18-24 January 2013 #639

Spineless backbone

With small-scale production and limited access to markets, rural Nepali farmers are stuck at the bottom of the food chain
Puja Tandon
By now more than 76 per cent of Nepalis who depend on agriculture for their livelihood have gotten used to empty promises made by successive governments to ‘develop’ and ‘prioritise’ the agricultural sector. While most [farmers](http://nepalitimes.com/news.php?id=19688 ) produce barely enough to feed their families, even those looking to sell their goods are held back by the lack of road networks and difficulties reaching the market.
The tradition style of farming in Nepal, while enough to sustain a family, cannot accommodate large-scale production. Maintaining the quantity and quality every year is particularly difficult under this method. Small-scale production, inefficient methods, along with soaring transportation bills mean that production costs in Nepal are significantly higher than rest of South Asia and we cannot even think of competing with our northern and southern neighbours. To make matters worse cheaper produce from India that flood our markets erode the competitiveness and confidence of our farmers.
However, even within the country farmers have a hard time selling their goods. Since farm goods are highly perishable they have to be purchased from the site within a few weeks or cold stored. If farmers are lucky enough to live along highways or major road networks, they can at least carry their fruits and vegetables to the markets or the buyers can collect them directly from the farms. But what about the farmers who live in the remote hills and far corners of the country? They not only have to walk for days to reach the nearest market, but fearful that their produce will go bad, many are compelled to slash their prices to a bare minimum.
At the state level, the challenge is to adopt a blue ocean strategy and take on niche marketing which can be supported by our scale of production. There is no harm if our produce is costlier than those from India and elsewhere if we can package and position them as unique and distinctive.
However, this requires better research and policies regarding what and when to produce. The government will also have to come up with better agricultural aid policies to make sure that farmers aren’t being forced into methods or activities that outsiders think are ‘best’ and the money is going to those who have a good track record in business.
Farmers also need greater support in terms of soil testing facilities, storage, and knowledge about improved techniques. Providing training in business literacy through co-operatives and encouraging the bigger co-operatives to venture into processing will help. And introducing classes on agriculture and entrepreneurship in schools in rural Nepal will go a long way in equipping future farmers with the tools for success.
Entrepreneurs who want to invest in agriculture should look into opening processing and grading units closer to production sites instead of bigger towns and cities. This will not only help them get hold of better quality produce, but they can also save up on transportation costs.
When [farmers](http://nepalitimes.com/news.php?id=17933 ) and their co-operatives are taught to think, strategise, and manage the type, quantity, and quality of their produce, the market will automatically come to them. However, how much people should expect from a government which has repeatedly failed to provide even basic commodities like fertiliser in time for planting season is open to debate.
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