The mountains of Palpa in central Nepal are famous for dhaka weaves. Besides the colourful handcrafted fabric, Palpa is now also the centre of lemon cultivation in the country, thanks to an enterprising couple.
Goma Bhandari with her husband Hum Nath run the Bhandari Lemon Farm in Kutedanda of Tinau Rural Municipality which does not just supply lemons to surrounding market towns, but grows saplings to encourage others to switch to this cash crop.
Over the years, the two have cultivated a piece of land that was considered too arid for farming, and made money grow on trees.
“If you are disciplined, have a support system and the drive to continue pushing forward, nothing is impossible,” says Goma, who is fondly known in the area as ‘Kagati Didi’.
For someone who did not even know the ABCs of farming till the age of 19, Goma has come a long way to carve a niche in Palpa’s booming agro-business. She was raised in a family that valued education, even for girls.
Busy with school, Goma never had to work in the fields. At her maternal home in Riddhikot, she was the youngest of the three siblings and her father, a schoolteacher, made sure she completed high school.
Over 20 years ago, she married Hum Nath, who was a teacher in a local government school. His salary was not enough to support the new family with two children. Goma wanted to find a salaried job but with ageing in-laws much of the household chores fell on her shoulders.
She would help her father-in-law in the fields, as he patiently taught her the basics of farming. In the terraced farm at the edge of a hill near their home, the two would work the soil to grow maize, millet, buckwheat as well as vegetables.
When her first son was born a year after marriage, Goma knew she had to do something to augment the family income. By now, she had enough confidence to know that farming was the way forward.
“I asked my father-in-law what if we planted two saplings instead of one. He laughed and said that it wasn’t about the number but the care we give to it that yields fruits,” recalls Goma.
Taking all she had learned from her father-in-law, she tried her hand in commercial farming, producing vegetables like cauliflowers and tomatoes and fruits like litchi and mangoes.
This brought in decent earnings, but it was hard work. There was no irrigation, and the monkeys would raid the crops by day, and rabbits and deer would destroy it at night.
“I often thought what the use was of working so hard for months only for all of it to be eaten by wild animals. We had to look for alternatives,” Goma says.
There was an old lemon tree at the edge of their field that her father-in-law had planted decades ago. It did not need much water, nor did they need to tend to as carefully as the other crops. Yet, the tree would yield enough lemons to earn up to Rs10,000 every season.
Goma and Hum Nath studied the lemon market and did some back-of-the-envelope calculations. “We found out there was a huge demand, but Nepal imports millions of rupees worth of lemons every year from India.” The couple was sure they could meet at least a part of the demand locally.
So, in early 2013 they planted ten saplings along with the other vegetables. The acidity and sourness in the fruit and the thorns in the plant meant that the animals would not destroy it. It also did not require much care or water which made it perfect, explained Hum Nath.
Neighbours laughed at them, and the family was not happy with the decision. They all expected the couple to fail.
But Goma added more lemon saplings, and by the third year, they were selling their first harvest in the market in Dumre and Butwal. Today, her lemons go to Chitwan, Kathmandu, Pokhara and further afield.
“No one believed me at first. My in-laws were very worried. As a woman it was difficult navigating the market. But the quality of my produce spoke for itself,” says Goma. “And once things started picking up, our parents were very proud. I am happy they got to see us succeed before they passed away.”
And now, people who once mocked the Bhandaris have started planting lemon themselves. Goma has sold over 10,000 lemon saplings. Annual sales of lemons have crossed 9 tonnes, giving Goma’s company a profit of over Rs1.2 million two years ago.
They also sold 150 litres of concentrated lemon juice to test the market, and they want to add that and lemon pickle to the range of value-added products on offer.
“Farming is not easy but if you work hard there are good returns,” assures Hum Nath. The couple’s oldest son has enrolled in a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture on a full scholarship in Bhairawa. Their younger one is also majoring in science.
When she is not busy on her farm, Goma spends time in community work. She has served as the chair for a local women’s agricultural cooperative, as well as in the management committee of two local schools.
“For the society to progress it is important that women come out of their homes and take ownership of the space around them,” says Goma. “This can only happen when they are financially independent and develop leadership skills.”
She worries about cheaper saplings and lemon from India, but the couple is confident that with economies of scale they can compete. Goma says much of her success is due to her husband and family.
Adds Palpa’s famous Kagati Didi: “If my in-laws and husband were not supportive, I would not be where I am today.”
This is the first in the series Striking Roots, where we feature the stories of entrepreneurs from across the country. If you know someone whose story needs to be shared, email us as firstname.lastname@example.org