional food-preparation practices but also made use of technology and innovative methods for adding further value to the sourced produce. Since the establishment of her enterprise, she has been experimenting with various ways of preserving traditional foods and creating a diverse range of healthful products.

Her enterprise intervenes right from the early stages of the food-production value chain – from the sourcing on up. Choedon collaborates with Bhutanese farmers all over the country, encouraging them to grow natural and organic foods. She also partners with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests to encourage farmers to grow indigenous crops they had stopped cultivating but which still have market demand (such as buckwheat) and newer crops like quinoa. For farmers, selling their produce directly to Chuniding Food provides several benefits: they get a better price for their produce than middlemen offer; they can rest assured that Chuniding will buy their produce; and with Chuniding Food handling the marketing and demand-side aspects, the farmers can look forward to promising market demand for their produce.

Bitter buckwheat flour at Chuniding Food’s outlet in Thimphu, Bhutan. Kesang Choedon sees market demand for indigenous crops such as buckwheat, even though their local production has ceased. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)

 

Owing to such practices, informed by Chuniding Food’s founding principles, and fuelled by Choedon’s immense passion for food and for protecting the natural environment, Chuniding Food is today regarded as a social enterprise driving change in the Bhutanese food sector. Over the years, the enterprise has significantly contributed to reviving the cultivation of buckwheat, millets, and other marketable produce. It has also successfully implemented schemes such as the sustainable harvesting of wild honey from central Bhutan’s forests. Further, the enterprise is working to perfect the craft of dehydrating and air-drying produce as a means to improving food availability during winter.

Choedon is a strong proponent of women empowerment and gender equality. To lessen the hardships faced by unemployed women and unemployed mothers, Chuniding Food employs mostly women and young mothers, providing them a conducive environment to earn a living with dignity. Choedon’s strategy also makes business sense: she believes that when it comes to food, women are more ambitious and innovative about production and marketing.

When Chuniding Food started out, it employed just seven staff members, who produced 14 products. Today, the enterprise offers a wide range of natural food products – over 150 varieties – from flours, grains, noodles, pickles, and cereals to chips, energy bars, and cold-pressed juices. Most of these products are sold through retail outlets at places like Changlam Square, Thimphu. According to Choedon, her regular customers mostly comprise people suffering from diabetes, blood pressure, cancer, obesity, and celiac diseases, among others. In order to preserve the rich natural flavours and nutritional value of its products, Chuniding Food does not use artificial flavours and preservatives. Because of these stringent standards Chuniding Food products have been certified by the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Authority (BAFRA) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Choedon’s belief in the value of local organic food concurs with those of experts who believe that local crops play a vital role in ensuring food and nutritional security – due to their rich nutritional and medicinal properties, their suitability to local climatic conditions, and resilience to climate shocks.

But Choedon believes her enterprise still needs to do much more. “Bhutanese foods have the potential to perform well in large markets, but currently, our market is saturated with imports, and we are constrained by limited local production,” says Choedon. “We first need to educate the general public on the benefits of organic and local foods, so that they are more inclined to buy local products. We also need to improve our technology if our products are to compete with imported ones, and thus change the common perception that foreign goods are better.” She also believes that companies like hers need more support from the government, especially with procuring technology, providing technical training to employees, and teaching farmers the benefits of growing produce of a higher quality.

Choedon’s endeavours have attracted the attention of locals, tourists, and food enthusiasts and bloggers from all over the world. She has been featured by numerous media outlets and has been a speaker at various platforms, both within and outside Bhutan. In 2015, in recognition for her contributions to Bhutan’s food sector, she was recognized as the “Woman Entrepreneur of the Year”. Not surprisingly, many young entrepreneurs – including her daughter, Yeshey Choden – consider Choedon an inspiration. Yeshey Choden has been working under her mother’s guidance for the last four years and will be taking over the family business soon. “We share the same love for preserving our food heritage and improving on it,” says Choedon, the proud mother.

Yeshey Choden (right), daughter of Kesang Choedon, speaks about processed local foods in her outlet in Thimphu, Bhutan. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)

 

Despite her achievements in the organic food sector, Choedon still approaches her work with the mindset of a learner. She was a speaker at the Regional Symposium on Organic Agriculture, held in Paro, Bhutan, from 18 to 20 December 2019 jointly organized by Resilient Mountain Solution (RMS) Initiative of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest, Royal Government of Bhutan. She says that the symposium helped her gain a broader understanding of the global demand and market for organic foods as well as the various challenges that enterprises and farmers are facing globally to strengthen the organic movement.

Choeden is happy that her overall vision aligns perfectly with that of the Royal Government of Bhutan, which is encouraging the commercialization of local and organic food production. The National Organic Flagship Programme will implement critical interventions to enhance organic production, provide certification, and accelerate market development. “The government has a great plan, and I am looking forward to what that will help achieve,” says Choedon. “It also gives me immense hope and confidence in the work I am doing right now.”

(ICIMOD’s RMS Initiative works with Bhutan’s Department of Cottage and Small Industries to support its Startup Center and entrepreneurs with ideation, incubation, and acceleration, through provision of mentorship, and cross-learning, networking, and exposure opportunities. Choedon is always available to support the initiative, and her success is an inspiration to the young entrepreneurs at the Startup Center).

Contributing authors:    Kamal Aryal, ICIMOD and  Tshering Doma, ICTD, MoAF, Bhutan

In the next profile in this series, we will be featuring Thinley Namgay, the founder of Druk Metho.