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RURAL WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS AS AGENTS OF CHANGE

by wowmagazine

The Moving Forum is a periodic discussion series initiated by the U.S. Embassy’s Book Bus that brings together practitioners and experts on different themes. Each series, centered on a particular theme, presents a set of three to four informative and engaged conversations targeted towards young working professionals and undergraduate students.

The second volume of The Moving Forum recognises five women leaders from different parts of Nepal. Nepali women have even come forward as leaders of manufacturing companies, a space traditionally dominated by men. They have brought with them unique ideas, solutions, and employment opportunities. In this edition of WOW, read about five women who have challenged all odds to pursue their dreams.

RANJANA ARYAL

Text By: Ajay Mishra

Thirty-eight-year-old, Ranjana Aryal has a matronly face and soft eyes. She wears a nose pin and her bindi sits low on her forehead, right between her eyes. She speaks softly and slowly, and has a charming smile. Her looks personify the Nepali grihani (homemaker) but she is anything but that. What makes Ranjana remarkable is her will to challenge society’s labels, and do the atypical.

As a young girl, growing up in Amargadhi, Dadeldhura, a remote far-western district of Nepal, Ranjana was an athlete. She was good at sports, traditionally considered a boys turf. She was also good at dance which is considered a feminine skill. Ranjana represented her district twice in the national level dance competition as well as in the regional volleyball competition, besides participating in athletics as a sprinter.

After her SLC exams, she got married and moved to her husband, Lila Dhar Aryal’s, house in Tansen, Palpa. Her husband worked as an accountant at the Palpa District Education Office at the time. Although she was young and far from home, she kept her will strong.

Not long after moving to Palpa, she began to study as a Community Medical Assistant, a three-year diploma course. She also completed her intermediate degree in education and got a teaching licence. Her husband supported her ambitions. Then, instead of pursing teaching or taking up a job, she decided to start her own business. Tourism in Palpa was growing, with both domestic and foreign tourists flocking to visit the various sites of Palpa such as Rani Mahal and Palpa Durbar. But there weren’t enough hotels in Tansen, and Ranjana immediately seized the opportunity to start Hotel Green Hill in 2008. The business took off. “So many people were visiting Palpa that at times there weren’t enough rooms for our customers,” Ranjana recalls. She says that during those years, she would stay up as late as 3am serving her customers, directing her workers, and managing the books.

As entrepreneurs do, the early boom allowed Ranjana to dream of expanding her business. In 2012-13, she decided to grow her own produce for her hotel and bought 2.5 acres of farmland near a village called Chalise about 20 minutes from Tansen. She set up a chicken farm, raised buffaloes and goats, and planted rice and vegetables. Today, almost all of her hotel’s requirements are met by the farm’s produce.

Ranjana has 11 workers under her, six who work in the hotel and a family of five who look after the farm. She has built living quarters for the latter who come from a remote Palpa village called Shilua, about three hours ride from Tansen. She has ensured that their children received an education.

When you see Ranjana at work, you immediately understand that she is not your typical boss who directs employees and pays their salaries. Instead, she likes to be hands-on working with her team. During plantation, she works on the farm, driving the tractor and ploughing her fields.

She is also actively involved in social work. She is the President of the Lions Club of Palpa, the Coordinator of the Women Entrepreneurship cell of Palpa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Vice President of the Hotel Association of Nepal in Palpa.

Tourism is one of the worst-hit sectors during the pandemic, and Ranjana’s hotel remains shut, uncertain how long it will take for tourism to recover in the district. However, Ranjana remains hopeful and ambitious, and is ready to reopen as soon as things get better.

She wants to transform her farm into a large farm-cum-resort, turning it into a modern high-end getaway with luxury rooms. She wants to add a seminar hall and swimming pool, yet provide a typical Nepali rural farm experience where visitors can taste the freshest of home-grown organic produce. Her work on this venture has already begun.

DIPIKA UPADHAYA

Text By: Text By: Ajay Mishra

“I have over 10,000 students who are working as beauticians in both Nepal and India today,” says Dipika Upadhaya, the CEO and Founder of Jinny Beauty Academy in Janakpur. 33 year old, Dipika has already spent 18 years as a beautician and trainer.

