Bio Bhutan is the countries first enterprise specialized in producing natural and organic certified products from raw materials supplied by local farmer groups. Bio Bhutan celebrates ist 10th anniversary in July this year.
It's not uncommon to be greeted by the refreshing scent of lemon grass in most Bhutanese homes and hotels. This scent comes packaged in classy glass containers with a spray nozzle. This was not the story of lemon grass until about a decade ago.
The journey of Bio Bhutan is a story which will be retold for many years to come for it has touched the lives of many farmers in rural Bhutan while promoting Bhutan's very own products in international markets.
Bio Bhutan's journey began in 2002 at the World Expo in Switzerland where the popularity of the Bhutanese pavilion at the Expo earned an offer of some funds from the largest retailer of organic products in Switzerland called Coop.
With the aim to promote organic agriculture in Bhutan the funds were routed through the Swiss Bhutan Society in Switzerland and Swiss Bhutan Friendship Association in Bhutan and Helvetas. A group of consultants from Switzerland, Germany and Bhutan were recruited to conduct a feasibility study called 'How to create added value for farmers, consumers and the nature in Bhutan?'
With a soft loan of Nu 5.6 million from the Helvetas headquarters in Zurich the findings of the study were converted into a pilot project, which resulted in the birth of Bio Bhutan. Two of the consultants, Dr. Irmela Harz and Karma Yangzom, were tasked with implementing the project.
With Dr. Irmela Harz holding a Ph.D. in Agriculture and Karma Yangzom a Master's degree in Environmental Management, they did have the right experience to move the project forward. But setting up a business and running it as well was a big challenge.
The then Deputy Resident Representative of Helvetas, Dr Saamdu Chhetri, had then advised them: "Five years is the 'testing period' for any company. And if a company lasts beyond five years it will survive." Hence, the first goal for Bio Bhutan was, of course, to survive until the fifth year.
Bio Bhutan's journey officially started sometime in 2004 with the recruitment of its first employee, Yanka Dawa, and the creation of its blue sky, green cloud and white mountain logo which to many Bhutanese has become synonymous with lemongrass air spray. After accomplishing the hurdle of obtaining a business licence, an advisory board was formed in 2005. The board comprised five members representing Helvetas, the two Bhutan-Swiss Friendship Organisations, the private sector and a Nongovernmental Organization.
The lemon grass air spray was the first product launched by Bio Bhutan in 2005. It became an instant success and is until today a very popular souvenir. For someone like Phuntsho Choden, a business woman who travels around a lot, it is her favorite gift item from home. "My friends in the US love the lemon grassspray," she said. "It's the Perfect souvenir to take from Bhutan."
The sale of lemon grass oil increased when Bio Bhutan started exporting it to Vossen & Co, a Belgian company specialised in trading essential oils. This resulted in the export of about 5.5 tonnes of lemon grass oil to them between 2007 and 2010. Unfortunately, due to the European economic crisis, the company stopped ordering more oil.
Meanwhile, after the Royal command in 2004 allowing local communities to collect and sell the high value herb in government organised auctions, Bio Bhutan started trading with Cordyceps sinensis.
However, the next two Products, Sha Gogona cheese and spiced dried Yak meat did not see the same fate as the lemongrass oil and spray. Both Products failed because of problems associated with lack of proper technology and expertise, mismatches between supply and demand, inadequate storage facilities, and high rates of damage ultimately resulting in huge financial losses.
Glory days for Bio Bhutan did not last long. By late 2007, the soft loan provided by Helvetas had run out and the only proper source of income was from the seasonal export of the lemon grass oil and Cordyceps. To help sustain the business, Dr. Irmela Harz started lending her personal money.
Just as Bio Bhutan was struggling and in urgent need of new ideas, new products and new sources of income, the SNV's (Netherlands Development Organisation) Local Capacity Building programme brought new hope through a consulting opportunity which resulted in the creation of six new Bio Bhutan products between 2007 and 2010.
The products were turmeric powder, ginger powder, ginger tea, herbal tea, wild flower honey and amls juice sourced from five new farmer groups namely, Dekiling Ginger group in Sarpang, Takhabi Women's group in Zhemgang, Nangkor Pipla Management group in Zhemgang, Lalikharka Bee Keeping Association in Tsirang and Community Forest Management Group of Adha Rukha in Wangdi Phrodrang.
The art of making soap was another most interesting experience that Bio Bhutan went through. The unique soap compositions were developed based on the rich flora of Bhutan with funding from the Sustainable Development Secretariat under the Gross National Happiness Commission of Bhutan.
In addition to the soaps, a Soap Manufacturing Unit was also established in Sherichu with funding from UNDP, the Essential Oil Development Programme and Bio Bhutan. The manufacturing unit is now running full swing with four fulltime woman employees.
This is what Tshewang Lham, one of the employees, had to say: "I studied till 10th standard but due to financial problems I gave up my studies and stayed home with my parents helping them in the fields. I wanted to help them financially so I joined the soap making team here in Sherichu and I would like to say that it has helped me a lot. If there is continued support from Bio Bhutan in this project then I can assure that there will be many girls like us who will be benefitted." Today, Bio Soap is one of the bestselling products loved by both international and Bhutanese users. "It has natural antiseptic and skin care ingredients“ said Tashi Yangzom, a frequent Bio Soap user. "I love the smell of mustard oil and ginger from the soap."
According to the staff of Bio Bhutan, the best part of their work is the experience of working with farmers and seeing them grow into independent entrepreneurs.
When Bio Bhutan first started, it partnered with only one farmer group, the Dozam Community Forestry Management group which had 60 members including four distillers. Today Bio Bhutan has a network of 20 farmers' groups in eastern, western and southern Bhutan comprising over 1,000 members.
After 10 years, Yanka Dawa is still the backbone of Bio Bhutan. Currently the enterprise has a total of 10 full-time employees and it also engages seasonal workers for the collection of honey, processing of ginger and other products.
Despite all the challenges, Bio Bhutan has grown and matured into a well-established tax-paying enterprise helping to generate hard currency from its expanding export markets. The next big step for the enterprise is the establishment of a well equipped processing unit. It also has a number of new products in the horizon.
This is the story of the first ten years of Bio Bhutan which has paved the way for it to continue its journey of growth together with its farmers. Just like the beautiful lingering scent of the lemon grass, let's hope Bio Bhutan's story will linger around for a long time.By: Tshering Chuki Gyamtsho (Freelance Journalist) in: Druk Air Inflight Magazine „TASHI DELEK“ July-August 2014, pages 54-58.