Lockdown Economy Nepal in an Agricultural Business with Shristi Shrestha
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Sujan Lal Manandhar
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview hosted by Sujan Lal Manandhar, we meet Shristi Shrestha, the Co-Owner of Prithvi Agro, which is a pesticide-free farm in Nepal. At present they have lemons and mangoes but they are expanding to other products like moringa and flax seeds. We talked about how Prithvi Agro operated during the lockdown. Shristi is grateful that they did not have to face many problems that other organizations might have had to, since they are in agriculture. However, they could not bring their produce inside Kathmandu valley due to the travel restrictions during the time. She had to communicate with her team outside Kathmandu virtually. Their managers and farmers had to learn about the digital platform for communication. After that they were able to coordinate through video calls. Now the business is running like before. In the coming months, she intends to bring more innovative technology in the farm and restore the quality of soil that was deteriorated. She also wants to start a cooperative to empower women and benefit from agriculture.
Could you introduce us to Prithvi Agro?
Shristi: Prithvi Agro is a pesticide-free farm in Mahottari, Tarai. It is a company that has been in operation for about four years. We have around 600 trees; 300 lemons and 300 mangoes. We started with those two products and we are on the verge of expanding to moringa and flax seeds (and other kinds of fruits). We do not use any chemical fertilizers or chemical pesticides. It is as soil-friendly as it can be. We use traditional fertilizers like cow-dung and pesticides like tobacco, chilli water and water mixed with neem. They also plant pest repelling plants. It is nothing new but our farmers have been using it for the longest time. It can take more time to get the production we want but it is very effective. As the soil heals and the plants get used to the materials we use, our production can get larger. We want to combine innovative technology with traditional methods to get the results we desire.
We are a small organization. I am the Co-Owner along with my sister. My role is marketing and promotions. I also do research on how to make our process more sustainable and indigenously friendly. The main person behind this company is our father who is on the field most of the time. Then there is a family (mother, father and their three children) who works in the field. We have allocated them a portion of the land where they can grow their own vegetables and sell them to make money on top of the salary we provide them. We also have some people who come on a contract basis to clean the area, get fertilizers and work on tractors. Our major clients are the restaurants in Kathmandu.
What kind of problems did you face during the lockdown?
Shristi: Our organization is a little different from others. I know business owners who have faced a lot of adversities during the lockdown. Thankfully we work in the food sector. Hence, we did not face as many challenges as other businesses. However, we could not bring our produce to Kathmandu due to the transport restrictions. We had to sell to the local market outside Kathmandu. Our profit margin was not as high as before but we were able to sell all our stock.
Did you interact with your clients during the lockdown?
Shristi: Yes, we did. I think they were facing greater challenges than we were as restaurants were closed. We told them we were unable to bring the products to the valley but they understood the situation. There were no issues communicating with them.
What strategies did you use during the lockdown?
Shristi: Our farm is in Mahottari (in the plains of Tarai). We knew we had to sell our products soon because they are perishable. We talked to local vendors in Mahottari and sold to the market there. The hotels and restaurants were also operating on some capacity. The lockdown there was not as strict as it was in Kathmandu. Many people did not even have masks on. They would look at me strangely as if I were being posh when I had a mask on. There was a high demand for lemons because of COVID 19. People were taking Vitamin C every day by drinking lemon tea or lemonade. People would come to our farm itself to pick up the lemons. We did not have to come up with many strategies when it comes to selling our products. Regarding communication with the farmers (since Shristi was in Kathmandu itself), we used digital platforms like everybody else. The farmers and the field managers had to learn communicating through these platforms. They would send us videos and reports. We talked through video calls itself. After a few weeks, they were apt to do the work even though we were not there. It was not as easy as it would have been if we were on the field. But except a few minor leakages, everything went well. We have very honest managers there so we got through it with mutual trust. I value human connections more than business plans.
How did your competition approach the lockdown?
Shristi: I do not consider the people here who are in the same business as my competition. I think we are all collaborators. We are bringing something incredible to the people; something that does not have dangerous chemicals, pesticides or cause cancer. Our competition is the Indian export. The year before the last, around NRS 35 crores worth of lemons were imported in Nepal. I think everyone can thrive in this sector if we work with the government regarding taxation policy and supply chain for farms.
Now that the lockdown has been eased, how is your business performing?
Shristi: It is pretty good. We have already brought two batches of our produce to Kathmandu and they have been supplied to our clients. The business is up and running like before.
What is the outlook for Prithvi Agro for the next three months?
Shristi: I want to bring innovative technology to this sector. I want to know how we can produce more products using less water. For years and years, the quality of the soil has been deteriorated by big GMO lead organizations and loose policies from our government. I want to get the quality of soil back to where it was. I want to research it by talking to more scientists and innovators. Also, I want to start a women cooperative organization as soon as I can so that women in our region can gain something from this sector. I am very excited about the coming year. I know everything seems dark right now but if you have the right intentions and are on the right path, sooner or later, you will get to your destination. That is what I believe in and how I am planning to move ahead.
What are the three things in your business/industry that you need help with?
Shristi: Firstly, we need to up our game on the kind of technology we are using to produce more products. Secondly, we need an information centre that can make farmers aware of the aids provided by the government and provinces in the agricultural sector. It is a major challenge currently because farmers do not know how they can have access to financial aid. For example, there are policies whereby a woman who is involved in an agricultural business can get a loan at 0%-3% interest. Thirdly, we need some investment. You cannot make a big profit on an agricultural project unless you have a sizable investment. It is because of the huge operating costs and the dependence on the weather for the produce.
About the guest
Shristi Singh Shrestha is an animal/environment rights activist and an eco-entrepreneur with her small pesticide-free farm in Mahottari, Tarai. She also co-owns Core Fitness Studio where expertise from all sectors of art, dance and fitness collaborate. She is the Vice-President of Animal Nepal and is a firm believer that animals, environment and humans are closely connected.