Quality control and sustainability remains the two major concerns for one of Nepal’s top exports
The art of making paper from the fibrous inner bark of the daphne shrub, locally called lokta, dates back to the 8th century. However, by the 1950s cheap machine made papers from India had driven most local papermakers out of business and pushed this ancient tradition to near extinction until Bibendra Shrestha decided to revive it and started Nepal Kagaz Udhyog in 1969.
After the paper found its way into the international market in Europe and the US during the early 1990s, business boomed.Today rainbow hued lokta paper accessories, wallpaper, notebooks, cards, lamps, and even clothing have found homes from China to Chile. In Japan, the fibre is used in making the country’s yen bank notes.The Nepali-made paper’s huge popularity was evident when Beijing’s Grand Hyatt Hotel needed to redesign its wall panels for the 2008 Olympics, it outsourced theorder to Sherpa Everest Art Paper, a lokta factory in Bhaisipati run by Lhakpa Geljen Sherpa.
Encouraged by the surging international demand, Hari Kumar Kadel opened his own factory - SP Handmade - in Bhaktapur in 2011 after working for ten years in the industry. Business picked up within a year and Kadel is now able to export handmade paper to the UK, Sweden, and Japan and makes Rs 1.5 to 2 million a year even with a modest plant with only four workers.
Currently there are over 500 lokta producers in Nepal employing about 50,000 workers, mostly women. However, as demand rises and new firms mushroom every year, entrepreneurs are having a difficult time finding a steady supply of lokta plant .Grown at an altitude of above 3,000 metres, daphne shrubs are found in 55 districts of Nepal. Like sugarcane, the plants are harvested by cutting the stems about 30cm above ground.
“Finding raw material is a challenge,” admits Kadel who usually gets his barks from Jiri, Dhading and Sindhupalchok. To ease this problem, commercial farming of lokta has started in a few districts of eastern Nepal, but sustainability remains a challenge.
The industry has survived the test of time through its eco-friendly production, fair employment practices, and socially responsible behaviour. But as more players enter the business and as a major export market like the EU prepares to implement its ‘acid-free paper’ policy from 2014 onwards, there is a real need for a quality control mechanism that will ensure production standards are maintained across the board. Having a national monitoring body will not only help entrepreneurs who are currently forced to send their products to India for testing cut costs, but also guarantee the long-term prosperity of the ancient papermaking art.
Tsering Dolker Gurung