Dipika started her business when she was 15 simply because ‘she wanted to stand on her own feet’. She was born in Allahabad, India to a relatively well-off family, an Indian father and Nepali mother. She got married early in her teens but troubles plagued her marital relationship. Dipika is now separated from her husband.
As a 15-year-old, cosmetics was the only thing she knew anything about. It was inevitable that she venture into the beauty business in 2004. Her family was not happy with her decision to start a beauty parlour. Her father was a high-ranking officer in the Indian Army and thus had a reputation to uphold, a reputation he believed would be tainted by his daughter running a beauty salon. “Salons in general had a bad reputation in those days,” Dipika says. The only support, Dipika found, was from her father-in-law, who encouraged her to persevere through her ambitions and desires.

She remembers there were only three beauty parlours in all of Janakpur when she started, but there are more than 1,350 today. A lot of credit for this shift in local attitude goes to Dipika. When the struggles of her early days paid off and her business became stable in late 2000, she founded a beauty academy. She wanted to help other women stand on their feet and ‘change people’s negative attitude towards the beauty business’.

Today, Dipika owns two parlours, a boutique, and a training academy in Janakpur. In 2018, she was crowned the ‘Beauty Queen of Nepal’. She is also actively involved in several local organisations such as the Janakpur Chamber of Commerce and Industry; the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal (Janakpur branch) and the Beautician Association of Nepal. She is also an Executive Member of the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industry from Province No. 2.

Despite her success through these years, the Covid 19 pandemic hit her business hard. But with Covid restrictions being lifted, her businesses have started to recover steadily.

TARA ROKAYA

Text By: Prabina Joshi

In 1995, Tara Kumari Khatri Rokaya had just got married to the man she loved and moved to Nepalgunj. Her husband, Purna, earned Rs. 7,000 a month from his job as a government overseer, and Tara had to struggle to make ends meet. Their dire situation made her worried about their future. Determined to turn things around for the better, she decided to teach young girls under a UNESCO programme in Banke for a year. “I wanted to be capable and sustain my household on my own terms without having to depend on my husband’s salary,” she says. Tara was just 19 at the time.

Twenty six years later, Tara is no longer a teacher, but the Chairperson of Ujyalo Laliguras Garments, Nepalgunj, which makes products from Dhaka, the traditional Nepali fabric. Now 45, Tara also heads the Purnatara Foundation which provides needy and disabled children with scholarships. The UNESCO programme ended after a year, and Tara taught at a boarding school for two years. Her entrepreneurial journey began when she decided to quit teaching. She first convinced her brother-in-law, who had recently lost his job, to start a business with her. She started with a retail store and as it grew, she moved to wholesale distribution. Later, she started her own business dealing in liquor. But after eight years of ups and downs selling liquor, Tara realised that if she had worked equally hard to sell her own products, she would have retained all the profits instead of just paying the bank.

She took the tough decision of shutting down the liquor business in 2015 and began to research Nepali raw materials and products. “I wanted to make something that recognises as well as preserves Nepali heritage,” she says. In 2018, Tara got an opportunity to visit Bangkok as part of the Women Entrepreneurs Forum. While visiting a company there that made sustainable bags, she struck upon the idea of making products from the traditional Dhaka fabric. Tara returned to Nepal determined to start her own business. She spent Rs.15,000 to buy the fabric and ordered a sewing machine. She then employed a local woman who knew how to make bags from the fabric.

Her decision wasn’t supported by her husband. “He considered my business idea as a low-class profession,” she shares. Unable to decide, she spoke to a friend. When the friend heard her out, she asked Tara if she could be part of the business too. Then, four other women decided to join her business. “I had five women who wanted to invest and be part of my business on the spot and I welcomed everyone with an open heart,” she shares.

Tara and her partners collected Rs. 15,000 each. Together, they bought one new and three second-hand sewing machines, hired three more women, and thus, Ujyalo Laligurans Garments came into being. The women began to produce bags, saris, scarves and purses made from Dhaka. “The response was great,” Tara says. Seven other women then joined the company, and together they invested Rs. 65,000 each and registered Ujyalo Laliguras Garment Udhyog in 2018.

Within five months of the business being registered, Tara approached her metropolitan office with the idea to start a plastic bag free campaign. The authorities were enthusiastic and together with the GTZ, they gave her Rs. 1.5 lakhs to start production as a pilot project. Tara employed 10 more women. Her pilot project was so successful that the metropolitan office authorised her company to make clothing for newborn children out of Dhaka under the ‘Nyano Set’ campaign with a tender worth Rs. five lakhs.

