30 Mar 2017
12 min read
Despite his family’s resistance, Bharat Adhikari decided to go against the grain and start his own venture. He started out by running a humble handicraft shop in Bhaktapur and today heads one of Nepal’s most modern knitting houses. Through it all, Adhikari has been focused on producing world-class cashmere products. His company, Nature Knit, manufactures the finest quality cashmere and pashmina products, and it has come a long way since its journey began in 2004. In conversation with Alok Thapa of M&S VMAG, Adhikari shares the secrets to Nature Knit’s success and explains how he has been able to deliver products on time while providing his craftsmen with the best work environment.
What factors motivated you to become an entrepreneur?
I never wanted to do a nine-to-five job, working under somebody else. I guess, I’m one of those people who are too free-willed to be bound by any chains. Much to the chagrin of my father, I always flunked the Lok Sewa exams. I searched for ideas for the better part of my formative years, and it was only after visiting my brother’s handicraft outlet in Hotel Annapurna that every piece fell into place. Seeing my brother interact with foreigners, and seeing him actually enjoying his work, had a huge effect on the young and impressionable me. I knew then and there that I needed to be in the sector he was working in.
Back then, it must have been rather easy to start your own venture, right?
See, it’s never just about investment or fewer competitors when you open your own business. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone; however, if you are hell bent on having the freedom, of being your own boss, while at the same time generating income, then you can become an entrepreneur and lead a pretty amazing life. For me, the challenge was to convince my father to let me become an entrepreneur.
Why was your father against your aspiration to be a businessman?
I come from a well-to-do Brahmin family, where everyone has been a service holder. I think my father wanted to see me complete my higher education and then get into government service. I know that deep inside he wanted the best for me as there’s no guarantee that a venture will take off. For me, on the other hand, it was that very uncertainty, coupled with the opportunity to carve my own niche, that I found fascinating about becoming an entrepreneur.
So how did your journey into the business world begin?
Despite resistance from my family, I went ahead with my plans. I started by investing the meagre sum of Rs 4,000. My first venture was a handicraft shop in Bhaktapur, which was quite a success, and I got to learn a lot about the market. While interacting with tourists, when they came to buy my souvenirs, I became aware that pashmina could be a very lucrative product. So I went ahead with my next venture, which was a pashmina shop in Kamalakshi.
Tell us about what you learned from bringing United Colors of Benetton to Nepal.
When you do something for a long time, it’s natural to feel the urge to expand your horizon, but the desire to reinvent yourself should be handled carefully. Back then, we didn’t have many international apparel brands in Kathmandu, let alone authorised retailers. Getting the franchise of United Colors of Benetton was an exciting period in my life. I am extremely happy that I had those years of experience in the garment and apparel industry before starting my own company. It’s because of that experience I had of working with and meeting different people in the retail and clothing lines that I could understand how things worked in a company. I wouldn’t have had the chance to get to know these details had it been otherwise. But I later realised that I needed to do more than just curate an international product for the Nepali market. I wanted to make something of my own, from scratch.
And pashmina came to your rescue?
Actually people were wary of pashmina because in the late 90s the pashmina business had suffered a major crash in Nepal. I saw many businesses fold, and we don’t have anybody to blame but ourselves. The intense competition among sellers didn’t result in sustained growth of the sector—because people began to make compromises in quality, which began to hurt the industry. I had a gut feeling that as the industry rebooted, there would be new opportunities, provided one was ready to reinvent pashmina and cater to a niche buyers of high-quality, innovative pashmina products. It was time to think out of the box and see pashmina as more than just scarves and shawls in pretty pastels. That’s why I decided to invest in Nature Knit.
What is the primary focus of Nature Knit?
At Nature Knit, we knit, weave, stitch, do stencil printing and focus on producing the best quality cashmere. Since its establishment in 2004, we have been very meticulous about maintaining the quality of the final product and delivering on time. The quality and craftsmanship is quite evident in the diverse range of products we produce: knitted apparel, sweaters, cardigans, woven rugs and scarves. Today, Nature Knit is one of Nepal’s most modern knitting houses, and we export our products across the globe to notable multinational brands.
“At Nature Knit, we knit, weave, stitch, do stencil printing and focus on producing the best quality cashmere”
You’ve been working in this industry for more than a decade. What do you think needs to be addressed immediately?
See, cashmere is obtained from a wide range of subspecies of goats that live in Nepal, Tibet and Kashmir. But ironically, most Nepali pashmina is actually made of yarn imported from China. Commercial farming of Himalayan goats (chyangra) is yet to take place in Nepal, and the existing supply cannot meet the total yarn demand. If we can promote goat farming, establish spinning mills and refining factories and produce yarn locally, only then can we produce truly indigenous cashmere. If we do that, we can totally radicalise the pashmina and knitting industry. A lot can be done to make Nepali pashmina competitive, and it’s really frustrating when the government does nothing to help.
What kind of competition do you face—locally and internationally?
After the pashmina industry’s crash, the manufacturers learned the lesson that the quality of pashmina is not to be tampered with. We have so much global competition, we cannot risk losing the faith of our clients—especially when we have China looming over the sector. China is the toughest competitor for the Nepali pashmina industry, owing to its cheap labour and low production cost. Having said that, our advantage is that we can provide customised low-volume orders and work flexibly with our clients.
“Delivering on time” is almost like your tag line.
Absolutely, you must adhere to maintaining the quality of your final products and delivering on time. I think it was only during the 2015 earthquakes that we actually halted work. Even during the crippling Indian embargo, we had our factory running on full throttle. Yarn-dying is fuel intensive, and we had to produce even during load-shedding days, so we were buying fuel from the black market at an exorbitant price to keep our factory running. See, our mantra has always been this: work should not stop. We decided we would incur losses in order to meet our orders rather than lose our clients’ trust.
Apart from seeing your products in fancy international boutiques, what gives you satisfaction about heading Nature Knit?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but there are more ladies behind our looms than there are men. So over the past couple of years, we introduced a programme specifically aimed at empowering women. We have always been keen on training underprivileged people in various aspects of cashmere production—such training opens up doors for them to find employment. Here at Nature Knit, we have a workforce of over 300, of which more than 70 per cent are women.
What have you learned from going against your family’s wishes, and tasting success?
Although every parent wants the best for their child, I think parents should refrain from putting a lid on their children’s aspirations and goals—if you do that, you may shut down their exploration process—which in itself is what makes life interesting. Parents need to keep the lines of communication with their children open, and they must recognise that their role is to act as a facilitator in their child’s career journey. Having the opportunity to take independent career choices allows young persons to take their first real steps into adulthood.