Feminising farm-based firmsWomen CEOs and entrepreneurs are taking the lead in expanding agribusiness in Nepal
When Pratibha Rajbhandari worked with small business owners in New York as an MBA student, she had no idea that in some years, she would be applying what she learned to help Nepali women back home start their own businesses.
Rajbhandari had a Bachelor’s degree in Finance, and first worked at a hedge fund in New Jersey after which she joined the MBA program at New York’s Pace University. There, she joined the university’s Small Business Development Center as an adviser.
“The plan, since the very beginning, was to return to Nepal,” says Rajbhandari. “I realised that my role in working with and helping small businesses was really inspiring and fulfilling, and I had found my true calling.”
Rajbhandari returned to Nepal, and between 2014 and 2017 worked with the Pashmina Enhancement and Trade Support (PETS) Project to promote handmade woolen products in the global market.
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In 2018, she joined the Nepal Agribusiness Innovation Centre (NABIC) – a ‘for purpose’ enterprise support organisation that provides business development services to agri-entrepreneurship start-ups across Nepal – as an Agribusiness Development Consultant.
In July 2022, she took over as NABIC’s CEO, and since then, the organisation’s day-to-day operations have been fully managed by a team of women.
NABIC was established in April 2017 with seed funding from the government’s Project for Agriculture Commercialisation and Trade (PACT) and the World Bank. Six years later, it has become self-reliant – with revenue primarily from providing consulting services to implementing agencies..
"NABIC is a company not distributing profit, with the social objective of promoting entrepreneurship,” explains Rajbhandari. “The benchmark of our success is based on how much our clients have grown and what impact they have made in the community."
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NABIC has provided business incubation and acceleration to 741 enterprises, trained more than 2,400 agri-entrepreneurs, and developed more than 1,300 business plans. It has enabled access to finance worth Rs6.7 billion to agri-business enterprises.
Rajbhandari notes that at present, Nepal’s agri-businesses are quite participatory when it comes to the involvement of women..
“There are quite a few female entrepreneurs in Nepal especially because many jobs, such as pickle- making at home for instance, are works that women are already involved in, explains Rajbhandari."
But producing food items is the least of the challenges. The concentration of women in agri-business might be relatively high, but there are so many other aspects to running a business, and a lack of knowledge is what stops them from taking off, even though these challenges are not gender-specific.
Rajbhandari adds that women have more freedom when they are given the opportunity to take charge. She says: “Owning their own business makes women in charge of their own lives and gives us the flexibility to choose what we can prioritise in our lives.”
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Srijana Pradhan took a sabbatical from her job in the private sector after she got married and had her baby. But she had always wanted to go back to work.
“I began to feel like being a homemaker wasn’t enough—but even when I worked in the private sector, I had always felt unfulfilled, like something was missing,” she says.
Three years after having her child, Pradhan along with three friends started an agri-business enterprise, but running it independently was easier said than done. The four partners had differences of opinion, and went their separate ways a year later.
But Pradhan did not give up. She and her former business partner, Gautam Gurung, decided to give it another go, forming Organic Online-- an online platform that sells and delivers agricultural products made in Nepal-- in 2018, despite their family’s misgivings.
Given their previous experience they knew they would need a lot of guidance this time around. Shortly after they set up their business with a simple website and a team of four, Gurung came across an announcement of a World Bank-supported project called Enhancing Access to Business Incubation Service for Agri-Entrepreneurs in Nepal, which NABIC was part of.
NABIC’s incubation client was Organic Online for which it provided packaged mentorship that guided the fledgling business in marketing and branding, accounting, finance, as well as regulatory requirements.
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Organic Online used to sell more than 150 products before, they were able to streamline supply to get their products from established and trustworthy suppliers. They worked with NABIC to tweak their product packaging to strengthen branding.
“We had not known what the vision for our business was, and working with NABIC helped us figure out where we wanted to go, and what kind of business we wanted to be in the next five years,” says Pradhan. “We realised that we could not sell whatever appealed to us.”
Organic Online currently sells and delivers its flagship products— child superfood (bal aahar) for children aged six months to three years, a fiber diet for adults, as well as hair care products including a hair mask, hair oil, and hair healer. It also sells external products, including rice, essential oils, ghee from Ilam, and sakkhar from Kaiplvastu .
85% of the items are self-produced either at its offices in Panipokhari or at a site that Pradhan oversees in Narayanthan. In five years, the company has expanded from four people to a team of 28, of which 80% are women.
Pradhan says that the environment for women to become small business owners is positive, especially since the government, as well as private sector projects, have gender-specific participatory requirements.
“Our social structure is such that women have added roles in their personal lives which have to work out for us to be independent and successful professionally,” says Pradhan. “Women in the workforce have more responsibilities in their families than our male counterparts, so we have to work twice as hard. We have to be stronger.”
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