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The pedal-powered Allo leaf industry of Nepal's foothills

In a one-time Maoist stronghold, Nepali women take to micro-enterprise to secure livelihoods and plan for the future

25.04.2015
The pedal-powered Allo leaf industry of Nepal's foothills

By Michael Vurens van Es

KATHMANDU, Nepal

In Syaulibang, a remote village in Nepal’s mid-western foothills, the gentle clacking of pedal-powered wood looms marks the difference between subsistence and the opportunity that modest profit brings.

Nestled in a valley at the confluence of the Rapti and Gandaki rivers, and dwarfed by the towering, snow-capped Kothi Himal, the village leads a burgeoning cottage industry that weaves yarn from the fibers of allo, a native plant also known as 'Himalayan stinging nettle.'

The perennial shrub grows wild in areas north of Nepal’s Terai plains and south of the Himalaya proper and was used by Janajati indigenous groups such as the Rai, Limbu and Magar to produce fabric prior to the onset of mass-produced, machine-made cotton in the early 20th century.

With orders for allo-based goods coming from as far afield as western Europe and Japan, the industry is being touted as a means to transform the country’s hardscrabble mid-hill villages into the rural idylls that Kathmandu’s neglect has prevented.

Whether the industry achieves its potential, successes to date have been critical to securing livelihoods and mitigating poverty.    

Sunita Budha Magar, an illiterate 26-year-old woman from Pyuthan’s indigenous Magar community, has been working in Syaulibang’s stone-cut allo factory for almost three years.

With the 350 Nepali rupees [$3.50] per meter of fabric she earns, she is able to support her family, which includes an eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, while keeping her husband from journeying abroad in search of work.

"My husband could not save any money after being outside of the country for two years. He went outside on a loan, and only managed to pay the loan off, which was about 100,000 rupees ($1000)," she explained.

According to Magar, who along with her husband owns a plot of land that yields just 16 kilograms of maize per annum, the industry has allowed the family a degree of stability and the ability to plan for the future.   

"Now I’m engaged in this and have a little bit of money," she said. 

Bhima Bishwokarma, a dalit woman who has been working at the factory for a year now, says that before taking up the opportunity she spent her time grazing cattle and gathering wood, but is now able to contribute to her family’s financial upkeep.   

"It has been helpful for my family," she said. 

The local industry, which was started in 2004 by seventy-year-old village matriarch Padma Pun, operates year-round, with harvesting and processing of the allo plant occurring during the winter months, from November through February.

Though at the time of Nepal’s decade-long civil war forest areas were often off-limits due to the presence of security and rebel forces, according to Pun, Syaulibang’s industry was initiated with the blessing of the Maoists.    

"We used to be very hospitable to the Maoists, so they had no problems," she said. 

After the war ended in 2006, the village, which is connected to the outside world by a single, barely-navigable track, was able to establish contacts in Kathmandu’s handicrafts and carpet industries.

According to Pun, two factors played a role in the industry’s post-war growth: "One, more people came to the business, and two, we had more market linkages."

Still, while the industry has generated important sources of income for those involved, it remains in its infancy, and lacks access to capital that would allow it to meet the demand of the country’s carpet manufacturers, many of which are now looking to substitute allo in place of imported wool from New Zealand.

At present, the twine used to make the fabric is being produced either by a pedal-powered spindle or is fashioned completely by hand.

This process is unnecessarily laborious, and provides those performing the work with approximately 65 rupees [$0.65] per day, a figure that, when converted into a per-hour rate, is more than five times below even the government-stipulated minimum wage.

The women take turns performing this work, while at the same time scouting for industry contacts that could process the twine more efficiently and enhance allo’s returns.

Whatever the present drawbacks, enthusiasm for the industry and its possibilities is difficult to dim.     

Jugmala Serchan, whose husband brought Syaulibang’s produce to market before being debilitated by rheumatism of the leg, is said to hold the village’s record for productivity.

The 46-year-old, who has been making allo fabric for the past five years, recently produced 250 meters of fabric over a three-month period, earning her nine-member family some 87,500 rupees [$875].

While speaking of her plans to buy more land and build a new house, Serchan explains her work ethic.

"You have to feed your stomach and do it," she said.

Though allo’s potential and present returns are far greater than subsistence levels, its sustainable expansion depends on creating the linkages that allow it to become more efficient.

As Nepal seeks to kick-start its moribund economy, for villages across the country’s Himalayan foothills the opportunities allo provides are clear, and give hope that significant economic growth, when it comes, will transcend the narrow limits of the Kathmandu valley.

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