09 Jun 2017
8 min read
While working in the fields of Israel, Khojraj Katuwal not only became an agriculture expert, but also an ambitious dreamer. In order to pursue his ambition, he decided to drop everything and return to Nepal. Years later, through sheer determination and self-belief, he has been able to script an agribusiness enterprise which was hitherto unheard of in his community.
Working as a labourer in the Middle East was tough, but it gave him an insight on success—it comes only after hard work. Katuwal now heads Nepal Thopai Sinchai (Nepal Drip Irrigation) Pvt Ltd as the chairman, in the capacity of Irrigation System Expert.
In this interview with Alok Thapa of VMAG, Katuwal talks about how in order to do and be something in life, we should stop explaining ourselves to everyone; people will only understand what they want to, and changing their perception shouldn't be your priority—you should let your work do the talking.
What was your childhood like?
I come from a farming community in Dharan. My mom was known all over the village for her skill with machinery; she still runs a mill, and I remember she was featured on Kantipur daily almost 20 years back. When I was a child, I didn't want to do anything that had to do with agriculture. I would either pretend that I was sick, or just disappear whenever Father would assign farm-related chores to me. There was also a trend of going abroad in search of employment, and I pounced at the first opportunity.
What was your family's reaction?
People used to think that after getting an education, working in the fields was a job that was beneath you. And my parents didn't really oppose my decision to go abroad, even though it was to work as a migrant worker. Also, Dharan is renowned for its lahure tradition, and many people had gone abroad. In our community, there was also this notion that one could not achieve anything by staying in Nepal, and my family accepted my decision readily.
So what was your main incentive to go abroad?
I didn't have any grand plans. I just wanted to earn enough for my family and provide proper education for my two sons. I actually went abroad to save around one lakh rupees so that I could open a grocery store after I returned. Of course, when I landed in the UAE, everything changed. It was a completely different world, and all my priorities changed. I ended up spending 13 years of my life chasing that one lakh.
What were the struggles you faced as a migrant worker?
A migrant worker in the UAE doesn't have the luxury of choice and time—you just work. And in my 13 years there, I worked all kinds of jobs. My job entailed transporting vegetables and fruits, and I would single-handedly unload trucks; it was backbreaking work. I would make use of my Saturdays washing vehicles and delivering vegetables to the Nepalis living there. I was working 18 to 20 hours a day, and there were times when I was so tired that I couldn't even eat. It was a tough existence, and there were moments when I wanted to drop everything and just go back to Dharan. But just the thought of the people back home and their expectations from me gave me the strength to persevere. The turning point came when I got a job in the agricultural sector.
What was different about your new job?
It was after I relocated to Israel with my wife that I got reintroduced to agriculture. At first, I was sceptical, but when I saw the way agricultural biotechnology had been integrated in the agricultural industry, my outlook changed. Farmers could cultivate with less labour and cut costs. In a dry area like Israel, farmers had turned to technology to irrigate their crops. Modern agricultural technology allowed people to grow substantial quantities of food and fibre in a short period of time. I was blown away by all of this.
How was the work ethic in Israel?
Our boss would come in his shiny BMW, change into his work clothes and work with us—shoulder to shoulder—every day. There was no air of hierarchy when it came to work, and this lack of division encouraged everyone to give their 100 per cent. I was absolutely amazed by the way Israeli people viewed hierarchy, structure and self-management at the workplace. I was supervising more than 200 people of various origins, and my role as a leader helped me build my foundation for my future business. It gave me enough confidence to come back to Nepal and start something in a similar line.
How do your parents feel now, when they see you doing what you do?
They are happy that I have found my niche and have somehow managed to make a living out of farming. But it saddens me to see that even in this day and age, while smart-farming has been taking root all over the globe, we are still stuck in a place where agriculture is considered inappropriate for the smart and the educated. And that is my mission: to make the prospects of agriculture more appealing to young people. There's so much youth-drain happening, and I want to convince these kids that it is possible to do the same work you will be doing abroad, here in Nepal, and reap benefits. I have had people contact me from Malaysia; some even came to my farm in Balaju for a three-month internship and they are now ready to setup their own agri-ventures. Of course, things like this cannot happen without improving the public policies in agriculture and agri-food.