Twenty-one women had already invested in her company, and business was flourishing. Until the Covid 19 pandemic hit them in 2020.

Tara’s business suffered under the pandemic, but she isn’t disheartened. Instead, her company has now begun to make masks out of Dhaka. She also established the Purnatara Foundation and distributed the masks for free to hospitals and other government organisations. Their business continues to sustain itself with her employees being regularly paid. However, the second wave of the pandemic hit their business much harder. With the entire production process and economy now under shut down, it was getting more difficult to pay her employees. Even her investors decided to pull out, with only nine women remaining as partners. They also had to let go of seven employees in the second wave. “After two years, we are still producing Dhaka products, but now we have only three employees, and our profit margins are very low due to the pandemic,” she says.
Amidst the chaos, Purna, her husband passed away. ‘When I finally had the support of my husband and things were looking good, I lost him,” she says with a heavy heart. Nonetheless, Tara is determined to bring her business back on track as things ease with the pandemic. “I want to expand and employ as many women as I can in the future. I want to give them employment and opportunities so that they don’t have to depend on anyone to sustain their households,” she says. Recollecting her own struggles at home and in society, Tara says the pandemic is just another hurdle among the many she has faced in life. “I still have big dreams and ideas, and I will strive to fulfil them,” she says.

SUKUN RASAILI BK

Text by: Barsha Baral

Sukun Rasaili BK, 48, born in Gharpajhong, Mustang, was determined to follow in her father’s footsteps. He was among the first in their community to start an apple orchard. But she didn’t know that both her gender and caste would be the bigger hurdles to cross.

Sukun was married to Shankar Lal in 1987 when she was just 14. Times were tough and money was hard to come by. In 2001, Shankar Lal had to decide whether to stay with his family or struggle in a foreign land. He chose to work as a labourer in Dubai for ten years, but the financial woes never went away. His next destination was Saudi Arabia where he worked for four more years. But the earnings remained slim.
Back home, Sukun decided she had to take matters into her own hands. From a young age, she had participated in local community programmes, trainings, workshops, and other volunteer work. Now it was time she put all of her learning into practice. She set up a simple bed-and-breakfast called Deurali Hotel in Marpha in Mustang which is famous for its apples, in 2002.

But she hadn’t taken into account the age-old caste hierarchy that put her community at the bottom of the social ladder. She faced discrimination as a Dalit business owner, and her B&B was considered ‘untouchable’ by the higher caste. “Locals were hesitant coming to my B&B and eating the food I had cooked,” she recalls. Even domestic tourists began to be lured away by high-caste locals. Despite this, Sukun struggled on. Nineteen years after its inception, her hotel continues to run.

A trans-Himalayan region, Mustang is famous for its arid yet surreal landscape, unique culture, and its apples. Despite producing apples in abundance, locals have difficulty selling their produce due to poor road connectivity. Instead of letting their produce go to waste, they have devised a way to store it for future use by drying it as syau ko sukuti, or dried apples. It was now time for Sukun to put into practice what she had learnt at a training programme many years ago. She began to make syau ko sukuti. “I began earning quite a lot by selling dried apples. The amount was much more than I was earning from the hotel. So I decided to focus on this business,” she shares. This led to the establishment of Marpha Fruits and Vegetables Processing Industries in 2013.

As Sukun’s business grew, her husband decided to return and help her expand her business. Sukun began to expand her product line and started to prodoce apple candy, maada, apricot and apple jams, potato chips, gundruk (fermented spinach), black beans dal, dried tomatoes, and dried radish. Her products began to sell in cities like Kathmandu, Pokhara, Butwal and Bhairahawa. Sukun ensured her products looked attractive, had proper labelling, and were packaged securely to make up for the additional cost to consumer for transportation.

As business expanded, so did her workforce. Since her production is seasonal, she hires workers accordingly. During the high season, which is from July to January, she employs around 10 to 15 people who are paid anywhere between Rs 50 to Rs 70 per hour. “I give equal wages to my employees regardless of their gender,” she says. Her most popular products remain dried apples and potato chips. “We were able to post significant profits in a short period after we started our business. Domestic tourists flocked to Mustang in huge numbers which meant more business,” she adds. Sukun has been invited to expos in Bhairahawa, Pokhara, Kathmandu and Kanchanpur where she advertises her products. She has also been honoured with numerous awards, including the President Medal in 2017 and as a successful female entrepreneur on the occasion of International Women’s Day in 2018.

