A group of panelists from different sectors held a discussion on agri-business during the Better Business Summit held yesterday. Though agriculture as one of the five jewels of the economy involving 70 percent of the private sector workforce, yet it contributes only 18 percent to the country’s GDP. The country continues to depend on food imports and rice is one of the largest imports.
The Chairman of Zimdra Industries Pvt. Ltd., Ugen Tsechup Dorji, said, “We live in a fantastic country, all happy and peaceful, and we want to continue this way, but we need to bridge the gap between rich and poor and how do we go about that?” “The only way I feel we can go about doing that is to address the majority of the population, where 65 percent of our people are farmers,” he added.
He said that when he was with the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (BCCI), they came up with a proposal called One District Three Product (ODTP), and it aimed at strengthening the agriculture base to bring in the value addition in the agri-business.
“We had to look for a commercial viability of the product and than we thought for a backward calculation, whereby we need to get in touch with the countries close approximately to Bhutan as find out what are the organic products as we don’t want to go for any competition,” he added.
The aim was to go for organic farming and for off-season products where the country will have the advantage. “Today in our country, every dzongkhag is planting everything and competing within each other. Therefore, why don’t we divide zone wise, as per the temperature and product, so that they complement each other rather than compete,” Ugen Tsechup Dorji said.
Until and unless they have the commercial viability, farmers get discouraged easily, he said, adding that, government and private sector need to work together. He also said that, it is imperative that agriculture, being a jewel selected by government, must be treated like a jewel.
“The entire government mechanism, all the ministries have to think as one and their priority on top of their list should be agriculture, be it labor, finance, environment clearance or approval,” he added.
In addition, he also said that all vocational training institute and education sector should focus on training and educating people in agriculture to create a skilled workforce.
“Our vision is this, and it’s manageable and doable, but as long as we get together, I think it is the vision we can prove,” he added.
Bhutan has been labeled as rich biodiversity hotspot with 72 percent of the land covered by forests – about 52 percent of the country is secured as protected areas and biological corridors, which is more than half of the country. Such environmental protection is regarded as one of the most comprehensive in the world.
Bhutan also encompasses a representational sample of almost all major ecosystems. In line to this, the CEO of Samden Group, Ronrig S. Mututsang, said that they have a number of agro projects, like coffee plantation in Sipsoo, Samtse, an extraction and a distillation lab in collaboration with Chanel of France and National Biodiversity Center at Serbithang and a potato processing plant in central Bhutan.
He also said that due to the far sighted vision of the Kings and rich tradition of living in harmony of nature, Bhutan is fortunate to have emerged as a biological vault in the 21st century. He said that over the past 4 to 5 years, his company has been engaged in projects at research level at Samdrup Jongkhar and northern side of Thimphu that works in the concept with the horticulture division and Department of Agriculture for the agronomics studies.
“In Samdrup Jongkhar, we are working and trying to commercially cultivate a medicinal plant with many farmers in Lauri gewog, and once they start seeing the financial rewards, there will be more farmers wanting to join the program,” he said.
The Chairman and CEO, Mountain Hazelnuts Pvt. Ltd., Daniel Spitzer, said that some of the challenges to commercial agriculture in Bhutan the diverse growing environment with steep valleys on limited arable land and microclimates. He said it is difficult to achieve mass scale due to such conditions.
In addition, the other challenges are complex logistics and limited infrastructure and technology innovation essential to efficiency, and delicate crops and traditional approach.
Climate change is an issue, he said, adding that they are promoting climate resilience know how among farmers where meteorological station network is being deployed to identify regions at higher risk from effects of climate change, and support to build irrigation systems in at risk communities, and selective breeding programs to create varieties that grow in warmer conditions.
He also said that they have delivered innovations in partnership with ADB and MoFA, whereby 11,000 farmers were trained in Integrated Pest Management, 8,000 farmers were given training on harvest and post-harvest solutions and they provided a weather App to provide climate information in development.
In addition, “300 entrepreneur has been supported with various training, 4,000 were given training on personal financing, provided climate station network to improve adaptation strategies and selective breeding programs for climate resilience,” Daniel Spitzer added.