Counting Greens!

“We are not sure if we are making a profit or a loss when we sell our crops. We are earning some money, we know, but we never keep track. We are like people grappling in the dark when it comes to our accurate income.”

– members of Saunetham Farmer’s Group, Gudel (January 2015)

Saunthetham Farmer’s Group in Gudel

In rural Nepal, most families follow subsistence agriculture as their chief occupation. Employment opportunities are extremely limited. In recent years, this has driven a significant portion of the village youth to pursue risky jobs abroad specially in Gulf countries. Now, Nepal derives more than 30% of its annual GDP through remittance sent by these migrant workers. In our working areas in some of the most remote valleys of Eastern Nepal, outbound migration is lower than other parts of the country due to the seasonal employment provided by trekking jobs in the Everest region. However, both of these big income providers come with their own share of hardship, and challenges including family separation as well as dangerous working environments.

A porter in the Everest region resting briefly!

When we started an ambitious agriculture program in 2014 by popular and repeated demand from our partner communities, we set new income generation as one of our primary goals. Our first priority was improved nutrition, but additional income support to families by selling new cash crops would be a close second. To this end, we set a goal that at least 50% of our farmers will be earning more than USD $200 at the end of 5 years.

A simple goal of our evaluation efforts was to learn how much each farmer household was earning each year. But when we asked people how much they had made, we got answers like the ones provided by our members from Saunthem Farmer’s Group. It proved difficult for people to remember what they had sold and for how much and what volume in the past year. Stumped, we put together our head to devise a simple tool which will help farmers track their farming activities including income and expenses.

After piloting of a few tentative forms and sheets, we finally created the Farmer Record Sheet (FRS) – a small booklet like a bank passbook which is provided to each and every farmer so they can record their activities and earnings each month.

Second edition of our Farmer’s Record Sheet

There are separate columns to record which vegetables or crops were sold by the farmers, what amount and how much they earned from those sales. It also has columns to record expenses incurred for farming activities like purchase of farm tools or seeds. Farmers can also record what vegetables they have planted on that particular month as well as what they have harvested. This sheet also has a place to record any diseases or problems encountered in the kitchen garden every month.

Page 1 and 2 of the Farmer Record Sheet!
Page 3 and 4 of the Farmer Record Sheet!

These 4 pages shown above are repeated for 12 months so that farmers can enter their activities for the entire year in a single book. After a 12 month cycle, farmers can then consolidate all of their expenses, sales, crops planted and harvested – thus having a complete picture of what their household profit has been, which crops were more successful, and what their household consumed throughout the year.

Our evaluation team records their profit every three months – thus giving us the important data we need to measure the output of our agriculture program!

Distribution of Farmer Record Sheet for the second year in Sotang
Distribution of Farmer Record Sheet in Rakha.
Distribution of Farmer Record Sheet in Sungdel

 

Since more than 50% of our farmers cannot properly read or write, we have multiple approaches to make sure that the records are filled in regularly. In some farmer’s groups, we have involved the children of the household, making filling out the forms part of their daily homework. Our agriculture technicians also visit farmer’s groups during their monthly meetings and help the farmers who were unable to fill in their records. Within each farmer’s group, we also help form a sub-committee of literate farmers who checks the books of other members and help them fill these out.

Agriculture Technician Thamsari briefing farmer’s group about how to fill the records!
Farmer members discussing about Farmer record sheet during their monthly meeting in Sotang.
Members of a farmer’s group helping each other out in filling their record book.

Our agriculture income data has become more robust, reliable and organized since we replaced the household survey method with the record sheet system. This has been working well for almost 2 years now. Our latest records show that 82% of our farmers from 9 communities are earning an average income of Nrs. 18,941 (~USD 180) by selling vegetables and spice crops! There are currently 3,465 farmers within our agriculture program.

Buddi Kumari Kulung from Gudel shows us her Farmer Record Sheet and capsicum pepper that she is growing in a sack

Now, farmers like Buddi Kumari have a clear picture of what their yearly income is from farming. Based on the data that she has written down in her record book, she can make informed choices of which crops to invest in the coming years. A tool that we developed to help us understand how effective our program was, has become an important tool in helping our farmers evolve into entrepreneurs.

Chandramani Rai from Rokhola Farmer’s Group shows us her Farmer’s Record Sheet.
Farmer Record Sheet of Chandra Kumari Rai from Rokhola Farmer’s Group.
Chandramani Rai shows us an inside page of her FRS. According to the entry for this month,  she sold banana and hot pepper and earned Nrs. 1600 (USD16).

 

Seasons change.

We are proud of our mistakes. They are what help us learn to do even better. 

At dZi, we go to extra lengths to listen to community members, to learn from our past experiences, and to troubleshoot before we begin any project. However, despite this we still make mistakes. Sometimes a lot of them.

As we see it, the most important aspect of working with a community is to devote the time and resources necessary to identify these mistakes, and to fix them.

“It is so hard to close the windows of the school. We cannot do it alone; we need two people just to shut the doors and windows, because they are all warped”

— Female Teacher at Chitre Primary School – speaking about challenges they faced after some of the wood used to construct a school building wasn’t adequately dried before use.

FY3

Everything in our projects – as with most human processes – is in flux. A late monsoon can severely lengthen the time it takes to move construction materials, a drop in exchange rates can raise budgets significantly, political instability can halt all staff movement.

We strive to be a true learning organization, and to be flexible and agile so that we can respond to changes as they occur. Our greatest teachers are the members of communities we work with – they have learned to thrive in tremendously difficult terrain, and to create highly-functional societies despite great poverty. Our long term partnership has built a level of trust where community members are equally eager to point out our mistakes as they are to support our efforts to correct them.