But times aren’t always sunny. The monsoons accelerate the decomposition of natural produce and have a negative impact on their business. So Sukun has begun thinking of a solution. “We are working on constructing a cold storage with the help of grants provided by local bodies,” she says. The High Mountain Agribusiness and Livelihood Improvement Project, associated with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development and Department of Livestock Services, is a programme that is being implemented in ten high Himalaya districts such as Mustang. Sukun had applied for a grant under the project but her business proposal of Marpha Fruits and Vegetables Processing Industries was turned down. “Out of 45 business proposals from Mustang, only two were submitted by women,” she claims. To Sukun, the rejection felt like one of the biggest challenges in her entrepreneurial journey. She thought it was unfair and called the director of the HIMALI Project to share her business proposal. This time around, they accepted.

The Covid 19 pandemic has created huge hurdles for her business but Sukun is undeterred. “We are unsure about the future of our business after the pandemic. All I can say is that I will not stop what I have started,” she concludes.

SHARMILA ADHIKARI

Text by: Ajay Mishra

Sharmila Adhikari, 54, has one word of advice for other entrepreneurs: Start. “If you find the courage to begin, God will find a way to help you succeed,” she says. Sharmila’s family couldn’t understand why she wanted to start a business. Born in 1967 in Bhadrapur, Eastern Nepal, to a well-to-do family, she did not lack for anything in her childhood. Yet, she would make paper flowers and give them to nearby shops, sometimes at a price, sometimes for free. Whenever she went to a market, she would buy clothes and sell them to someone back home. She always wanted to own a business; her family, however, couldn’t comprehend her desires. For them, a ‘jaagir’ – a proper 9-to-5 job that offered a steady source of income was the only respectable profession. Most of them worked in the government sector. One of her sisters teaches in a college; the other works in a bank. Sharmila’s husband is a college professor. And so, Sharmila turned to the teaching profession and joined the Bhadrapur Government School where she taught for over 28 years.

But the entrepreneurship bug never left her. After more than two decades as a teacher, in 2011, Sharmila finally decided to quit her job and start a business. Her family dissuaded her. “It was as if an earthquake had hit them. They bombard me with thousands of questions,” she recalls with a wry smile.

There was, however, one person in the family who shared her vision and spirit; her sister-in-law, Anita Adhikari Karki, who was a homemaker. Both were alike in age and ambition. Both wanted to own a business and make something more of their lives. In 2019, the two decided to take the plunge and started Heyaan Food Industries in their hometown. The family remained sceptical. Sharmila had saved Rs. 5 lakhs, and borrowed Rs. 10 lakhs from other relatives. They decided to produce packaged popcorn under the brand name ‘Mrs. Popcorn’. Her employees initially agreed to work for a salary of just Rs. 125 per day.
In early 2020, the Covid 19 pandemic hit and the country was on the verge of a lockdown just as Heyaan Food was starting to find a foothold in the market. Sharmila had to shut down production, the worst thing that could happen to a budding business. Her family’s fears began to come true. There were debts to pay, workers to take care of, and no income.

But entrepreneurs are made of tougher resolve. Both Sharmila and Anita decided they had to find a way to make their business survive. So, instead of focusing on profits, they focused on their workers, all local women.
The duo decided to produce homemade papad, sattu, and namkeen during the pandemic. Although these products sold well, they were made manually and hence more expensive. The company bore the losses but what it earned them, Sharmila says, was a much stronger bond with their workers.

“In the three years since Heyaan was founded, not a single employee has left the company, not even when the company was in tatters,” she says, adding that she paid her employees from the salary she got from her teaching job which she has continued to retain.

Sharmila today has a second lesson for other entrepreneurs: Find a way to sustain your business even if you face a setback. If you persevere through the failures, you will eventually succeed.

Heyaan Food resumed production in late 2020, and now they offer seven flavours of popcorn. Sharmila brought in an additional cheese ball manufacturing machine to make packaged cheese balls and cheese rings. And although it has not even been a year since the factory resumed production, Sharmila’s company has begun to make steady profits. Daily sales have risen from Rs. 25,000 to Rs. 40,000. They now have a dedicated marketing team, a network of dealers and retailers, and their products can be found as far as Pokhara and Kathmandu.

More importantly, Sharmila’s family now fully supports her. She says Heyaan still has far to go. She has high dreams. ‘As high as Everest’ as she likes to say.

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