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Kickstarting ‘Made in Bhutan’

  • One is seeing a profusion of enterprises started by young entrepreneurs in Bhutan. These are being supported by a government initiative called the Start-Up Centre
  • The Government of India too has lent a helping hand by funding the building of the centre

Dorji Dema and Younten John of Freed Meat. Photo: Shrirang Swarge
Dorji Dema and Younten John of Freed Meat. Photo: Shrirang Swarge

Four years ago, after completing his graduation in computer applications, Kuenga Dhendup headed back to his village in Trongsa, central Bhutan, to start an organic farm. “That’s where I wanted to apply my knowledge," he says, grinning. A year later, his partner, Pema C. Gyaltshen, completed her graduation in environmental science and English and joined him. Together, they began experimenting with medicinal plants and learnt all about aromatherapy and essential oils from the internet.

“We had to purchase some of the raw materials. This was quite a headache since we went into a loss buying too many chillies (most of which went bad) and the pepper, which got attacked by rats," says Gyaltshen.

In August 2017, on a scholarship offered by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, they were given a chance to spend two weeks at the Mae Fah Luang university in Chiang Rai, Thailand, to train in making essential oils. Within a year of their return, they launched their brand Kingdom Essences with six essential oils—caraway, cypress, mugwort, pine, juniper and thingye (Zanthoxylum armatum)—herbal salves and hydrosols.

Today, Kingdom Essences supports a village cooperative of 150 households, all farmers who cultivate caraway and thingye for them. They grow their own lavender, rosemary, thyme, oregano, chives, lemongrass, chillies, cereals (local red rice, buckwheat, perilla) and some vegetables.

Bhutan has seen an increase in entrepreneurial ventures over the past decade, with the government scaling up support—and just over a year go, setting up a formal support centre for startups.

Bath salts by Kingdom Essences. Photo: Shrirang Swarge
Bath salts by Kingdom Essences. Photo: Shrirang Swarge

“A lot of things have changed in the last 12 years," says Kinley Wangchuk “Ganchu". “We now have a vibrant entrepreneurial community in Bhutan, and, of late, entrepreneurship is becoming a popular choice for many—young and old." Wangchuk is a serial entrepreneur who quit a government job in 2007 to set up Bhutan’s first private commercial radio station, Radio Valley 99.9 FM.

“In the last few years, the government and the central bank stepped in and made access to loan and finance easier, especially for startups that fall under a certain priority sector or are based in rural Bhutan, a result of His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk’s vision to empower the youth and farmers by giving them access to capital," he says.

Wangchuk also gives credit to the government-run startup centre in Thimphu that incubates cottage and small industry entrepreneurs. Kingdom Essences is one of 36 entrepreneurial set-ups supported by Bhutan’s StartUp Center, an initiative of the department of cottage and small industry, part of Bhutan’s ministry of economic affairs. Launched in June 2018, the centre aims to build an “inclusive, resilient and diversified economy" and provide “end-to-end support in development of business ideas", according to the officials in charge of the programme. It is a flagship programme, and part of Bhutan’s 12th five-year plan till 2023.

The StartUp Center is in a newly constructed building in Thimphu, funded by the Indian government. It currently incubates 36 startups, has two training halls for business development services, one resource room, a cafeteria and a management office. It has also accommodated Fabrication Laboratory Bhutan (FabLab Bhutan) to help develop business ideas into products through prototyping. The corridor walls are peppered with motivational quotes. “Ideas are cheap, execution is everything," says one. “The road to success is under construction," says another.

Each incubation centre is a large room with a distinct feel and function. Some look like chemistry laboratories, some like artist studios. This is where entrepreneurs ideate, debate, procrastinate and create. I spotted a room where school students were engrossed in rugby with robots. They were preparing for a forthcoming robotics competition in Thailand, and a spare room had been given to them. Some of the entrepreneurs were assisting them.

The entrepreneurs are an eclectic and motivated bunch. For instance, 28-year-old Thinley Namgay, like his friends at Kingdom Essences, works with a farming community in Punakha valley called the Drachukha Flower Group, which grows edible flowers like the calendula, pink, blue and red cornflower, and cereal grains. He processes these under his brand Druk Metho (Dragon Flower) to create beautifully packaged risotto and salt mixes, prepared for export to Switzerland but also sold locally. “The idea is to help reverse the trend of rural-urban migration by developing more lucrative and diverse livelihoods for rural farming communities and empowering women and young people in the villages," says Namgay.

Soon after completing their graduation in the summer of 2018, 24-year-old Dorji Dema and Younten John participated in a startup competition in Thimphu. They ranked third for their idea of packaged vegan meat. Inspired, they launched Freed Meat. Using locally grown soya bean, beetroot and herbs, they produce vegan beef and vegan chicken in packaged form.