We continually fine tune our methods to improve our impacts, and we spend enough time in each community to know the people, resources, and challenges in depth. This allows us to come up with solutions that are local, grassroots and community driven.

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      Being part of the community is the first step of our “deep development approach”

This year, we made a massive organizational change to address a need that community members were voicing subtly over a number of years. As a US-based organization, it made sense to pin our fiscal year to the Gregorian calendar – starting on January 1st. This made financial record keeping and yearly auditing much easier on the US side, and we aligned our Nepal office records to match.

Accordingly, our projects all broke ground in January – right in the middle of the dry season. This then only allowed for five months of good weather before the monsoon rains began – not enough time to complete a major construction project like a school.

FY2
Our original fiscal year was such that the monsoons interrupted the construction season

One unintended consequence of this short timeline meant that the wood used for construction often did not have time to properly dry after it was cut to specifications. This led to warped window and door frames which would only close with great effort.

Monsoon is also a time where community members are extremely busy working in the fields to plant their annual rice harvest. Asking for local contribution to projects during this time would put undue pressure on local families, not to mention the fact that working in the rain is miserable.

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                                      Monsoon is the busiest time for farmers.

Travel and transporting materials during the monsoon is extremely dangerous due to flooding and extremely slippery trails. Projects that carryover into the monsoon put local community members at greater risk of injury while contributing local materials.

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                         Commuting in monsoon is perilous, to say the least.

One of the major sources of learning for us is our project evaluations. We evaluate each project and collect community feedback to understand impacts, challenges, and what we could do better next time. When looking at our evaluation data, we noticed that 70% of evaluations noted that the timing of projects was a significant challenge.

In response to this clear message, we began the process of shifting our official fiscal year to match the Nepali fiscal year which begins in July. This required a fair amount of juggling and reworking our financial systems – but it was well worth it. We officially began our new fiscal year on July 1st, 2015.

 

FY10
Our new fiscal year allows for at least eight months of uninterrupted good weather for construction projects.

 

Changing our fiscal year, and in turn, the timing of our project cycle will make our construction work even stronger and more in sync with the natural seasons in our partner communities. Now, our community partners can prepare for the construction season by purchasing materials and preparing construction sites during the monsoons. This is followed by eight months of continuous good weather and the bulk of construction happening when community members have more time to contribute.

While something like when we choose to close our books may seem at the outset to have little bearing upon the lives of our community partners, it can actually make the difference between a door that opens or a door that is permanently shut. We are certain, as well, that this isn’t the last aspect of our work that will need to be reflected upon and improved. Indeed, we are looking forward to our next mistake – as this provides us with another opportunity to listen, to learn, and to do even better.

Fy1

 

 

Growing chiraito-growing incomes

“There are people who have returned from Arab countries, and who have stopped going to trekking as porters because they see that chiraito cultivation enables them to earn far more money right in their home. dZi supported seed and training have only begun to show production from 2013 so many more people are now inspired to grow chiraito. We can never save enough money with potato and maize, but now we realize that we can with Chiraito. I am one of those returned from Gulf country to try my hand at Chiraito farming in my own village.”

– Lhakpa Sherpa, local farmer & trader of Chiraito, Rakha

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Chiraito (Swertia chirayita) is an herb with medicinal properties that is endemic to the foothills of Himalayas, that grows at altitudes ranging from 1,600 to 2,500 meters. It fetches a very high value, and is in demand throughout the Asian continent as an important medicinal plant.

Wild Chiraito can be found in the forests  of our working area like the tiny hamlet of Sibdu. The locals have used this as medicine for various ailments including fevers and headaches.  About a decade ago, small tradesmen came into Sibdu looking for wild chiraito. The locals assisted these traders to harvest it from their forests during the monsoon season. Overharvesting soon led to the wild chiraito becoming extremely scarce and the income stream dried up.

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The Village of Sibdu

In 2010, dZi  collaborated with our local NGO partner Creative Porter Society (CPS) to provide 300 farmers with training on how to cultivate chirito domestically – including many from Sibdu. We also distributed a small amount of free seeds to a number of households of the area to get things started.

There was initially some skepticism from local farmers who believed that wild plants wouldn’t do well when cultivated domestically. We provided support to anyone in the communities who was willing to try. The farmers that diligently maintained their crops – including Kusang Sherpa from Sibdu – realized a very lucrative harvest when the plant became mature after three years.

After the first sale of domesticated chirito, interest amongst other farmers exploded, and Kusang earned 80,000 rupees from selling seeds alone. This amount is slightly more than the current annual per-capita income in Nepal.

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Kusang’s wife Doma hugs her mature Chiraito Plant

 

Chirito helps farmers earn hard cash that is virtually unavailable in our remote project areas, and reduces the need to take out high-interest loans to cover expenses such as food, school fees, and marriage or funeral rites.  We have also set up a local farmers’ cooperative that supports bulk sales of chirito (thus fetching higher prices) and provides savings and loan facilities to the entire community. This marks a huge step forward for economic empowerment.

The cooperative Creative Herbs Group was opened in the community of Rakha by CPS in our support to assist farmers in investing in commercial agriculture ventures such as Chiraito. Through this cooperative, now 82 farmers from Sungdel, Dipsung and Rakha have obtained certification as Chiraito farmers in the District Forest Office which will ensure that they do not have to pay yearly levy to their community forest which they are doing now. This has also increased their coalition with government offices as commercial farmers.

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We have now expanded the Chiraito training and support to all our working areas, and will have over 550 farmers involved by the end of 2014.

 

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A community member shows us her harvest of seeds, and Chiraito stalk!