From fellows of Teach for Nepal to the founders of Taja Agro Farm, Padam and Ujjwal are working towards solving the deeper and greater problems rooted in villages of Nepal. Through Taja Agro Farm they are not only producing fresh organic vegetables in the village of Sindhupalchowk but are also making the people in village believe that one does not have to migrate to city areas and fly abroad to get a job and make a living.
Read our conversation with the duo and learn about their venture!
Please introduce yourself and how Taja Farm ideated?
Padam: I am Padam Raj Awasthi,co-founder and CEO of Taja Agro Farm. I am also an Alumni at Teach for Nepal and that is where the concept of Taja Agro Farm ideated, almost 3 years ago. The idea of starting Taja Agro Farm struck me when teaching entrepreneurship to young students in the village of Sindhupalchowk as a Teach for Nepal fellow.
Ujjwal: I am Ujjwal Shrestha, co-founder of Taja Agro Farm, currently pursuing Master’s Degree at King’s College. Along with Taja Agro Farm, I am also working in the art and ayurvedic field. Like Padam ji mentioned, the idea of Taja Agro Farm came up when working as the fellows for Teach for Nepal. When we left Kathmandu to start teaching, we thought that now we’d be having fresh vegetables grown in villages, but the reality was completely different. Instead of fresh vegetables we spent our entire fellowship eating potatoes because no other vegetables were available there. So, the shortage of vegetables we saw there, basically led us to start Taja Agro Farm.
What exactly is Taja Agro Farm?
Ujjwal: Taja Agro Farm is an organic farm situated in Bhote Namlang, Sindhupalchowk. However, it is not simply a farm, there is more to it. When we started teaching children from rural Lalitpur, Sindhupalchowk and Dhanusha as Teach for Nepal fellows, we realized that no matter how hard we tried to mitigate illiteracy and work on equality, in long run the students simply dropped out due to the financial and other reasons. They then either migrated to Kathmandu or the Middle East in search of jobs. So the major problem here is not lack of education, but what they lack is the knowledge and consciousness of using the skills they possess in order to make money work for them. We wanted to solve this deeper problem and started off with mushroom farming in the village.
Padam: So Taja Agro Farm not only produces organic vegetables but also utilizes the resources like the arable lands and skills of the people and ensures two things- meeting the daily demand of vegetables and employment. We are setting an example in the community and the young generation that opportunities are available in their village too.
What changes have you seen in the village after the establishment of Taja Agro Farm?
Padam: We have seen a lot of changes. Before Taja Agro Farm, the villagers were completely dependent on the vegetables supplied from Kalimati, Kathmandu. But now after witnessing Taja Agro Farm, 10 new farms have been registered under the VDC and some villagers have also started farming for their consumption. Moreover, the distribution channel has improved a lot.
Ujjwal: We have seen significant changes in the children too. After providing mushroom training to the teenage students there, we have observed that they have learned important life skills like leadership, management, interpersonal skills and teamwork. In addition to this, the students who hesitated opening up in classes are now curious about farming. To be honest, I think we have been able to bring a change in their thought process. The dropout rates has also decreased drastically.
Who is involved in the farming process, is it the villagers or your team?
Padam: We started mushroom farming with Grade 9 and 10 students back then. Now we have high school graduates from the village working with us but they don’t work as full time employees. For daily farming activities we ourselves are involved.
What are other different vegetables grown in Taja Agro Farm and who are your major customers?
Padam: We currently have tomatoes, cauliflower, pepper, capsicum, cabbage, beans and cucumber. We are mainly focused on seasonal vegetables. Talking about the customers, small restaurants (khaja ghar) and individual households buy our products.
Are your customers limited to Sindhupalchowk or have you been supplying the vegetables to Kathmandu and other city areas too?
As of now the vegetables from Taja Agro Farm are available only in Pachpokhari Khanpal Gaupalika, Sindhupalchowk. We have also started supplying the vegetables to Melamchi but we have not been able to reach Kathmandu and other city areas.
What were the major challenges in running Taja Agro Farm?
Padam: We are operating in the rural area so logistics is one of the major challenges for us. Majority of agricultural tools, resources and raw materials have to be purchased from Kathmandu. Also the road to Sindhupalchowk is also not well developed, so transportation is an issue especially during the rainy seasons. Similarly, convincing, motivating and encouraging people to engage in farming and start their own farms in the village is another challenge.
Ujjwol: Likewise, convincing people that our products are organic is also tough. We feel that people find it difficult to trust us in that aspect. Also since we are organic producers, our cost is slightly higher than vegetables supplied from Kathmandu. So, making people understand why our products are a bit more costly is challenging.
What makes Taja Agro Farm different?
Padam: One of our unique selling points is we have an efficient delivery system in place so the customers can get their order within 2 to 3 hours. This allows customers to have freshly picked vegetables. Also we give huge importance to hygiene, we make sure that the vegetables are properly washed before they are dispatched. In addition, we also buy the vegetables from the farmers here as much as possible.
Ujjwal: Along with this, we are also giving priority to environment sustainability. For instance, one of the initiatives we have taken to reduce the plastic usage is that we bring back the plastic packaging that we used the previous day when we deliver the vegetables to our customers. Similarly we are also working on the supply chain. We are trying to supply the vegetables grown here to other places of Nepal by properly branding it.
What are your future plans for Taja Agro Farm?
Padam: Our short term plan is to make the village self-sufficient in terms of vegetables. We are also planning to open a collection center for all the products from the village and sell them to city areas. Also, shortage of vegetables is not the problem only in Sindhupalchowk but many other villages face the same problem. So, we have the plan of opening Taja Agro Farm in other villages too in the near future.
Ujjwol: We are also planning to increase our production to fully meet the demand. For this we are seeking investment from the locals and we are also constantly working with the VDC.
What are your thoughts on entrepreneurial prospects in the agri-sector?
Padam: I think that entrepreneurship in agriculture is still in its nascent phase, so there is a lot of room for opportunities in this sector and the potential is much higher in case of Nepal. This is because we have a sufficient amount of arable land and almost 60 to 70% people have skills related to farming. But the only barrier is our inability to commercialize them and our thinking that farming or agriculture is tough. We only see the problems but do not realize that presence of problems means presence of immense opportunities.
Ujjwal: Yes, there isn’t any sector or any industry without problems, the solution to tackle those problems has made disruption possible across the world. For us our pain point was not being able to have fresh organic vegetables grown in villages, so we worked on that. If you have a pain point, no matter how big or small,just work on it, do a trial and error rather than complaining.
How have things changed for you after winning the Hackathon?
Padam: Investors have started reaching out to us and many people in our networks have started requesting us to supply our vegetables to Kathmandu, which means a lot to us. Winning the Hackathon has provided us a sort of validity that we are gaining the trust of the people and are on the right track.
Ujjwal: We have also been getting a lot of exposure post winning the Hackathon. A lot of well known startup founders like Rohit Tiwari wished and appreciated us which is really motivating. This has made things more clear for us.
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Interviewed and Article by Trishna Shakya