Make way for Makalu Coffee

As cardamom productivity declines, one rural community in eastern Nepal has a new cash crop

All photos: HANNA WELLS

Nepal’s geographic and climatic conditions deliver the finest quality coffee, and so far Gulmi, Nuwakot, Lalitpur, Kavre, Palpa, Syangja, Kaski and Sidhupalchok have been traditionally famous for beans

Now, even eastern Nepal is proving itself to have the ideal conditions for coffee plantation.

In the village of Simma in the Arun Valley, men are mixing fresh soil, women and children pack saplings into plastic sacks, and men water coffee plants under the hot sun.

After four years of careful planning by Lakpa Nurbu Sherpa of Ekuwa Makalu Ward 3, who is the founder of the non-profit NPO Nepal, the coffee farm is finally seeing substantial growth.

Coffee in eastern Nepal

It was only five months ago that Sherpa and Chun Bahadur Rai, an agricultural officer based in Bhaktapur and a local, introduced the coffee plant to farmers from Simma and other neighbouring villages. 

Locals were enthusiastic about the cash crop, and Makalu Ward 3 officer Badri Bahadur Rai convinced them that a coffee farm can support local incomes even as the productivity of cardamom drops.

Cardamom has been one of the highest income sources for residents in the Sankhuwasabha district for over two decades. But after 25 lucrative years, the crops are reaching the end of their lifespan and suffering from fungal and pest diseases. Nepal’s cardamom production has declined by an estimated 20% since 2021, and export is down by 30%.

Simma resident Karna Bahadur Gurung was earning Rs100,000 for every 40kg of cardamom he sold until recently. Farmers now get only one-fourth of that amount.

“Few people still have cardamom, but I see the fields are all dying,” notes Gurung. “It was unreal for everybody to get so much money from cardamom, nothing else can pay us that much.”

Cardamom crops also reduce the fertility of the soil, and it can take decades for it to be viable again. Still, Gurung hopes to plant cardamom again once the soil has recovered.

While the profit has significantly decreased, cardamom remains the largest income source for many in this region below Makalu, the world’s fifth highest mountain. The hope is that coffee can remedy the income gap caused by the decline of cardamom.

The global organic coffee market is expected to continue to grow rapidly and reach an estimated $20-30 billion by 2030. Nepal has been slow to adopt coffee compared to other countries, but domestic and international demand for organic coffee has risen

Nepal’s coffee export reached an all-time high in 2021-2022 at Rs117 million. There is a lot of potential for Nepal to grow its organic coffee industry even more, and Lakpa Nurbu Sherpa is bringing this crop to rural Sankhuwasabha.

Coffee in eastern Nepal
Coffee in eastern Nepal

Sherpa is also involved in school and health clinic initiatives in the Makalu region, and was looking for income sources to substitute cardamom. He wanted to see if coffee trees could thrive in the area after having seen them in Pokhara and Solu Khumbu.

Sherpa’s trekking clients were also interested in tasting Nepal’s local organic coffee while visiting the country and he was made aware of the large foreign market for local flavours. 

He was also concerned that everyone in the village was migrating abroad for work, and was exploring ways to increase local income sources. He planted the first coffee seeds in Simma four years ago, and watched them grow into trees within a year. It was clear that Makalu’s soil and climate are ideal for a sustainable coffee farm.

Sherpa approached the mayor with a proposal to develop a larger nursery, and the local government gave Rs400,000 for the project. Other villages are seeking similar alternatives: Uwa is beginning an orange farm, and Ulling is looking at honey production.

Last month, as the monsoon rains arrived, Simma residents of all ages were packing fresh soil and tree saplings into small plastic nursery bags to be distributed to households. Both young and old helped each other, reflecting the richness of community bond here that is vital for the coffee project to succeed.

Coffee in eastern Nepal

There has been little top-down oversight of this project. There is trust and confidence that residents will put care and effort into nurturing their coffee plantation. Generational knowledge of farming, collective energy, and a deep concern for the future of their home and children is critical to the success of this project.

Locals are cautiously optimistic. Says Karna Bahadur Gurung: “We still do not know how the new coffee plants will fare, no one else has done it in our area before. We must be patient and care for the trees first.” 

Hanna Wells is a Fulbright scholar researching the impact of the Kosi Highway project on traditional livelihoods in Makalu Municipality.