Nepali reaps peace dividend 17 years after war

All photos: SANTOSH DAHIT/HIMALKHABAR

At the peak of the Maoist conflict in 2002, Prem Kumari Pun fled her village in the mountains of Rolpa for the relative safety of the plains. It was getting difficult to withstand frequent harassment and threats by the army and Maoist guerrillas.

She quit her teaching job at a local school, and moved down to Ghorahi. This meant she had to start from square one.

“We were in the war zone, and there would be battles in the surrounding mountains, bombs and bullets everywhere. We teachers would be treated with suspicion by both sides,” Pun recalls. “I loved to teach, and I worked very hard at my job. But saving my family was more important.”

In Ghorahi, it was difficult for Prem Kumari to support herself and children without a job. She took up tailoring classes and was a determined student. She won the Best Trainee award in her class, and was contemplating starting her own tailoring shop.

What helped was that as a girl in Rolpa, Prem Kumari had learnt to weave hemp from the cannabis plant that grows wild in the mountains of Nepal. She incorporated this skill into her sewing. 

She registered her business and started collecting hemp fibre in earnest. To keep up with demand, she ordered more of the material from Rukum, Doti and Accham districts to turn into hemp waistcoats, hats, caps, bags and shoes.

The material was new, and most customers in her shop were initially reluctant to try it. Many said it was too rough to be used for clothing. 

“I remember gifting a waistcoat and hat made from hemp to an official at the district Home and Small Industries Office who was reluctant to wear it,” says Pun. But a few days later, the man was at the shop to buy another pair.

The market for Prem Kumari’s hemp products gradually grew, and customers were attracted to the uniqueness of the material which had a cooling effect in the summer and was warm in the winter. 

Soon, she even had customers in Japan, UK and USA, where the environmental and fair trade movements had spread awareness in the public about fibres like hemp.

But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Prem Kumari was forced to cut down staff of 250 to 12. With no international or domestic tourists for most of the past two years, she has been hard-pressed to find customers. 

But there is optimism in the air again as business picks up. Prem Kumari’s Rs7 million hemp clothing business is once more seeing up to Rs20,000 worth of sales a day.

Read also: Why Nepal must legalise cannabis

Four years ago, Prem Kumari Pun was the recipient of the Best Entrepreneur Award at the National Industrial Goods and Technology Exhibition organised by the Home and Small Industries Development Committee in Kathmandu. 

Now, Prem Kumari wants to help more entrepreneurs start their businesses but says the state needs to promote local initiatives. Spreading the success would allow Nepalis to finally reap a real ‘peace dividend’ 17 years after the conflict ended.

Read also: Money grows on trees here, Sahina Shrestha

“We were internal conflict refugees, and had to start from scratch in a new place. But our success has shown that it is possible with determination and diligence,” says Prem Kumari, adding, “but a little bit of help from the government like low-interest loans without collateral, especially for women could help.”

Adapted by Aria Parasai from the Nepali original at himalkhabar.com

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