The Papermakers

Mahabir Pun believes in providing educational opportunities both academic and vocational for everyone in Nepal. He holds close to his heart and philosophy the desire to move away from handouts and instead provide hands-up solutions for people to help themselves. Creating the paper making industry in villages has especially impacted poor women with limited education. It has given them an outlet for artistic expression and income earning skills.

I had the opportunity to work with several of the women during the paper bead training last October. I cherished every minute of time spent with them. Although serious students I could see they shared a collective identity as women who shared a passion for the artistic side of paper making. They were also funny, playing jokes on me daily. I have no jewelry making skills and their favorite joke was to hand me supplies and tell me I was boss….and then giggle as they instructed me…the Nepali version of a practical joke. They were already skilled bookmakers and embraced the chance to stretch themselves with jewelry making which they had learned in a previous workshop sponsored by the Micro-Enterprise Development Program/UNDP.

The women are paid 200 rupees/day ($2.31 USD) to make the paper and the products. Their salary is determined by village social workers. Social workers are individuals who volunteer their expertise and time to make community decisions. Social workers are the village leaders called “work chairman”. Each year they meet to decide the going rate for labor and goods. This is anything from the price of potatoes to labor wages to the cost of raksi, which is the local distilled alcohol made from millet. Chitra stated the wages paid to the women are fair. Considering the average Nepalese household income is less than $1 USD/day…it’s hard to argue.

Next week I will be revealing more of Mahabir’s life and how it has shaped who he is today. It’s difficult to imagine this fierce educational warrior as a young boy but join me next week as I talk about Mahabir’s childhood in Nangi.

Paper-Making: Product Sales

Paper beads made from handmade lokta paper.

Selling handmade paper products is an uphill distribution and media battle. The market is flooded with good and bad products from around the world. Finding a solid market requires organized production, marketing, distribution and ideally participation in the Fair Trade Industry.  Mahabir Pun embraced these concepts but was unable to put them into practice despite meeting with fair trade officials and help from a former volunteer.                                                                                                                                  A good example of a successful non-profit organization is  Bead for Life. They have excellent products, provide financial services, market artfully and appeal to humanitarian service. When I was teaching a bead making workshop in Nangi last fall, the women and I would use the products on the website for inspiration.

Hand stamped, colored and sun dyed notebooks.

Sales were bleak until 2008 when a former volunteer, Sarah, started her own non-profit called White Circles and sold the books in Australia and on-line. She was instrumental in improving the quality and sales. In 2011 a volunteer family, Kim and her daughter Jessica, taught the women to make paper gift bags. These are marketed at grassroots sales in Singapore, USA and England. The bags are also sold in the Etsy store. Occasionally individuals will take a suitcase load of books home and sell to friends and family. Based on the honor system, they send the money after the sales. Sales have also picked up with the start of the Community Trek Project as more tourists and trekkers pass through Nangi. They have the opportunity to visit the paper-making workshop to see the process first hand and make purchases.

Overall quality and sales have improved but joining a fair trade organization and having a clear marketing plan run by the women would provide a solid business less dependent on volunteers and sporadic sales. Are you in global marketing? Do you have suggestions for how to improve the paper-making business? The readers and I would like to hear your advice, so click on the comment bubble above and leave a message. Join me next week and meet some of the paper-making women, hear their stories and live their dreams.


Paper-Making: From Bark to Book

Handmade paper drying in the sun, October 2012.

In 2002 Chitra spent three months learning paper-making in Kathmandu. He studied the actual process of making the paper from lokta bark and also how to construct notebooks, envelopes and bags. After returning to Nangi there were problems with the quality of the paper. The paper wrinkled easily and the thickness was uneven. The product quality was poor and attempts to sell them in Kathmandu and abroad were unsuccessful.

Chitra told me he was very frustrated because he couldn’t get the information he needed to improve the paper, even from his instructors in Kathmandu or the Institute of Himalayan Conservation that had funded his training. No one seemed to understand the problem. Then one day he heard about a product called neri which is a mucilage substance extracted from the roots of the aibika plant (Abelmoschus manihot). Chitra incorporated this into the paper-making process and finally produced smooth and even sheets of paper.

Handmade paper dyed dark brown with local tree husks and layered with leaves for sun photo imaging.

Despite improving the paper quality he was unable to find a market for the notebooks over the next 4-5 years because the quality of the constructed notebooks was poor compared to the competition. The notebook covers and pages were uneven and there were issues with the dyes. I always thought this gave them a beautiful handmade quality and loved the early books. Most of the sales were to tourists and volunteers visiting the village and didn’t amount to much cash for the school. However it did continue to provide jobs and income for the papermaking women. Even small amounts of income infused into a household can make the difference between a child continuing school or dropping out.


Measuring, folding and cutting handmade Lokta paper for book pages.

Chitra decided they needed to improve the quality so he sent a few of the women to Kathmandu for additional training in 2008 and it paid off. The quality improved and new markets opened up to make the paper making a successful and sustainable enterprise.

Have you tried to sell a handmade product? Share your successes and challenges with my readers. Join me next week and you will meet some of the former and present volunteers who help sell the products through innovative marketing techniques and grassroots movements.

Paper-Making: $4/day Job Anyone?

Blending the pulp mash with dye using electric stirring machine.

Paper-making in Nangi has taken on some modern aspects of the trade but still qualifies as handmade and difficult work. Most of the lokta plants are harvested above 2500 meters (8200 feet). It takes two hours to walk from Nangi up to the forest where the plants naturally grow. It’s still cut by hand, lashed together as bundles and carried on their backs by means of a strap across the forehead. Anyone from the village can harvest the lokta plant for free but they need permission from the local village chairman. They are paid 60 rupees per kilogram (2.2 pounds). They can harvest four kilograms a day, making about 250 rupees or $4 USD/day. The harvest season lasts from November to January. Considering the average  Nepalese live on less than $1 USD/day…this is tough but profitable short-term work.                                                                                               Cutting the stalks six inches above ground level practices conservation and sustainability. This practice allows new shoots and branches to generate and flower in about three years. New plants also germinate from seeds naturally, so it does not need replanted. In Nangi the lokta plant is cultivated although it doesn’t grow there naturally. Moti, who manages the plant nursery, first grows the seedlings from seeds. These are planted on community lands, but take 7-9 years to reach maturity compared to 4-5 years for the naturally occurring plants.

Long gone are the wooden ponds where the inner bark of the lokta was mixed with wood ash and water. Now a sophisticated machine blends the pulp with water, emulsifiers and dyes to make the pulp into a smooth mash. But that’s the extent of modernization. The pulp mash is manually scooped onto screens and rinsed before setting out to dry. The paper-makers are skilled at judging the right amount of watery pulp mash to spread across a screen and make varying weights of paper from 12 – 40 grams. The various papers are lovely to feel. We experimented during the bead-making workshop with various weights and I am in awe of their skill. Have you ever had an idea and had to push the proverbial boulder uphill to make it a reality? Share your successes and failures with my readers in the comments section. Ponder the question: When do you know it’s time to throw in the towel? Join me next week as I talk about the early and ongoing troubles with the paper-making project and how Mahabir Pun and Chitra push their boulders up the Himalayan Mountains towards success.