Milking every opportunityA migrant worker returns to Nepal from Korea to create a thriving dairy business that provides jobs in neighbouring villages
Located in the tri-junction of three districts, Palpa, Gulmi and Syangja, the deep and narrow Ridi valley is a popular pilgrimage site because of the sacred saligram fossils found there.
But despite its religious significance, this is not a part of Nepal where someone would want to start a long-term business. It is far from the market towns, and many have migrated to cities or overseas.
But one migrant worker, Ravi Lal Pantha, has not just returned to his home town but is running a thriving dairy business that has created a value chain directly benefiting 120 farmers in adjoining districts.
“If we are industrious and conscientious, we can earn a livelihood in Nepal by doing the same work our parents and grandparents did,” says Pantha. “I am a migrant returnee, and if this is what one person can do, imagine if the government encouraged more Nepalis to return and helped them reintegrate.”
Pantha started ‘Gaurav Dudh Dairy Tatha Prasodhan Kendra’ in 2014, just five months after returning from South Korea.
When Pantha was young, his family visited Ridi during festivals. Every time the family headed to his maternal grandparents’ house in Palpa, he passed Ridi. People from all three surrounding districts performed final rites of their loved ones on the banks of Kali Gandaki here.
Read Also: Money grows on trees here, Sahina Shrestha
Milk and dairy products like ghee and curd are essential for festivals and birth and death rituals. Pantha noticed that there was always a scarcity of milk in the area and in summer, and dairy products people brought from homes for puja would go bad. Local farmers reared cattle, but not for commercial purposes.
Pantha saw a business opportunity, and decided to locate his dairy business in Ridi. There was demand and the local farmers could also sell their milk.
He soon ran into problems. He would take the milk in his motorcycle and sell it door to door. Yet, he could not sell all of his inventory and many people would buy in credit. He did not know how to process milk or make other products from it, so much of the milk he bought would go to waste.
“Initially it was difficult,” admits Pantha, who had no prior dairy experience. It was only after his fourth month into the business that he finally sold 20 litres of milk in one day. “That day I felt like I had won a battle,” he says.
Still, his business ran at a loss the first year. “Every day I’d work from 4am to 9pm, I’d even make my family work hard, but all for naught,” he recalls.
His friends said he had gone mad after returning from overseas, saying he had lots of savings, so he could afford to lose money.
It was after he faced difficulty with his eatery business in Kathmandu, that Pantha had first gone to South Korea in 2009 through its Employment Permit Scheme (EPS), looking for a better future. There he earned Rs200,000 every month piloting a ship.
Despite the earnings, he felt unfulfilled. “I was saving money, but my children at home were without a guardian and in a foreign land we are treated as second class citizens, without much respect,” he adds.
Read Also: Don't give up on Nepal, it has lots to offer, Sahina Shrestha
So, he decided to return to Nepal with his savings and work in his home district near his family.
“Regardless of what people said, I kept going,” says Pantha. “I convinced myself not to worry, saying that this was business, and profit and losses were all part of it.”
Desperate, he went to the district veterinary hospital and livestock service expert centre and got trained in Pokhara and the Dairy Development Corporation.
In 2016, he established a dairy processing unit to make and sell dairy products like ghee, curd, and paneer (cottage cheese). But he ran into another problem: locals in the area were not used to buying those dairy products.
At first, it was difficult for him to sell even 5kg paneer every few months because even though the residents were largely vegetarian, they were not familiar with the cheese. To market his products, he started giving away a few kilos of paneer at banquets every time he was invited to a wedding or other functions.
“I told them to pay me what they wanted if people liked it, if not it was on me,” he says of his new marketing strategy.
These days he sells the same paneer for Rs850 per kg, and people in Ridi have taken so much to it that even the smallest gathering now has a paneer dish. People who used to sneer at him, now request him to train their children in the dairy business.
Nowadays, a steady stream of customers keeps Pantha busy from early morning to late night at his shop in Ridi Bazar. On the rare occasion when the shop is closed, customers call him to ask when it will reopen.
Twice a day, his employees collect milk from farmers and farmers groups with the help of five collectors, and bring between 800-1,000 litres of milk to the processing centre.
“The farmers now trust me,” Pantha says. “These days even if someone else approaches them and gives them more money, they stick with me.”
He makes his own ghee, paneer, curd, and kulfi among others for his shop and also conducts training for others. He is now getting into ice cream as well.
Apart from his processing unit and his shop in Ridi, he has expanded to outlets in Gulmi and Palpa. He delivers packaged milk and milk products to the shops and the shopkeepers get a cut from every item sold.
“I am happy and proud that I have been able to connect farmers with the market,” he says. “These days more farmers are going commercial, which is a good thing for the local economy.”
One of the highest grossing farmers group with whom he conducts business is from Aslewa, Satyawati Rural Municipality, with which he does Rs1 million worth of business every month.
Pantha also acts as a mediator between the government and the farmers, helping with training provided by the state. “Real farmers are busy toiling the soil and do not have any idea about paperwork, the government is too busy to go looking for them, so I do what I can to bring them together,” he says. “But the government needs to ensure it benefits actual farmers.”
When Pantha went to South Korea more than a decade ago, he did so out of compulsion. “It was not my intention to go there to learn something new and come back home and work,” he says. “Things just worked out that way. No matter how much you earn abroad, it is difficult to earn trust and respect. In Nepal, no matter how much or little you earn, people still respect you.”
But the biggest lesson he learned there which has helped him in Nepal was the importance of disciplined work. “Discipline and hard work can transform not only an individual, but also society and the country,” he says.
Pantha wants to continue working well into old age and build a good image for himself. His biggest dream is to help fellow Nepalis gain employment in their own country. He says in poetic Nepali, “Najau aba khadima khusi sanga paisa khojum hamrai pakha, hamrai barima.”
This is the seventh in the series Striking Roots, where we feature the stories of entrepreneurs from across the country. If you know someone whose story needs to be shared, email us at [email protected]