Helping Rural Entrepreneurs to Add Value to their Products in Bhutan and Increase Market Reach
Damchae Dem is a successful Bhutanese entrepreneur. She founded the Bhutan Association of Women Entrepreneurs (BAOWE) to help disadvantaged women, mostly single mothers and unemployed youth in urban and rural areas. BAOWE introduced the concept of rural entrepreneurs among its women members. The association is now seeking to help its members connect with the global market and increase their revenue through branding and IP.
“BAOWE rural entrepreneurs are individuals who have formed groups with shared interests, mostly aimed at the economic uplift of their communities.” “These entrepreneurs are innovative and creative, and they have the skills and knowledge to identify business opportunities in small, isolated communities,” Damchae explained, adding that those communities take advantage of the unique resources, natural assets, and local markets that are available in rural areas to start and grow their businesses.
However, they face many challenges, such as limited access to capital, infrastructure, and conducive markets.
A life-changing encounter pushed her to become a fervent advocate and supporter of disadvantaged women in her country and to found BAOWE, a non-governmental organization, in April 2010.
"It all happened one day when I was driving along the road and I met a disheveled woman weeping,” she said. The woman was holding a plastic bag with a few items in it. She told Damchae that she was the only breadwinner in her family and to make ends meet, she sold those items on the side of the road, but a local regulation prevented roadside selling, which made Damchae reflect on the number of people needing help.
"I had been very fortunate to make something of my life, although I was not born with a golden spoon,” she said, adding that she, too, had to struggle through life. Going from her humble beginnings of making and selling homemade potato chips to becoming a successful businesswoman pioneering and manufacturing construction steel in Bhutan.
Damchae subsequently met with the Thimphu Mayor and started her advocacy there and then, explaining that preventing those women from selling on the road was a major disruption to their livelihood. This discussion led to the town hall identifying small plots of land where small outlets were set up, providing livelihood stations for street vendors. Tshering Bidha, the woman Damchae first met on the side of the road, "became the chairperson of the street women vendors, and now is a successful woman entrepreneur."
Following those urban units, BAOWE received financial support from ADB under the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction, allowing the NGO to expand to rural Bhutan.
Most of the farms are subsistence farming, on small land holdings, mostly women-owned and scattered in the countryside, she said. Using her business experience, Damchae helps communities identify products that grow well and are sustainable, mostly traditional crops that farmers are comfortable growing. "We help farmers help themselves," she said.
Once products are identified, Damchae explained, BAOWE sets up self-help groups and establishes value-added centers where farmers can process their products, supported by Pelden Enterprise and several national and international donors. Those centers are accessible to all farmers and free of charge, irrespective of their economic standing, she explained.
After 12 years, with over 4,000 members and establishing their presence in most of the 20 Dzongkhags (districts) of the country with 10 staff, "the time has come to connect with markets beyond our borders," Damchae said.
Yacon, also known as ground apple, is a perennial tuberous vegetable with a distinctly sweet flavor. It is cultivated in the Chukha Dzongkhag and is quite popular in Bhutan. According to Sangay Thinley, a government official, many farmers took to the culture, attracted by attractive returns, but without export possibilities, the national market was soon flooded and the selling price dropped sharply, leading to many farmers abandoning that crop.
However, he said, the government is keen to promote Yacon, its production, and export. The crop is easy to grow and can be cultivated on very small surfaces, he said. One single plant can yield 15 kgs of tubers. The plant also grows during the lean season, when farmers do not have much work, and can significantly increase farmers’ income, he said.
"Exporting organic yacon syrup would not only encourage the community to stand on their own two feet but also provide many health benefits to consumers." She added that the current production is enough to meet export markets and that production can be increased.
The second product BAOWE is keen to promote is buckwheat, organic gluten-free sobo noodles, with Japan as a specific export market.
Ugyen Tenzin, a government official, said some 243 households are cultivating buckwheat on 26.6 hectares of virgin farms. A machine mills the buckwheat into flour. Buckwheat is a tasty staple food in Bhutan, particularly in the form of puta, he explained, adding that an additional 500 hectares of buckwheat could be cultivated on fallow land.
Beyond creating self-help groups and promoting products, the organization also launched BAOWE-Pelzhing Microfinance Institution as an ancillary activity to support its members through the provision of affordable finances and savings accounts, complementing the government’s initiative of financial inclusion. One of the activities under this program is the training of its members in financial literacy.
According to Damchae, only a limited number of women entrepreneurs are aware of IP, although it plays a vital role in product recognition accountability and can prevent misappropriation.
BAOWE-PURE is registered with the Bhutan Department of Intellectual Property as a trademark, and a logo’s registration is pending. A white lotus stands in the middle, representing the purity of the product, with a pink outline to signify that the product is women-owned. At the base of the lotus is a white goat, symbolizing strong roots connecting traditions and modern technology. A green-encompassing circle embodies the green circular economy and the uplifting of primary producers into social entrepreneurs.
BAOWE is working with WIPO on packaging design, branding, and marketing, as well as the possibility of establishing collective marks for various Bhutanese agricultural products.
In the next five years, BAOWE hopes to take advantage of technology to set up a user-friendly marketing app connecting farmers to manufacturers and consumers and connecting to existing government apps providing essential information on agriculture.
A mother of four and grandmother of seven, Damchae also plans on establishing mini-processing centers within communities, promoting value addition and increasing market scope. She also intends on promoting women entrepreneurs’ integration in sustainable global value chains, including digital networks and e-commerce. Another of BAOWE’s projects is to create a gender-disaggregated database for inclusive policy intervention.
Several donors have been instrumental in BAOWE’s journey