17-23 January 2014 #690

Who moved the chewing cheese?

Even as churpi becomes popular abroad, the domestic market is stagnating and driving away farmers and investors
Hariz Baharudin

CHEESE CHASE: A herder chases her yaks in Sankhuwasabha with Mt Makalu on the horizon.
Churpi (or durkha) is to Nepalis what chewing gum is to the outside world. These hard chewy cubes of cheese can be enjoyed for hours, while the softer ones are used in cooking as momo filling and in soups.

Made entirely by hand, farmers from regions like Taplejung, Shankuwasabha, Dolakha and Rasuwa first extract milk from chauris (female yak-cow hybrids). When the milk is boiled, it leaves a solid mass behind.  This mass is then wrapped in a cloth to soak up all the excess liquid and then hung out to dry. Finally, the churpis are placed over a fire and the smoke allows them to ferment and acquire their characteristic taste. 

Some farmers sell these churpi to tourists who pass by their villages. Those who have enough approach distributors, who package the churpi and ship them to other parts of Nepal. Most people here who buy churpi obtain it in this way.

Even as churpi becomes popular in the US, UK, Italy, and Japan as dog chew and its export value grows, the domestic market is stagnating. The industry is held back by a cycle of low demand which discourages farmers from undertaking the long and laborious manufacturing process, which in turn drives away potential investors. 

A woman purchases packets of churpi at a store in New Road.

When Nepalis eat durkha, it is only in small amounts. Even trekkers returning from the high Himalayas buy a few packs as souvenirs. As such, farmers would rather focus on products like normal cheese which bring them more profit with significantly less effort.

A kilo of these hardened cheese fetches up to $110 in the international market, which is about a hundred times more than what it retails for here. However, the trade remains an untapped source of income because there just aren’t enough farmers producing export-quality churpi at the moment.

Nima Funju Sherpa earns enough from the churpi trade to send her children to schools in Kathmandu.
For the past year, a non-profit called Institution for Suitable Actions for Prosperity (ISAP) has been studying the issues plaguing the industry and presented its findings at the ‘Potential and challenges for churpi production and export’ seminar last week . According to ISAP, the lack of basic training in animal husbandry and medical knowledge is what is holding back farmers.

On average, 25 per cent of chauris fail to produce milk due to health problems like miscarriage, unsuccessful fertilisation, and disease. When the cattle falls ill, farmers have to wait helplessly for days, sometimes even weeks before the vet can reach their remote villages.

Another big problem is the inconsistency in the size, shape, and packaging of churpis, as Ram Mani Paudyal from the Agro Enterprise Centre, the agricultural wing of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, pointed out during the meeting. Since there is no standard manufacturing process, quality can fluctuate dramatically.

Currently, the ISAP team is looking to provide basic healthcare training to farmers in the mountainous northern area of the country, so that milk production is improved as well as introducing a method of standardisation, for example by using stone casts of the same size, so that more countries become eager to import churpis. 

For the industry’s well- being in the long-run, a system to guarantee hygiene and a centralised certification process are going to be equally important. The emerging international market for churpi-based dog chews makes for very strong motivation to do so.

Gone to the dogs

The chewy, gum-like texture and the flavourful taste of the churpi make it an excellent snack for dogs. Owners approve of the digestible churpi as well, as many dog chews in the market are made of rubber and plastic, which can be dangerous if swallowed.

“They are a great treat and chew and my dog has no digestive issues,” says Laurie Leone, a customer from Florida who feeds her dogs churpi from the Seattle-based Himalayan Dog Chew, which ships its products to other states in America, Canada, and even Japan. QT Dog from Texas and Highland Dog Chew from Scotland also import the cheese from Nepal and use it to make their products.

Many dog owners appreciate the long life of these chews, as compared to the conventional ones, which justifies their slightly higher price. A small package with a single chew currently sells for $10. Since manufacturers add nutritious ingredients to the churpis, the chews help increase the strength of the dog’s teeth and protect their gums.

Read also:

Starting from the bottom, TOH EE MING

Cheesy Bites, SITA MADEMBA

The Churpi Lifecycle: An Infographic, AYESHA SHAKYA

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