Life as a farmer on the terraced plots of land in Central Nepal isn’t easy, but the introduction of new agricultural practices and a few cheap, simple tools could be a boon for the men and women who work the region’s soil
FEW LANDSCAPES are more stunning than the incredibly steep hillside terrace farms of Central Nepal, especially during the rainy season, when they are lush and green. Yet for the millions of Nepalese who make their living as farmers on these tiny, multi-tiered plots beneath Himalayan peaks, their picturesque existence has long masked a struggle against food insecurity, environmental calamity and physical distress. The latter is especially true for girls and women, who do most of the labour and suffer disproportionately from injury, drudgery and a lack of other opportunities.
Against that backdrop, one might think that any remedy must lie in a big fix. Yet a three-and-a-half-year program funded by the International Development Research Centre and Global Affairs Canada via the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund and jointly led by Manish Raizada, a professor in the department of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph, and a Nepalese NGO called Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD) is making a strong case for a solution built around a few basic new agronomic practices, some simple, low-cost tools and inexpensive seeds. “Farmers are so resilient,” says Raizada. “They just need a little bit of help here and there.”
That help comes in the form of Sustainable Agricultural Kits, a concept Raizada developed, tested and refined in two districts in Central Nepal in tandem with LI-BIRD and its private-sector seed subsidiary, Anamolbiu (which means “precious seed” in Nepalese). The kits consist of a menu of locally approved seeds, low-cost tools such as corn shellers and garden gloves, and knowledge-extension picture books explaining sustainable practices such as intercropping and weed control. From these, individual households pick and choose according their needs. “What we’re trying to do is allow for a little bit of extra production and then some profit,” says Raizada.
One example of a farming innovation is the new planting techniques making more efficient use of the terrace walls. For instance, yams that were once planted in the ground and dug up by hand are now planted in sacks that are stood at the base of the wall. The plants grow up the wall and don’t have to be dug up at harvest time. “You just turn the bag upside down,” says Raizada.
Planting yams in sacks has become a real hit. And the economic benefit of faster harvest and more intense use of the space is making many households as much as an extra $200 a season, which Raizada says is “dramatic.”
The adoption of manual corn shellers — hollow metal cones that cost about $2.50 each — has been equally far-reaching. Traditionally, corn grown on the terraces had to be processed manually, either by putting the dried cobs in a bag and beating the bag with a stick or by removing the kernels by hand. This work, which was always left to girls and women, was hard on their bodies and damaging to the crop. Removing the kernels with the sheller, however, is less taxing, does less damage and saves about two weeks of labour a year per household.
To date, the corn sheller has been the kits’ largest-selling product — 11,000 units through the spring of 2017. But the story goes beyond the numbers. Raizada believes men and boys are much more likely to do this job when they can use a sheller. His theory? Men like their toys. “You introduce a simple tool or machine, a gadget, and the guys start getting involved,” he says. “It’s transformational. That’s what we want — gender empowerment that allows women to focus on opportunities such as education and off-farm employment.”
As the project enters its final stages the emphasis is increasingly about proving the concept can scale up (it’s already being used in nine districts in Central Nepal), be successfully handed off to Anamolbiu and be self-sustaining. “We think by the time the project ends in January 2018 we’ll reach about 200,000 people, so about 40-50,000 households,” says Raizada.
While even that would exceed their initial goals, he thinks the project’s biggest impacts will be long-term. “I suspect if we go back five years later, it will be fascinating to see how many people were affected and how institutionalized these ideas have become. Did it create new businesses? That’s what we want to see — new businesses that enliven the private sector.”