22 Nov 2017
6 min read
Bhandari’s ancestors were farmers, so she started helping her father in their farm from a very young age. As a child, she would often urge her father to grow more vegetables in their fields to transform their familial enterprise from a small and mostly self-sustaining one to a larger one. When she finally got the opportunity to take over the farm, more than a decade ago, Bhandari started experimenting with new farming techniques. For instance, when she started growing tomatoes, most of her plants would get infested by bugs. “So I would use mosquito nets to protect my produce. This method surprised my neighbours and others who came to visit, but it worked because I was able to produce healthy plants without the use of pesticides,” she says. Eventually, though, when forest animals like rabbits, deer and monkeys started tearing the nets, she switched to farming lemon trees.
“It’s been around two or three years since I started this new enterprise, and it’s proven to be very beneficial—I earn around Rs 10,000 every season from one tree,” says Bhandari. “I have planted 250 more tree saplings and expect good results when they’re fully grown. I’ll have that harvest in around a year.” Farming lemons also made sense for her because the trees don’t require as much attention, or water, as her tomatoes did. “We have water problems here. Because of that, we have made plastic-lined ponds, to collect rainwater for our plants. We water the trees once in 10 days—so we’re pretty okay for now.” And Bhandari doesn’t have to worry about her plants getting attacked by animals anymore—in fact, the spiky branches of the lemon trees and the pungent taste of the fruit itself repel animals.
Additionally, Bhandari’s lemon trees have helped her to feel independent. “Being an entrepreneur has enabled me to not rely on my husband, like many women have to, for finances,” she says. In fact, due to the success of the enterprise, her husband plans on quitting his job as a teacher to help her out.
Prema Neupane was working in the fields when we arrived at her enterprise in Argeli 3, Neupane Gaun. Her cellphone was not ringing, so one of the workers at the farm ran off into the distance to call her. As we waited, we were able to gauge the scale of her operations: she had a fish pond, a coop filled with around a hundred chickens and four buffaloes tethered to a nearby shed. She arrived from the fields after a few minutes, and we heard her before we saw her—she was petite, but had a very loud voice.
Neupane is today primarily a local poultry farmer, but she and her husband also farm fish, rice and vegetables, own buffaloes and run a meat shop near the main road that runs past Neupane Gaun. She started this enterprise a few years ago because she wanted to work, instead of being a housewife. She chose poultry farming because it involved cash transactions, nagad byapar, and also because she knew that her produce would end up getting sold instantly in the village and beyond. It was a very practical choice.
Some of her relatives, however, had issues with her choice of vocation. Neupane is from a Brahmin family, and her working with poultry, which is smelly business, displeased some of her family members. “Some of our relatives didn’t want to come to our house after I got involved in this profession,” she says. And although some of the people have come around, she and her husband still have to deal with comments from the local community regarding their line of work.
“Everybody in the neighbourhood needs milk, chicken, eggs, fish, vegetables, all of which we provide,” says Neupane. “But because of the work we do, we’re not allowed to use the water from the kula—people are scared that we’ll pollute the water.” The smell from her farm also bothers many of her neighbours, and some of them blame her for allowing mosquitoes to breed at her fish farm.
She can’t do much about the mosquitoes and her poultry farm’s smell, but Neupane and her husband have come up with a solution for their drinking-water problems. They now collect rainwater as an alternative water source. She hopes to find a solution for the other problems too, maybe through some kind of modern technology, but for now she says she’s trying her best to not get offended by her neighbours’ comments and is working on ways to pacify them. It’s difficult to start new enterprises in a setting like hers.
Harikala Thapa is the owner of a local handicraft and toy store in Tansen, Palpa. She learned the craft from her sister-in-law and now makes stuffed animals, dolls, vases, decorative items, pillows, among other things, and sells them at her store. She has been doing this for the past few years and has trained over 200 people, some of whom have opened up their own toy stores around the area.
Thapa was involved in an entirely different profession until only a few years ago. She used to drive hand-held tractors for a living. She worked for a company that sent her to test the soil around different places inside the district. Her job required that she be away from home a lot. “I am a single parent—I have a nine-year-old girl. So I later decided to quit that job because I was working a lot and couldn’t spend enough time with my daughter,” she says.
Thapa does maintain a tight schedule at her new work too, because she’s the sole breadwinner and caretaker of her house, owner of an enterprise and a mother, but she gets to spend more time with her daughter now. “There are times when I wonder what it would be like to be a man. This is mostly during those times when I have to go out to the market or a mela to sell my toys. Men here aren’t questioned when they engage in such activities, but with a woman, especially a single woman, people start talking,” she says. But she is learning to deal with such attitudes. “It’s been almost seven years since my husband passed away. I am struggling, but I have been doing fine, even without the help of a man.”
One characteristic that seemed common to the women I was talking to was that they seemed to be family-oriented and took their role as breadwinners very seriously. That was perhaps why they have been able to overcome benighted notions of how women didn’t intrinsically have what it takes to succeed as entrepreneurs and find some measure of success solely on their grit and ingenuity.
Additionally, I came to learn that many of the women set out to achieve goals that seemed doable, but which required serious commitment on their parts. They were involved in small-scale and low-risk enterprises also because certain societal or gender barriers might have proven insurmountable. And unlike most men here, they didn’t have enough access to a wider network, besides their connections to their families and members of the local community. But despite these constraints, the women I met, owing to their sheer resilience and capacity for innovation, had turned into successful entrepreneurs. On my return journey home from Tansen, I began to wonder how much they could grow their business if only they had half the resources many of us are blessed with.