In May 2020, amidst the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wobthang Organic Wonders (WOW) project was launched with great ambition in Bhutan. Spearheaded by the former Opposition Leader, Dr Pema Gyamtsho, and a group of retired agricultural officials. However, due to higher transportation costs and their inability to penetrate the local market, the project has come to a halt.
WOW was envisioned as one of the largest farming projects in the country, covering 35 acres of land in Wobthang village, Tang, Bumthang.
Initially supported by the Prime Minister’s Office and various agricultural agencies, WOW aimed to contribute significantly to agricultural production, ensuring food security for the nation. Actively involving the community, the project boasted a workforce of more than 50 people, including youth, graduates, and school leavers.
However, recent developments indicate that the project is now facing sustainability challenges, primarily attributed to the higher cost of production. Despite an initial investment exceeding Nu 10 million, WOW seems to have lost its initial vigour, raising concerns about its future.
A significant issue contributing to the project’s struggles is the alleged lack of ownership and monitoring. Community members assert that, despite substantial government investment, they have not reaped the benefits, leading to confusion surrounding the project’s ownership. Presently, there is no active monitoring of the farm, posing sustainability concerns.
Chimi Dorji, a former supervisor at the farm, sheds light on the project’s start and the factors that contributed to its downfall. He said, “It started as a community project to engage the people, led by the former opposition leader. There was government support, but there was not really an ownership structure.”
He continues, revealing the challenges faced by the project, “We started to explore the potential of commercial farming, but there was no assured Bhutanese market. We had to export to India, and there were logistics and routes to follow, such as standardisation and packing. We had to renew agreements every year for commercial potato exports, and we needed long-term investment, but after one year, we had nothing. We could not do more.”
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic also hindered the project’s progress initially. “At the start of the project, we could not do much due to COVID-19; we were stuck, and later on, our resources were exhausted,” he added.
Despite the chaos, he said that the initial goals of the projects were met. Which was to engage the community and supply produce to schools during the lockdowns.
Chimi Dorji said that Dr Pema Gyamtsho is currently monitoring the project. However, he acknowledges that the project has halted its operations.
“We are no longer working on it now because we could not sell most of our products commercially,” he said.
The struggle to sell products commercially is attributed to various factors, including the higher cost of transportation, which has led to the halt of the project.
Chimi Dorji said, “We tried buckwheat for a while, and we couldn’t do it with other vegetables because we could not sell them. Although there is production, the cost of transportation makes it difficult. The market is in Thimphu and Phuntsholing, which makes the transportation cost high. Additionally, the local demand is already met by Wangdue and Punakha, and we cannot compete with them because we have to travel 150 km more than these people.”
When questioned about any pre-project assessment, Chimi Dorji highlights that the project initially started to engage youth during lockdowns and supply vegetables to schools and the local community, meeting its initial objectives. However, for the future, the products are deemed non-competitive in the market, and commercialization becomes challenging due to the associated costs.
Meanwhile, Dr Pema Gyamtsho said that he could not comment due to his busy schedule. However, after the formation of the new government, he will get in contact with The Bhutanese regarding this issue.
As WOW grapples with sustainability issues and an uncertain future, the project’s course highlights the complexities of agricultural initiatives, especially in the face of changing market dynamics and production challenges. The community’s quotes reveal a mix of initial enthusiasm, struggles faced, and the need for strategic planning to navigate the hurdles hindering the WOW project’s success.