Animal slaughter is discouraged in Bhutan (most of the meat consumed is imported) and Dema believes Bhutanese youth are gradually moving away from meat. “Health consciousness and sustainable lifestyle is on the rise among young Bhutanese," says Dema. “More and more people are taking to vegetarianism, and we think it is a great time to launch such a product and promote this further."

Karma Yogini quit her job as a chef in Delhi after meeting Arunachalam Muruganantham, also known as the Pad Man of India, a social entrepreneur who invented low-cost sanitary-pad-making machines and has developed grass-roots techniques to raise awareness about unhygienic practices around menstruation in rural India. “I was so inspired by his work that I decided to leave everything and go back to Bhutan and do something similar," she says. She founded Zamin Friends Forever and works with the female inmates of the open prison in Thimphu to make eco-friendly sanitary pads for young girls. “I still have to figure out a financial strategy," she laughs. “But I am very grateful for this space as it allows me to do my work without having to pay a heavy rent."

Zamin Friends Forever’s eco-friendly sanitary pads. Photo: Shrirang Swarge
Zamin Friends Forever’s eco-friendly sanitary pads. Photo: Shrirang Swarge

Sonam Tashi left his comfortable job with the Asian Development Bank to pursue his calling in miniature art. He started Miniature Bhutan, creating miniature versions of traditional souvenirs—sculptures of the Buddha, butter lamps and more. The idea came to him when he observed that almost all the traditional items sold in Bhutan are imported from India and China. “Bhutanese souvenirs are not actually made in Bhutan, can you believe that!" he exclaims. “I want the Bhutanese to appreciate and create and tell their own story. We can make everything in Bhutan."

One of the advantages of working at the startup centre is the opportunity to brainstorm and collaborate. Tashi’s Miniature Bhutan collaborates with its neighbour, the enterprising ladies of Life Changers, who create tote bags from textile waste. Chandra Maya Bhujel and Tulsi Gurung started Lifechangers Bhutan when they realized the massive amount of textile waste generated from material left over from the making of the gho and kira (the national dress for men and women, respectively). They employ mainly women and specially-abled youth to tailor neat, utilitarian and designer bags. Miniature Bhutan has commissioned Lifechangers to make small jewellery bags exclusively for it.

“Its a really good space to be in," says Tashi. “The startup centre provides cheap office space for startups and (enables) being together at the same centre. We get to meet fellow entrepreneurs on a daily basis. We help and inspire each other."

The eligibility criteria for startups is to be part of new cottage and small industries in production and manufacturing or new IT and IT-enabled services, explain officials. After being examined for innovation, skills and knowledge, the shortlisted applicants are invited to pitch their business ideas to the departmental startup committee for final selection. The selected ones are offered an incubation space for a minimal rental (approximately 5,000 a month) for two years.

What happens after two years? “The startups continue to receive the department’s support in scaling up their businesses," says Tshering Dem, chief industries officer, enterprise development division, department of cottage and small industry.

“We have allotted space in industrial estates/parks with support from the department of industry for entrepreneurs so those startups that are not able to sustain and scale up their businesses in the market can avail services in the industrial estates/parks," she says.

Since the startups at the centre are barely a year old and most of the entrepreneurs are first-timers, there are many challenges.

For Kingdom Essences, the main challenge was finance. “We applied for loans for the farm and the essential oil business from loan institutions and got help from family members," says Gyaltshen. “Another challenge is getting the right packaging. We are still struggling with this but are continuously looking for manufacturers."

A shelf with Druk Metho’s risotto and salt mix products. Photo: Shrirang Swarge
A shelf with Druk Metho’s risotto and salt mix products. Photo: Shrirang Swarge

Tashi says payment gateways for online transactions don’t work smoothly yet. He also mentions the absence of proper marketing and branding skills. “We need to get opportunities to export," he says.

Dechen Dorji, in-charge/industries officer of the Startup Center, department of cottage and small industry, says that since it is a relatively new area, their main problem is mentoring. “Getting good mentors with business expertise is a challenge," he says. The department plans to institutionalize a mentorship programme at the centre, he says.

The centre is also seeking assistance from the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development—through its Resilient Mountain Solutions initiative, which aims to help communities in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region adapt to socioeconomic and environmental changes—to bring in international mentors. It has also sought the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency to help build marketing, packaging and branding expertise, Dorji says.

Wangchuk says that while it is easy to set up small businesses that do not require much capital, it is not easy to access loans from financial institutions without high-value properties to mortgage if you need more capital. “To address this problem, the Royal Monetary Authority (the central bank of Bhutan) has organized a pitching platform called ‘Jab-chor’, and, through this, entrepreneurs can seek investments from established business people," he says.

The ministry of economic affairs recently revisited the foreign direct investment (FDI) policy and hopes to make it friendly to foreign investors.

“I think the problems and challenges faced while doing business create and sharpen the most important skills—problem-solving skills, leadership skills, ability to think out of the box, be gritty and to be able to be a jack of all trades," says Wangchuk.

Supriya Vohra is a Goa-based journalist and writer.

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