5-11 September 2014 #723

Making billions from bags

Kanchan Adhikari in Pahilopost.com, 2 September

As a young boy living in Solukhumbu, Sonam Sherpa often saw his friends chase down foreigners. His friends carried their luggage up mountains, and then returned home with comfortable shoes, warm clothes and sturdy bags at the end of the trekking season. Even though Sonam wanted all the things that his friends had, he couldn’t bring himself to work as a porter.

Sonam’s father worked in construction and was away most of the time, his childhood was spent helping his mother run the house. When he was older, he began to sell apples. At 14, Sonam left Solukhumbu for Kathmandu with less than Rs 500, and only a pair of clothes, slippers and a bag. Today, at 36, Sonam is the owner of Everest Hard Wear, that manufactures trekking goods and exports to Spain, England, America, Canada, Singapore and China.

“When I first came here, I had no skill or education,” says Sonam who had initially planned to stay for only two weeks. After being charmed by the city life, Sonam began to work at an uncle’s factory. “Because I was illiterate, I did any job that was given to me,” he says. Jobs included cleaning the factory, making deliveries of goods around town.

It was during those rounds that he picked up the basics of the trade: where to sell products, what price to sell at. After five years, he left his uncle’s factory to start his own. From buying materials to delivering products, collecting payment, Sonam did everything by himself. He began by retailing his products which included clothes, gears, and bags at few stores in Thamel.

“Once people knew about my products, many shopkeepers contacted me as they wanted cheap but quality products,” says Sonam. Everest Hard Wear currently has 25 employees and produces 25 to 30 varieties of items including down jackets, down sleeping bag, gloves, shoes, suit, wind proof jackets, and trousers.

Foreign brands were expensive. One sleeping bag cost nearly Rs 60,000 and a down jacket didn’t retail for less than Rs 20,000. With such heavy price tags, these products were out of reach for most Nepalis. Sonam wanted to change this and as a result sold his products using popular international brand names such as North Face, Lowe Alpine, Marmot.

While the sales were huge, Sonam felt the need to sell his products under a Nepali name. Five years after first beginning to sell his products, Sonam registered his company Everest Hardwear in 2001. “I chose the name because it is related to our country’s identity,” he says. His friends in Namche often call him to tell that they saw foreigners wearing his brand, and that always makes the businessman happy.

What he is less happy about is the government’s apathy towards the business community. “There’s no electricity, workers lack discipline, and the environment is far from being investment friendly. It is discouraging for people like me who are trying to do stay and do something in the country,” he says.

“Even if an American company likes my product and places an order for 1.5 million t-shirts, I won’t be able to deliver,” he says. Sonam says Nepali brands are no less than foreign brands. But because of political instability, it has been hard on businesses to deliver. “I can make my brand as popular as North Face in the next five years,” he says “but that will be possible only when the political scene in Nepal improves and businesses are prioritised.”

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