Kamala Gautam, GPJ Nepal

Organic Farming Advocate Sows Seeds of Nepal’s Burgeoning Coffee Industry

Dhakeshwor Ghimire, who has been raising organic coffee in Nepal’s Palpa district for more than 30 years, demonstrates his coffee processing unit. Ghimire actively promotes coffee production as a way to create economic opportunity in Nepal.  

Nepal Organic Coffee Products produces 20 metric tons (22 short tons) of coffee every year. The founder employs 25 people and buys the coffee from a network of 250 Nepalese farmers.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL – When a flood destroyed Dhakeshwor Ghimire’s maize crop but left his coffee plants intact, he discovered that his secondary crop held great promise. Three decades later, Ghimire, 55, is revered as the father of Nepal’s organic coffee industry.

Ghimire believes coffee offers Nepalese farmers a path out of poverty.

“If we plant coffee in the inclined land at the foot of Himalayas, in between 800 and 1,600 meters (2,625 and 5,250 feet), it can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for a poor country like Nepal,” Ghimire says. “I am continuously working toward this goal.”

Ghimire is from Palpa district in Nepal’s Western region, where most of the nation’s coffee is produced. While farming maize, he planted 20 coffee plants in his garden as a hobby back in 1979. They were the only crops to survive a major flood three years later.

Ghimire realized two benefits of growing coffee: The plants prevent soil erosion, and the beans can be sold on national and international markets. So he started producing coffee on a commercial scale. He grew the seedlings from existing plants in a small nursery on his land and then planted them by section until he had covered the 5 acres where he had previously grown maize.

In 1989, Ghimire decided to grow and process his coffee using organic methods. He replaced chemical fertilizers with cow manure, sun-dried the coffee beans, and then husked and ground the beans using machines made of wood and stone.

Ghimire took to organic farming almost by accident, he says. After reading a newspaper article about foreign buyers rejecting Indian coffee because of the farmers’ heavy use of chemical fertilizer, he decided to adopt Nepal’s traditional organic farming methods.

“I started to read more on organic and nonorganic ways of farming,” Ghimire says. “I found that through organic farming, plants had longer life, yielded more production, generated more income and was healthier for consumption. So I continued with organic farming.”  

He also found that organic farming produced heavier beans that smelled and tasted richer than coffee produced by nonorganic methods, he says. The weight demonstrated a higher quality and value in local markets, driving up the selling price of organic coffee beans.

Ghimire served his organic coffee at home to neighbors and visitors who had heard about his unique growing and processing methods. He educated them about organic coffee and encouraged them and other farmers to grow it.

In 1995, he registered his company, Nepal Organic Coffee Products, as a cottage industry.

Today, Nepal Organic Coffee Products produces 20 metric tons (22 short tons) of coffee every year, says Ghimire, its managing director. He employs 25 people and buys his coffee from a network of 250 Nepalese farmers. Local coffee houses, hotels and department stores sell his coffee.

When he farmed maize, his profit – about 50,000 Nepalese rupees ($520) a year – was barely sufficient to run his household, he says. Coffee production has been far more lucrative.

“With the sale of organic coffee, after all the expenses, I save up to 100,000 rupees ($1,035) every month,” he says.

Ghimire wants other farmers to raise their incomes just as dramatically, he says. To encourage coffee farming, his company provides free organic coffee plants and refining machines to farmers who request assistance. It also provides free training in organic coffee production and quality control to farmers who most need it.  

“When people knew nothing about coffee, I started organic coffee production from the village level and helped the government to establish the tea and coffee board at the national level,” Ghimire says.

Through various leadership positions, Ghimire encouraged small farmers to turn to organic coffee production at a time when no one had heard of it, he says.

Now, more than 30,000 farmers in 14 districts grow organic coffee, according to 2013 data from the Nepal Coffee Producers Association.

Coffee farming in Nepal began in 1938 with Hira Giri, an ascetic of the Gulmi district, according to local belief, says Raman Prasad Pathak, executive director of the National Tea and Coffee Development Board of the Ministry of Agriculture Development.

Nepal’s climate suits commercial organic coffee production, and its coffee meets a high standard of taste, Ghimire says.

Seventy percent of the coffee produced in Nepal is exported, Pathak says.

Five of the 12 companies that export coffee beans are certified organic, says Shyam Prasad Bhandari, the chairman of the Nepal Coffee Producers Association, a post held formerly by Ghimire.

The country’s coffee production falls short of global demand for Nepalese coffee, Ghimire says.

The demand for Nepalese coffee in the international market was 6,000 metric tons (6,615 short tons) in fiscal year 2012-13, but the nation exported only 418 metric tons (460 short tons), Pathak says. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of Nepalese coffee sells for about $15 to $20 (1,445 rupees to 1,925 rupees) on the international market.

“There is a growing demand for Nepalese coffee – especially the high-altitude Arabica coffee – in the overseas market,” Pathak says.

Ghimire has been promoting the coffee industry in the hope that local farmers will cash in on that demand.

Ghimire is the pioneer of organic coffee production in Nepal. He began farming and producing organic coffee in 1989, Pathak says. He is considered the “guru” of Nepal’s organic coffee producers.

Ghimire also plays a key role in the development of the country’s coffee industry, Pathak says. He has won hundreds of prizes and certificates of appreciation for his work in organic coffee production in Nepal.

“Ghimire is always present in the important meetings related to coffee held in the ministry regarding policymaking and price allocation,” Pathak says.

Bhandari, chairman of the Nepal Coffee Producers Association, was working as a teacher when he met Ghimire in 2008 and was inspired to plant organic coffee on his plot in the Syanja district, he says. Within a few years, he was working with Ghimire to encourage others to improve their income by growing organic coffee.

Iman Singh Kunwar, a farmer in the Palpa district, says Ghimire also inspired him to plant organic coffee on his plot in 2003. He began with free plants he received from Ghimire’s company, and he continues to rely on his guidance.

“Whether it is the coffee garden management, an insect infestation or any other small problem, I always seek Ghimire’s advice,” Kunwar says.

As a grain farmer, Kunwar found it difficult to earn enough to survive, he says. But he now earns more than 300,000 rupees ($3,100) a year.

“It is due to Ghimire that my financial status has improved,” Kunwar says.

Several producers who were inspired by Ghimire’s experience to go into organic coffee farming are now exporting coffee overseas, Bhandari says. One such company is the Coffee Cooperative Union, an umbrella organization of organic coffee cooperatives in Lalitpur district.

The Coffee Cooperative Union was established in 2008 thanks to Ghimire’s inspiration and advice, says Bishnu Timilsina, the manager of the organization, in a phone interview. It now exports coffee to Korea, Germany and Japan.

Ghimire says his company, which currently focuses on serving the local market, plans to export its coffee to the United States one day.

“Our production is not enough to meet the demands of Nepalese market,” Ghimire says. “All the product is consumed here. There is a huge demand in the international market, but we are not in a position to meet that demand.”

Beyond Ghimire’s company, he aims to continue encouraging development of the industry. He plans to donate 20,000 coffee plants to nine village development committee areas that are eligible for coffee production this year. Next year, he plans to donate 45,000 plants.

Ghimire says he is devoted to promoting organic coffee farming because it promises to expand economic opportunities in Nepal, giving citizens an alternative to foreign employment.

“In expanding the organic coffee farming all around the country, along with income generation, I also aim to create job opportunities for people who are thinking of migrating overseas,” he says.

GPJ translated this article from Nepali.