Fresh Veg does well, but lack of variety is a problem

Staring at the lush field of vegetables they cultivated earlier in the season, a mother and her daughter in a remote Gewog are pleased with the sight but at the same time looks weary to harvest it. They know that even if they did, it would take them a long time to transport the harvest to the nearest road point to be sold to buyers.

Be that as it may, it’s the only means to an end, to make money to send the daughter back to school. The family of two lives in a small and old ramshackle house under Gesarling gewog in Dagana dzongkhag.

The nearest market for their produce is in Dagapela, 15 kilometers of feeder road away from their place. With not many other vehicles plying by the rough and bumpy farm roads, taking the vegetables in a hired taxi is their only means of transportation to get to the market. The transport fare which far exceeds the little they earn disrupts the household economies for the month.

Just when they are mulling issues, a truck moving across the narrow farm road inches toward their house. Like a prayer answered from above, customers poured out of it for their vegetables.

The mother, a woman in her late 40s is overjoyed with this pleasant development  and serves wine prepared with fermented wheat to the group as gratitude.

As the customers sip wine, the mother takes a sickle and a bamboo basket to ready the harvest from her fields. The buyers then follow her on the trail to the field. The daughter, a teenager just three years shy of her 20th birthday joins the group. She has a smile on her face as she walks, and that’s maybe because she sees hope of returning to complete high school before she gets too old for it.

Once the harvest is done, the buyers help carry the vegetables to the road point. One more member of the family is a differently-abled brother, who though handicapped, helps to carry the load.

The buyer takes out four clean notes of Nu 500 as payment. This is good earnings for the mother and daughter. They bow to the buyer for the income received.

The group of customers here are from FreshVeg, a recently established vegetable marketing and supply chain which aims to promote local vegetables in the country. Their mission is to make every farmer earn from growing vegetables. It’s a business entity founded on social responsibility.

The promoter behind this concept Lobzang Dorji, 32 plans to uplift farmers from a state of poverty through their own vegetables.

According to the promoter, the supply chain works on a contact farming mode. The farmers grow what the buyers want. The buyers then fulfill the demands of the market. He believes “such system has more certainty than chance.”

“It’s a basic principle of demand and supply, but organized through a supply chain,” said the CEO of the company, Khampa. “What makes it stronger is the fact that government agencies are supporting the cause,” he added.

The Department of Agricultural Marketing and Cooperatives (DAMC) under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests has signed a Letter of Agreement with the company underlining all efforts of marketing the local vegetables. The support that the department renders comes in the form of transportation subsidy, storage facilities, policy intervention, and promotion through media.

The question of what vegetable are grown in our country, where and when, are all complied by Horticulture Division under Department of Agriculture. This expected production figures of the vegetables in various Dzongkhags help the company to take appropriate actions.

“Farmers are our main drivers,” explained Khampa, “if they grow variety of vegetables then our supply chain is complete since we have the government agencies participating in the chain which ends with the consumers,” Khampa said.

“If the consumers buy from us, then they are indirectly helping hundreds of farmers earn from growing vegetables.”

However, the perception in the market is that local vegetables are expensive. Before even checking out and comparing the prices, most consumers tend to assume that local vegetables are overpriced and make their way straight to buy the imported ones.

This will not be the case anymore, says Khampa.

“Price is not an issue if the consumers buy from us. For the first time we’re offering local vegetables at lower prices. Even lower than the retail price of the imported vegetables. It’s a good deal,” he said.

For those who want to avoid the huge crowd and bustle of customers at weekend markets, FreshVeg will provide door-to-door delivery services. The service unconventionally comes free of charge.

The venture however isn’t short of challenges which come as a hard blow to the initiative. A formidable reason in this is the lack of variety in local vegetables and this act as the weakest link in Fresh Veg’s supply chain.

The lack of variety has affected the whole system of the company’s supply chain. The situation becomes worse given the lack of technology for post-harvest handling of vegetables and transporting them through a cold-chain. As a result the business struggles to penetrate the vegetable market.

Khampa fears that these vegetables collected from various gewogs and remote places are going to waste if consumers do not come to rescue. “This will disappoint the farmers’ expectation to earn income to get out of poverty,” he said.

“But we are working with our stakeholders to address this issue. They must do more to make this initiative a success. I suggest turning this whole initiative into a public private partnership (PPP) mode which will guarantee to address all loopholes in the supply chain. Then come summer, we will have variety of local vegetables.”

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