PICS: KONG YEN LIN
Nepal's Himalaya is a rich storehouse of herbs, many of them rare and with medicinal properties. The irony of it is that Nepal exports much of these herbs in raw form only to be bought back again as ready-made medicines or cosmetic products.
But lately, a herb-based industry for personal care products is slowly gaining momentum. In addition to production of herbal massage oils, perfumes and hair oils, an increasing number of small or medium-scale industries are now involved in manufacturing herbal soaps.
"The people here have an age-old knowledge of how these herbs can be used as remedies," says Carroll Dunham of Wild Earth that produces a diverse range of herbal products and services, "it is this knowledge that we tap into to create herbal solutions."
Non-herbal soaps are powder-based while herbal soaps are oil based, making them a better option for skin care. With Nepal's middle class becoming more health-conscious domestic demand is also growing.
"Our domestic customers used to be mainly foreign, but now local clients are increasing their interest as well," says Sambhu Kumar Lama of Farmhouse Herbal Industry which produces the appropriately named My Favourite Soap.
Yak Milk soap, whose key ingredient is nak milk, is one of the most popular herbal soaps. "But transporting the milk from the mountains to here safely is a difficult task," says Sanjiv Pandey of Bounty Himalaya, "the problem is not just with milk but other medicinal and aromatic plants as well."
The herbal soaps face tough competition in the market from commercial brands. "It is next to impossible to compete with them because of the high cost of our ingredients," adds Darshana Shrestha of Nature Nepal. The competition is not just from non-herbal soaps but also 'fake' herbal soaps that use low-quality materials.
Herbal companies thus opt for niche marketing, using goodwill and personal links. But the main focus is not on retail selling of the soaps but on sales by order, which mostly come from abroad.
Last year, Nepal exported an estimated $ 500,000 worth of herbal soaps to the US, Europe, Japan, Korea, India, Taiwan and elsewhere. This figure could be much higher if the government had a recognised certification system that is demanded by some importing countries.