Japanese social entrepreneur Ms. Kotobuki Naka fulfilled her vision to enrich and empower the lives of community members of Khotang, transforming local heirloom peanuts into a peanut butter manufacturing business which became SANCHAI. The peanut butter brand has steadily become popular in Nepal and her native Japan for its distinct flavour and social values, which gives the consumers a different level of satisfaction from other nut butters on the market.
We spoke to Ms.Naka about the challenges of opening a business in a rural part of Nepal and her mission to create a brighter future for the people of Khotang. Read our conversation to follow the journey of SANCHAI peanut butter from the undiscovered hills of Khotang to a jar in your local farmers market.
What was the motivation behind the start of your company?
I was working at an IoT ( Internet-of-things) company for an education support project in Khotang. Around this time, I came to learn about peanut farming there and had a vision to transform an existing skill into a business that would provide employment opportunities to the local people, raise their standard of living and ultimately make them happy so, I opened a factory in Khotang. The main motivation behind our business is larger than profit.
How did you raise the funds for your business?
I wanted to focus on starting a business that could foster both economic and social development and independence of the Khotang community. I pitched the idea to my boss and was able to secure an FDI(Foreign Direct Investment) joint venture for the start-up.
What is the inspiration behind the name of the brand?
All Nepali people are well acquainted with the greeting “Sanchai?” – ‘are you well?’. As the product is manufactured in Nepal, we wanted a name that represented the country globally. Sanchai is the brand name under the company Bipana Inc. Pvt. Ltd, which we established in 2016. “Bipana” also signifies turning a vision into reality which is exactly what we achieved with our product.
What strategies did you use to gain the community members’ trust?
During our start-up phase, we put up announcements to recruit factory members but had to wait for hours for only a few people to show up. I realised I needed to utilise a different approach thus, started to make personal visits to their house ourselves and individually explained – “The factory we’re about to build isn’t built by us to hire you, but by yourself to help you grow and improve the land for which you need time and rules. It is necessary to protect it.” Similarly, we also used to encourage the farmers by showing them our finished product and customer feedback. These strategies gradually helped us establish trust between each other and led to finding the SANCHAI team members.
Can you describe the process of selecting and training your current staff members?
The production process does not require intense manual work and instead requires attention to detail and quality care for which we have 12 workers in the production line. At our initial hiring session, most of the interviewees were female and when we hired only the best talent which coincidentally became an all women workforce. Our staff were originally professionals in housework thus, quickly became accustomed to the work. Furthermore, apart from the factory manager, we made it a point to train everyone equally and with the same responsibilities.
You have stated that Khotang has a very good topography for peanut agriculture, what are the main factors that influence this?
Khotang is situated in a very dry climate which provides optimal growth conditions such as the well-drained soil in which our crops grow. Another important factor is due to the peanuts being largely undiscovered outside Khotang, the same type of heirloom peanut has been harvested for generations without any pesticides or genetic modifications thereby, retaining a high protein value and unique taste, which is what SANCHAI uses.
Can you explain the process of producing peanut butter in the SANCHAI factory?
The peanuts are manually refined or shelled by our workers, with precision and time. Although it takes longer, manual processing is better than using peeling machines used in large scale productions because when the shell is crushed, the outside of the seed is scratched and oxidation starts, which affects the taste and simultaneously creates new employment opportunities. The shelled peanuts are roasted followed by the automated steps of grinding and mixing to create a smooth textured paste and finally sealed in packets. We practice strict hygiene and quality control multiple times between production stages.
What social impacts have you observed through the establishment of SANCHAI?
We have also been able to guide our workers to gain both financial independence and confidence through their own hard work. They were already used to roasting peanuts, so they learned to grow their own skills by working as a team. Besides this, when they see the final result of their work and listen to the positive customer feedback, it brings them immense satisfaction and recognition for their work.
I have also observed positive changes in their personal habits. For instance, we continuously educate our factory workers about the importance of maintaining hygiene standards, punctuality and following the correct protocol. One of our staff members, Bina, once made a very memorable statement – “After all these years, I learned not just how to earn money but to properly maintain my own hygiene, which is the biggest lesson I learned from the company.”
What is included in your product line and where can consumers buy your product?
We have two types of peanut butter, sweetened and unsweetened which comes in two different sizes. They are available for direct purchase online through our Instagram and Facebook pages or for physical purchases, we are in various locations around Kathmandu, Patan, Pokhara and also Japan, all of which are listed on our website. You can always find us at the farmers market in Le Sherpa too!
SANCHAI is also sold in Japan, what is the response to the product?
The Japanese customers were surprised that Nepal also exported peanut butter as it is not a conventional part of Nepali cuisine and exclaimed the taste as very unique and delicious. They also sympathise with the fact that it is born from the hard work of the people of Khotang, which is another reason many people support our product.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned through SANCHAI?
When people ask me if it’s difficult to do this line of work, I agree straight away but at the same time, the happiness and satisfaction I receive in return is immeasurable and perfectly embodies our company mission.
SANCHAI is now stocked in over 15 store locations in Nepal! Check out their website to find out where you can try authentic himalayan peanut butter.