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Tim with his guide in Nepal

The Tharu Distillation Project: Part Two (August 23-September 1, 2008)

Back to Nepal

I returned to Nepal for the second time, once again on a trip sponsored by USAID, in August of 2008. My trip was specifically sponsored by the Spice Trade Group of West Nepal, as well as Mr. Shukla, a local trader who deals in spices, essential oils and soapnuts. I had met him last year and he was eager to have me back. One of the main reasons for my visit was to continue my work with the local essential oil growers and traders.West Nepal, as I indicated in my last report, is a region of extreme poverty. Aid groups have been working with groups such as the Tharu, who are more or less at the bottom of the economic and social ladder in Nepal, to develop stills and plant some essential oil crops. The Tharu is the largest and oldest ethnic group of the Terai region. These are the same communities I met with last year, located in the southwestern portion of Nepal.

These two communities are in full swing with oil production, specifically lemongrass production. They have learned this is their best choice for growing and distilling, as well as selling. They also seem to be fairly successful with their chamomile oil. Additionally, they grow small amounts of palmarosa and citronella, and distill some of the native plants that are used mainly in SE Asia but not in North America.

During both visits, I spent the most time with the Brindaban Forest Group (BFG). They have been relatively successful with their lemongrass. They were given government forest land for growing, and built a simple but efficient still, powered by their spent lemongrass. They will produce about 400-500 kg of lemongrass this year, and probably will increase that by 20% or more next year, based on the new plantings I saw. Their harvest season starts about the first of July and ends in late November.

Notes on Progress

They have had no problems selling their lemongrass locally to traders who are then selling it elsewhere. As I was setting up the meetings with them and gathering info on their production and willingness to sell-- I must say the Aid workers had different ideas than the community. To put it simply, the BFG and the other forest oil groups are somewhat intimidated by the concept of selling to anyone outside of Nepal. They work more or less on a cash basis with their oils. They produce a little, and sell it for cash immediately. They live day-to-day. By the time I arrived, they were already selling some of their oil. I had thought from my conversations with them that they would be willing and able to sell us enough to meet our needs for a year. But when a local trader offered cash on the spot, they were eager to sell to him instead. The instant cash transactions make it hard for the community to appreciate the long term benefits of working with a company like ours. At this point, it appears that we can get the major forest producers to sell us enough oil to meet half our needs for this year. If we are going to work with them in the future, they might be easily swayed by our ‘loaning’ them some of the money up front in order to soothe some of their fears.

soapnutMr. Shukla is a supplier of soapnuts, an interesting nut that contains a large amount of saponins. In SE Asia it’s used to do laundry, clean jewelry, wash hair and generally as an overall body wash. It’s been introduced in Europe and North America mainly as a sustainable laundry ‘soap’. Known as “nature’s detergent”, the soapnuts themselves are placed directly in the laundry. There are many companies in the US selling soapnuts, and they’re showing up in co-ops and independent stores. It’s a bulk possibility.

I traveled hours from the district capitol into the foothills of West Nepal to see the soapnut growing region. It grows wild throughout the area and large groups of trees make harvesting simple. The nuts fall to the ground when ripe, then are collected and sold locally to traders, who then sell to Mr. Shukla. Processing is easy-- a simple machine separates the seed from the rest of the nut and it is this seedless ‘hull’ that is used.

As part of my visit, I conducted a class for the West Nepal Spice Traders Association. A boisterous group of 25 traders attended--almost screaming and yelling to each other while I talked, as they agreed, disagreed or were just surprised by what I had to say. We were in their crowded local office, the sporadic electricity was out, with no fan, the room was well over 100 degrees. A challenging way to do a presentation, I must say!

Most of the traders deal in spices, medicinals, and some essential oils. There is some wild harvesting going on as well as cultivation. I visited a number of turmeric and ginger growers and they were all growing on a relatively small scale. The small growers generally sell their crops to local traders who then head for the regional capitols, where most of the major traders are located.

the communityThere are 65 families in the Forest Community, and they all own the business equally. The first year’s profits helped buy goats for the 29 ‘poor’ families making less than the poverty level income of $1 per day. These goats supply food, milk, and a sellable product for them. They also laid rock on the road into their community so they could more easily go out to the main road-- about a mile down their ‘driveway’. Some of the money went into a fund to pay women to harvest some of the lemongrass; the women have a harder time finding work in the region. The coming year’s profits will go towards bringing electricity into the village, for the first time. Everyone is involved in the business, women work next to the men. The lemongrass grows in both community and individual plots, and each family has the option of raising approximately a half acre themselves.

The Future

It’s possible that a local trader could purchase the oil from these communities, and then we would buy from that trader. I think it would be much better if we could support these communities directly, and they could also get a better price. Mr. Shukla is more than willing to act as a ‘shipping agent’ in order to get the oils from Nepal to the US, as he hopes any connections he has with American companies might help his business in the long run.

I also met with a representative from a new business just beginning their growing and distilling. Their focus so far is on German chamomile-- and they’re going to try out a new variety which we hope will fit the ISO specifications, as the current variety from there does not.

My hopes are high that we can develop a long term relationship with the Brindaban Forest Group, and perhaps the other Forest Communities who are growing and distilling. I am quite confident that they fit the guidelines of being Well Earth certified. They grow their lemongrass on government forest land, which they cannot clear, till or cultivate. In their first two years of operation, they have made a significant profit, for them, and the money had gone into the projects mentioned earlier.

There are many barriers to overcome: language, communication channels, faith, confidence, export/shipping issues. But these trips have allowed me to fully understand the benefits of going directly to the supplier-- and the incredible impact even one deal can have on so many people.

elephant ride, rhinocerosI must share one ‘fun’ adventure. We set out to visit some of the growers in the outlying areas, and we had a river to cross. It was the tail end of the monsoon season-- and rain had poured down the night before, so it was no surprise to discover the river was high. Our driver “‘went for it”; consequently we became hopelessly stuck in the river. Interestingly, no other cars attempted to pass that day. We found enough local people walking across the river to help us push our vehicle through. Along the way we were greeted by a large wild crocodile, and passed a casually grazing rhinoceros.

Shortly, we encountered an even larger river, which this time even the driver decided was totally impassable. Again, we got some assistance from local folks. After this intrepid journey, a bonus elephant ride the next day was a fantastic change of pace.

Click here to download a pdf with detailed information on the International Development Enterprises efforts in Nepal.

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