Enterprising women fill the seed gap in Nepal

Vegetable seeds business helps women grow out of isolation

Surkhet is one of the poorest districts in Nepal. Farmers struggle to grow enough food for household consumption, and access to finance to get training or expand their business is impossible with no credit history, paperwork or ability to repay.

Nepalese women – especially those living in rural areas and those from minority social and ethnic groups – face particular challenges.

Traditionally, when women marry they move from their birth-home to that of their husband. Women usually stop their education when they marry – often at an early age. Social norms often prevent women from leaving the family home and land.

Moreover, property is traditionally owned by men so even though a woman works on her husband’s farmland, she rarely owns it, the produce from it or the money earned from it. In rural areas where jobs are scarce and farming brings in little income, up to 70% of the men have gone away to look for work.

This means many women can be extremely isolated, lack awareness of their rights and have limited means to gain economic independence, while having an extended family to support.

Yet in this challenging environment you’ll find one of Oxfam’s most successful enterprise development projects: the Pavrita Farmer’s Cooperative, whose members grow vegetable seeds for commercial sale.

Strengthened women, successful businesses

 Aubrey Wade/Oxfam
Kalpana Oli selling seeds with her sister. Photo: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

Oxfam's Enterprise Development Program (EDP) invests in small and medium-sized enterprises to help them become independent, sustainable businesses.

This is a unique approach to overcoming poverty because it:

  • identifies businesses with potential and helps entrepreneurs develop and implement viable plans.
  • involves the private sector – such as building relationships with buyers and financial institutions.
  • has social as well as business goals – focusing on women and the environment as well as profit.
  • uses a mixture of grants and loans to finance the projects.

In Nepal, EDP is supporting businesses that produce vegetable seeds. Currently Nepal imports a majority of seeds for farming from India and China so there's a gap in the market for home-grown vegetable seeds.

To get the seeds, vegetables grow beyond the point of being edible. So farmers grow vegetables, harvest the seeds and compost the vegetables (nothing is wasted). They grow several crops – pea, okra, radish, broad leaf mustard, bitter gourd and lentils – which are planted and harvested at different times of the year, giving them a year-round income.

“Now they respect me”

 Aubrey Wade/Oxfam
Kalpana Oli with her children. Photo: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

Pavrita cooperative in Surkhet District is one of the seed-growing businesses supported by EDP. The project is very successful: the Pavrita cooperative has grown its membership, its income, and the quantity and quality of the seeds produced. A few years ago, members of the cooperative sold a few hundred kilograms per year. Last season they sold 36 metric tons.

“Other people have changed their opinion of me,” said Kalpana Oli, a participant in the project. “Before they didn't believe in me, that I could support myself and my family. But now I am doing this hard work and everyone appreciates my effort. They value my work and they honor me and they respect me – my family and the community.”

Parts of the program in Surkhet have been so successful, such as the relationship with the Kumari Bank, that they are being used as a model for other projects in Nepal, and as a blueprint for EDP elsewhere.

Photos: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam, March 2013.