What is your mantra?
I have two mottos in life: first, always put to use what you learn abroad for the betterment of your own country, and second, be your own boss. The latter has been the main philosophy behind my organisation: I was a labourer once, and today, I'm my own boss. I have helped people who have worked with me by assisting them in setting up their own businesses and showing them how to run them successfully. As with any other business, it all starts with providing the right kind of training and broader public investment.
When did you decide to start your own venture?
My eureka moment happened when Upendra Mahato had come to Israel from Russia to address the Non-Resident Nepalis in Israel. He gave us a 45-minute speech and a particular sentence in his speech struck me: "One has to be honest, and not afraid of working hard. That's the surefire path to success." I had worked in the Middle East for 13 years, and I was confident about my work. Also, my boss had a profound effect on me. I was positive that if I could make use of the same work ethic and technology in Nepal, we could achieve great things.
After you came back to Kathmandu, was it an easy transition?
When I came back, I had to face criticism from my family. They couldn't understand why I quit my well-paying job and came back to Nepal. They couldn't understand that I wanted to go back to my agricultural roots. I already knew what I wanted to do, and I just turned a deaf ear to the noise. Of course, my first priority was to have a steady source of income before I could indulge in my agri-business plans. I started a guesthouse, and my wife was of huge help in running it. Then I started building a team to start a farm here in Kathmandu. I remember when a single tomato plant yielded fruits for a year, it got a lot of media attention, and soon, ministers, farmers, and business people were swarming to our place to see the developments in farming. It was after this initial success that we decided to establish Nepal Thopa Sinchai Pvt Ltd, which would focus on the integration of modern agricultural and smart irrigation services. Nepal Thopa Sinchai has now been working for the last seven years to demonstrate and supply economic tools and technologies for commercial agriculture. We also have a great team of agriculturists, irrigation system specialists, solar system specialists and technicians.
One of the highlights of your organisation is drip irrigation. Tell us about it.
Drip irrigation provides a cost-effective irrigation system that allows farmers to provide water and nutrients directly to the roots of the plants. It involves dripping water onto the soil in very low quantities (2-20 litres/hour) from a system of small-diameter plastic pipes fitted with outlets called emitters or drippers. Water is dripped close to plants so that only those parts of the soil on which the roots grow is wet. This is a sustainable way to grow more crops from less water. This also means less weed growth, and high efficiency in the use of fertilisers. Low labour and relatively low operation cost is also one of the selling points of this method of irrigation. We have implemented this in various parts of Nepal, from the flatbeds of the Tarai to the apple orchards in Manang. Apart from that, we also provide services in solar energy systems, tissue culture, agriculture tools and equipment.
Both of your sons are involved in your venture. How easy was it to convince them?
That, to me, is another personal success story. My older son wanted to go to Australia to study, but I convinced him to drop that idea. I told him that there were plenty of opportunities here in Nepal, in fact, in his own home. I had to face harsh backlash from my in-laws and my own family, for they couldn't understand why my son was helping me in the agricultural sector. Of course, with success comes the change in perception among people. Today, I get calls from my relatives who want me to help their kids get into this line. See, I have always believed that the main problem with our society isn't a lack of education, experience or money—it is narrow-mindedness. We have been programmed to look at ourselves, the opportunities that lie around us, in the wrong way. Only after one of us changes his or her point of view, will other people begin to change.
What is keeping you busy these days?
Nepal Thopa Sinchai's main objective is to increase farmers' access to eco-friendly, economic and sustainable agricultural technologies and equipment through import, study and extension. We have outlets all over Nepal so that we can provide our services to farmers all over the country: we have worked in 69 districts in Nepal in various capacities, and our aim is to reach all 75 districts of Nepal. Another cause close to my heart is to attract the young generation to multi-productive agriculture for self-employment generation.