KATHMANDU: It is the season for strawberries. Earlier people in Nepal were clueless about this seasonal fruit, but now it is available almost everywhere. Strawberries are not native to Nepal and were introduced by Japan. Kancha Man Lama, chairperson of District Micro Entrepreneur Group Association (DMEGA) claims, “JAITI Nepal, the Japanese non-profit organisation, should be given full credit for
introducing strawberries in Nepal.”
According to various research studies, Kakani and Okharpauwa VDC were found to be the most suitable areas to farm this fruit which can only be grown at altitudes ranging from 1,000 metre to 1,500 metre. Lama proudly adds, “Eighteen years after the fruit was first introduced, today, more than 250 farmers and their families in Kakani and Okharpauwa are involved in strawberry farming.”
The entire process from planting the seeds to getting the strawberries in the market takes about a year. The prime season for this fruit is from November to February. Interestingly, a single plant offers half a kilo of strawberries for harvest and cropping this is similar to maize and rice but need to be constantly irrigated. In Nepal, no pesticides are used and only composed fertilisers are added in planting the fruit.
Lama who previously worked as a farmer and a middleman says, strawberries are in production 365 days straight. Six months are under production whereas, the other six months, goes into distributing strawberries in the market. Strawberries are classified under four categories and are sold in the market. The A category strawberries are the biggest in size and costs up to Rs 250 per kg and are sold to most five star hotels. It is followed by the B category which are medium sized and costs up to Rs 150 per kg. The third category are the smallest in size and cost almost as much as category B. However, the last category which is usually harvested during February, are used to make products like, jam, jelly, ice-cream and flavoured candy.
Sarita Dhaubhadel, monitoring and evaluation officer at Micro- Enterprise Development Programme (MEDEP) says, “Till date, Nepal has been exporting 500 kgs of strawberries to Kolkata, India during the prime season of three months, but the demand is for over 1000 kgs and we have not been able to meet their demand.” MEDEP was established in 1998 in order to help farmers develop themselves. MEDEP so far has helped 300 illiterate farmers. They have trained them in the agricultural sector, given them training in strawberry management and helped them financially. Dhaubhadel believes, MEDEP has successfully turned these farmers into capable entrepreneurs with support from UNDP and AUSAID. MEDEP is also conducting a feasibility study for strawberry cultivation in Rasuwa, Myagdi, Dolakha, Parbat along with five other districts.
Kancha Man Lama says that 40 per cent of the harvest is taken by professional agents who mark their own prices. Another 45 per cent of the total harvest comes from private farmers who harvest, market and sell their own strawberries directly in the market. The remaining 14.95 per cent of the business is handled by private co-operatives. Lastly, the initiators of strawberry farming in Nepal, JAITI buys the remaining 0.5 per cent for resale in Nepal.
According to Tikajit Rai, the founding member of Magnus Consulting Group and Paluwa Agro Company, technical assistance is very crucial for this market. He also adds that Nepal lags behind in the technological field. With help from the Small Farmers Agriculture Co-operations, they have managed to help local farmers with financial
assistance and have also developed ‘Simple Finance’ a software programme which can be used easily. Rai does not believe in working with middlemen, as he asserts that their involvement only inflates the price. Rai informs that his company offers a buy back guarantee where none of the fruits are rejected regardless of how bad they are. They also pay farmers on time and support farmers with technical assistance.
Dhaubhadel says, farmers are not getting enough support from Micro Credit, the sister branch of MEDEP which provides finance to these farmers. With help from Nepal Rastriya Bank with their Self Reliance Funding Programme and Agricultural Development Bank they are just given the provision of minimal interest rates. “However, the bigger problem is that it is not enough for them. The challenge here is, to involve commercial banks who lack trust and are not ready to support them with finance,” says Dhaubhadel. The other challenge is technology. “As strawberry farming is new in Nepal, the technology we use is very simple and there is a need for this technology to be updated so that we can meet the demand,” adds Dhaubhadel.
“Nepal has the potential to harvest the best strawberries in the world,” says Lama. While strawberry farming has huge potential in Nepal, Nepal is producing just around 8,00,000 kgs a year.