\'Be Nepali, Use Nepali Paper' read signs pasted all over the recent Exhibition for Handmade Paper and its Products at the Yak and Yeti Hotel.
Ironically, while foreigners needed no reminder of the value of this durable product made from the inner bark of a Himalayan shrub known as lokta, that didn't seem to be the case with Nepalis.
Over the past few years, lokta's uses have branched out way beyond writing paper and envelopes. The group Creative Women's Craft has made clothes out of it, Kanpou-Nepal exports it to Japan, where the fibre is used in making the Japanese currency the yen, World Friendship International makes Japanese fans and exports them to Japan. There are even experiment combining lokta with cotton and silk to produce cloth. Lokta paper is prized as a generator of jobs for women, for its eco-friendly production and even has a longer shelf life than normal paper because of its insect repellent properties.
While lokta products are more in demand than the paper itself, the home market is still disappointing. Various organisations like Sana Hastakala specialise in promoting lokta products but as Shop Manager Ramila Shakya says, "The lack of tourism hasn't affected exports of lokta but the amount that we sell locally has seen a drastic decline".
Lokta paper dates back centuries. Earliest accounts from the eighth century record Nepali traders in Tibet manufacturing and selling it to Buddhist monks who used it to write their scriptures. However, when the trade with Tibet diminished, the craftsmen scattered around the country. Since then, lokta has established itself as one of Nepal's leading exports. According to German aid group GTZ, the export market of lokta paper and products is currently worth about $4 million dollars annually,
Lokta is promoted under the Handicraft Association of Nepal (HAN) and its sub-group, the Nepal Handmade Paper Association (HANDPASS). In fiscal year 2003/2004 the handmade paper sector was ranked fourth among exports of handicraft products and it's estimated that 500 Nepali organisations and firms produce lokta. Most are satisfied with the export market but are worried that Nepalis are not buying Nepali paper.
"This meet was organised not only to bring buyers and sellers together but also to promote Nepali paper in Nepal. Our exports are great but we just haven't been able to market our product within our own country," says Kiran Dongol of Lotus Paper Craft.
Raghunath Shrestha of Bhaktapur Craft Paper has a slightly different view. "We need to promote Nepali paper and its use in government offices again. I think Nepalis don't buy the paper not only because it is expensive but also because they like the smooth, slick, cheap Indian paper." Shrestha sells Rs 250,000 worth of paper a month, 80 percent of which goes to Switzerland, 15 percent to other countries and only five percent is sold in Nepal. "Even out of that five percent I think the expats in Kathmandu are the ones who buy it," says Shrestha.
The lokta industry is about more than just an export commodity. Many organisations and companies provide employment to women and local farmers as well. Dongol estimates that almost 80 percent of the people working in lokta are women. Anjana Tamrakar of Creative Womens Craft says, "I decided to open an organisation where a lot of women with skill but no income could support themselves".
The colourful displays and inventive creations showcased by the 26 organisations at the exhibhition was inspiring. Lokta is the future and it's about time Nepalis realised its potential and started buying Nepali.
Seeta Gurung of The Himalayan Cottage Industry has found a novel way to make products out of lokta- mixing them with flowers.
The petals embedded in the lokta paper are crafted into photo frames, calendars, greeting cards, notebooks and even paintings.
"When people hear flowers, they assume it's dry flowers," says Seeta, "but I use fresh flowers."
She gets her inspiration from her own backyard and started making flowery papers as a hobby. But after her creations became a hit at a recent exhibition, Seeta hasn't been able to keep up with orders.
Because she needs higher quality paper than is available in the market, Seeta goes lokta shopping herself, carefully choosing each sheet. While she has her hands full meeting local demand, Seeta wouldn't mind exporting her products.
Importers are worried about durability and Seeta says her products have withstood the test of time. "I am still experimenting with the durability but some of my paintings are three to four years old and the flowers have still retained their colours and look fresh,".