Needs for Modernization of Nepal’s Agriculture Sector
Nepal, since time immemorial, has been regarded as an agricultural country. From most politicians’ speeches to our class textbooks, our idea of the Nepali economy has revolved around agriculture. Historically, that was true; in the late 1980s, it was the livelihood for more than 90 percent of the population – although only approximately 20 percent of the total land area was cultivable – and accounted for, on average, about 60 percent of the GDP and approximately 75 percent of exports – the numbers of drastically reduced as of today.
While some reports still claim that more than 66 percent of the total population is still engaged in agriculture, the contribution to GDP is declining each year compared to other key non-agriculture sectors. In the last ten years alone, it has declined from 32.7 percent of the total GDP to 23.9 percent in the previous fiscal year, FY 2021/22. Meanwhile, the contribution of the service sector has increased immensely, reaching 61.8 percent in the last fiscal year.
If one travels across Nepal’s villages, this decline in agricultural sector becomes even obvious. Most arable lands in the country remain empty, with workers traveling to foreign countries in search of better employment opportunities. The annual increase in remittances sent back reinforces this new economic reality. The villages are left chiefly with young kids and the older people who depend on remittances to sustain their livelihoods. Meanwhile, agriculture is still being done largely for sustenance rather than for commercial purposes, painting a bleak picture of the country’s agricultural endeavors. It is not remiss that out of our top five exports in the last fiscal year, namely soybean oil, palm oil, carpets, woven fabrics, and cardamom, only cardamom is commercially farmed, with other top exports being imported and exported again, with little value-added within Nepal. Interestingly, cardamom only contributes 2.4 percent of our total export value, while our top export, soybean oil, contributes 24.1 percent.
Some Experiences from the Field
This is not to say that efforts are not being made or commercial farming is not being done. Local levels were primarily found to be proactive in this regard as well. In particular, our interviews (done as a part of NIPoRe-ALIGN research collaboration) with the local government chairs and mayors showed that many local levels had focused on agriculture to raise its population’s economic standards. In the Sisne Rural Municipality of Salyan, for example, the local government had made efforts to separate different zones of the municipality into various agricultural sectors. The local government assigned different zones to plant different types of vegetables and fruits depending on land conditions and weather to increase productivity. The lands were found to be productive for fruits such as kiwi and oranges. Similarly, in Ichhyakamana Municipality of Chitwan, the local government brought a provision to distribute NPR 5 for each plant planted by the locals to encourage farming. Additionally, the local government also offered subsidies for buying cows or buffalos. Similar efforts by local governments can be seen throughout the country. Development partners and the federal government have also encouraged farming by regularly training farmers and distributing much-needed seeds and fertilizers.
However, efforts many times look to be wasted. Various issues come to light in conversations with agricultural experts who have worked as consultants in this field for decades. Experts whom we met during our field visits (of NIPoRe-ALIGN research collaboration works) claim that distributing only seeds without proper technical know-how of crop cycles, crop placements, and timely fertilizer inputs has led to smaller harvests with less domestic consumption and export market potential. The distributed seeds are of high quality, but inadequate understanding of timely fertilizing techniques leads to low-quality outputs that are not marketable. Farmers who have contributed many years to grow oranges, for example, then can harvest it only for two-three cycles before the trees stop bearing fruits. This leads to frustrations among the farmers, who then move on to look for better alternative opportunities in other sectors or migrate to foreign countries, as is the case in Nepal. Training for farmers also seems to be provided most of the time to fill quota numbers. Any attendee of most trainings gets monetary incentives to join in. This causes training recipients to join just because of the incentives rather than actually learning the necessary techniques helpful for them.
Rooms for Improvements
What, then, must be done to change this? At the policy level, the government has been proactive in giving out subsidies and creating tariffs to promote Nepali agricultural products. However, in reality, an assessment seems necessary to analyze who the subsidies are going to and who benefits from these tariffs. Additionally, the government needs to proactively work with local farmers in breaking the syndicate systems that have been established to get farming output to the markets. Nepali news platforms are rife with intermediaries cheating farmers of their hard-earned money and paying them drops compared to what the goods are sold in the market for. Strict quality control mechanisms are also needed if we want to be export-oriented. Quality testing facilities must be made available in major production centers so farmers can access them easily. This will serve to ensure quality goods come to domestic as well as foreign consumers. Nepal also needs to identify what products are viable to be grown in different parts of the country and determine which products have a competitive advantage. Focusing on specific products and actively working on ensuring storage facilities, testing mechanisms, and meeting international standards for those will be easier for a developing country like Nepal. The government can expand the list of identified goods as we develop our agricultural ecosystem and set better product standards. The Nepal Trade Integration Strategy 2016 was a good idea in regard to this. However, it needs to be immediately and regularly updated, keeping in mind our international export market, the value of our products, and the capabilities of upscaling our farmers.
And lastly, a provincial agriculture and trade policy seems instantly necessary to coordinate local efforts. Unfortunately, the trade data of our country still has not been able to shift to the provinces levels. With us not knowing the origin of our export products, we only have a disaggregated idea of which province is better at growing which products. Historically, some products have been raised in certain areas of the country, like tea in the eastern region, but focusing on different products means production data at local levels is a must. This will help direct our limited resources to build specific infrastructure and facilities for particular regions to increase the country’s overall export. Negotiations and identification of export markets, meanwhile, are also vital. Nepal has two large markets as its neighbors that have relatively fewer quality controls than, for example, the European Union. This means our diplomatic focus on export negotiations can be with these two large markets while we continue to improve the quality of our products and look toward other markets.