Made in Nepal peanut butter in JapanA Japanese social entrepreneur brings skills and income to Khotang’s peanut farmers by finding export market
The highest quality tea is synonymous with Darjeeling. Outstanding beer is produced in Pilsen. Camembert cheese gets its name from a town in France. In future, could Khotang become the name for the world’s purest peanut butter?
An up-and-coming business venture led by a Japanese social entrepreneur is set to put this outlying Himalayan district in eastern Nepal on the world map for its premium natural peanut butter.
Kotobuki Naka’s plan to turn Durchim of Halesi Municipality in Khotang district into the world’s peanut butter capital is picking up again after being stalled by the Covid crisis. She is now back to get the farmers she trained and the factory she established up and running.
Naka (pictured, left) used to work with a Japanese IoT (Internet of Things) company that used to support charity work among children in Khotang. On her first visit, she undertook the tumultuous 15-hour drive from Kathmandu to Khotang along rough mountains roads to meet farmers.
She found that peanut was the main cash crop in southern Khotang, but crop failure due to drier than usual weather was forcing men to migrate to India and the Gulf for work.
“I was trying to find a more sustainable way to improve the lives of children, and concluded that the best way to go about that was to make their parents more economically capable, rather than just giving handouts,” says Naka.
Three years ago, she met a farmer who told her he did not want to migrate but continue farming if there was a way to make a living from it. This had a profound effect on Naka, who went on to establish Sanchai Inc impart training in organic farming to make peanut butter, so they did not have to migrate.
During their extensive research, Naka with her colleague Sabita Maharjan of Bipana Inc learned that Khotang locals grew two types of peanuts: the smaller, tastier local variety for their own consumption, and a larger hybrid peanut to be sold to middlemen at low rates. What was left, they fed to livestock.
“Till that point, I knew nothing about making peanut butter, but I had to convince my boss in Japan,” Naka recalls, “I told him it was for people in Nepal, not to earn a profit.”
She then visited peanut experts in Japan and got a famous Japanese recipe before her next visit to Khotang with basic equipment to test-make a peanut butter sample. Everyone back in Japan agreed that the smaller local peanut variety gave the best peanut butter they had ever tasted.
“We were amazed how good it was. I was convinced we could train local people to make it and set up a company,” adds Naka, who had to first get used to a place without electricity. Luckily, the village got power just before the factory opened.
“As a Japanese, it took me time to get used to the lack of punctuality here,” laughs Naka.
The farmers who showed up were all women because most of the men had migrated. Unintentionally, the peanut enterprise also became a tool for women empowerment.
Naka and her team trained 60 households to produce organically-grown peanuts which the company bought for a higher price than middlemen, benefiting 300 farmers.
“Our whole idea was to raise living standards sustainably, by providing skills and not just handing out money,” explains Naka.
Next, they trained their staff of 10 women to make peanut butter in a few crucial steps:
- Select undamaged peanuts manually
- Remove outer shell of selected peanuts
- Carefully roast the peanuts
- Clean and break each peanut into two halves
- Peanuts go through another round of selection
- Peanuts go for mixing
Quality control is paramount for the export market, and this is meticulously maintained with superior raw material and processing that retains the unique taste and texture of the butter from Khotang peanuts as well as a protein level of 1.3% -- higher than any other similar product.
Naka, 43, grew up in Fukuoka, learning the basics of business from her father who owned a chain of beauty salons. She moved to Tokyo as a researcher for the IoT company. After three years, Naka opened Sanchai Inc in December 2017, and export of Khotang peanut butter started a year later.
Distribution within Nepal at Le Sherpa Farmers’ Market, Local Project Nepal, Himgiri Organic Farm have resumed after the pandemic. Japan now accounts for 90% of sales, and there is also budding interest from companies for the Singapore, Europe and the United States markets.
“When I tell people the story behind the product, they get excited and are even more interested in buying it. I try to inspire in them the feeling of giving and helping people in rural Nepal,” says Naka.
“Ours was one small effort, but it gave women in Khotang a platform to perform, their families' living standard rose, and they have now become leaders.”