In mist, rose a paper mill

Jun 15, 2017

Poorna Bahadur Gurung found his calling in crafting the coveted lokta paper in a factory he established in scenic Ghandruk, and credits support from the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre as having been vital in upgrading production and raising efficiency

The jingle of bells worn by mules carrying loads of consumer goods for hamlets high up echoes through the mist-covered trail, the chautaro (resting platform) beckons you for a hard-earned rest after the hike uphill, and there are framed sheets of lokta paper drying in the sun, giving the place an idyllic air.

Welcome to Annapurna Lokta and Handicraft Factory, nestled among the mountains overlooking the Modi River in Ghandruk village in Kaski in western Nepal.

The postcard-perfect landscape could inspire anyone to be a poet. If you were one, Poorna Bahadur Gurung, the gregarious owner of the factory, could very well offer you a few sheets of lokta paper to jot down your verses on.

Gurung had been inspired to start the business following a conversation in Kathmandu with a friend who produced paper from the lokta plant, called “daphne” in English.  “I used to run a restaurant in Kathmandu in the mid-90s, when a friend took me to his showroom in Thamel,” he recalls. He found out that the area under the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) was rich in daphne, a high-elevation evergreen shrub, and decided to try his hand at making paper from the plant himself.

In 2002, he set up a factory in the family field called Bikase Danda, which was lying fallow. He invested roughly Rs.400,000 in the construction, making walls and paving the trails with stones.

But it didn’t come without challenges. He had to assure conservationists that his factory would not harm the flora and fauna of the area. Since the forest with lokta bushes fell under the ACAP, the protected area officials ordered Gurung to carry out an independent research on the product. He commissioned a report, which took three months to complete. It was titled Harvesting Strategies for Daphne Species in Ghandruk Sector of ACAP and cost Gurung Rs.150,000. The ACAP finally allowed him to harvest the plant, but only above 30 centimeters from the ground.

Lokta bushes grow in coniferous forests on mountain slopes, at an altitude between 1,600 and 4,000 meters. The harvesting season begins in mid-February. Early in the morning, half a dozen of Gurung’s employees, migrant workers from Sindhupalchok district, walk up to 2,000 meters up hill, where the bushes are in abundance. Gurung pays the workers five rupees for each kilogram of the raw material and the ACAP charges another five.

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The workers cut the stem at the ground level without destroying the roots, a practice that’s key for the survival of the species. The raw material, the fibrous bark, is stored in a shed. Some of it is dried in the sun.

After the bark is cleaned with a knife, it is soaked in water for about five hours. Then, it is cooked in a solution of hot water and soda for three hours. A beater machine turns the fiber into pulp slurry, which is then poured into wooden frames. After a few minutes of soaking and shaking in the vat, the frame is placed under the sun to dry.

An hour later, the lokta paper is ready. The material is sought after not only because it is handmade and represents the preservation of a traditional craft, but also because it is durable, resistant to insects and moths, and non-perishable. It is for this reason that for centuries, lokta paper been used for record-keeping in government offices across Nepal. It’s also common for Hindu astrologers to use it to create china or janma kundalis, astrological charts for individuals.

Nowadays, however, the paper used for a variety of purposes, including prayer flags, restaurant menus, wallpapers, certificates for schools and colleges, wedding cards and for binding books, among others. For now, Annapurna Lokta only produces paper that weighs five grams at a price of about Rs. 7 per piece. “For a certificate or a wedding card, we need to produce a 40-80 gram paper. They must be thicker,” he says.

For years, Gurung had used firewood to boil the raw material. It was not only cumbersome, but also detrimental to the environment. “It was expensive in many ways. I had to spend Rs. 2,000 on firewood, which needed to be chopped into smaller pieces. I had to hire a man for that. And while cooking, one had to constantly blow air into the hearth,” he recalls.

But those labor-intensive jobs have now become history, thanks to support from the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC)​. On March 23, 2016, Gurung bought a beater machine and an electric lokta boiler, which was locally fabricated with the AEPC’s funding. He received Rs. 78,750 as subsidy from the AEPC. And, the factory was electrified by the 50-kilowatt Bhurgyu Khola Micro Hydropower, which started generating electricity three years ago.

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While the installation of the electric boiler and beater machine has made the work more efficient, Gurung is exploring ways to fund a drying room, so he doesn’t have to halt production during the monsoon, from June to September, when the rains make drying lokta paper virtually impossible, and his workers have to be temporarily laid off. “If the AEPC would help me explore suitable technology for drying, I could not only retain my staff but also increase my production and therefore the net profit,” he says.

In the tourist region of Ghandruk, relatively better off compared to other villages around Nepal, it’s hard to find workers. Gurung relies on migrant workers from Sindhupalchowk for harvesting the raw material. Additionally, a group of Dalit women, most of them single mothers, has proved a workforce that is reliable. Apart from five porters for collecting raw materials, Gurung has hired five single women and a man from the Dalit community.

Among them is Sita Bishwakarma, who has proven to be a reliable hand, often overseeing the production in Gurung’s absence. Bishwakarma, who earns a monthly salary of Rs. 7,000, says the money is enough to support her family of three, including her children’s education. “We used to work the field and it was very hard to survive with what we earned. This is far better,” she says. 

The AEPC, under the Ministry of Population and Environment, is supported by UNDP through the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood (RERL) project--a joint undertaking of the Government of Nepal, UNDP and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The programme seeks to increase equitable access to energy services, with a focus on enhancing rural livelihoods.

While the installation of the electric boiler and beater machine has made the work more efficient, Gurung is exploring ways to fund a drying room, so he doesn’t have to halt production during the monsoon, from June to September, when the rains make drying lokta paper virtually impossible, and his workers have to be temporarily laid off. “If the AEPC would help me explore suitable technology for drying, I could not only retain my staff but also increase my production and therefore the net profit,” he says.

In the tourist region of Ghandruk, relatively better off compared to other villages around Nepal, it’s hard to find workers. Gurung relies on migrant workers from Sindhupalchowk for harvesting the raw material. Additionally, a group of Dalit women, most of them single mothers, has proved a workforce that is reliable. Apart from five porters for collecting raw materials, Gurung has hired five single women and a man from the Dalit community.

Among them is Sita Bishwakarma, who has proven to be a reliable hand, often overseeing the production in Gurung’s absence. Bishwakarma, who earns a monthly salary of Rs. 7,000, says the money is enough to support her family of three, including her children’s education. “We used to work the field and it was very hard to survive with what we earned. This is far better,” she says. 

The AEPC, under the Ministry of Population and Environment, is supported by UNDP through the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood (RERL) project--a joint undertaking of the Government of Nepal, UNDP and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The programme seeks to increase equitable access to energy services, with a focus on enhancing rural livelihood.

While the installation of the electric boiler and beater machine has made the work more efficient, Gurung is exploring ways to fund a drying room, so he doesn’t have to halt production during the monsoon, from June to September, when the rains make drying lokta paper virtually impossible, and his workers have to be temporarily laid off. “If the AEPC would help me explore suitable technology for drying, I could not only retain my staff but also increase my production and therefore the net profit,” he says.

In the tourist region of Ghandruk, relatively better off compared to other villages around Nepal, it’s hard to find workers. Gurung relies on migrant workers from Sindhupalchowk for harvesting the raw material. Additionally, a group of Dalit women, most of them single mothers, has proved a workforce that is reliable. Apart from five porters for collecting raw materials, Gurung has hired five single women and a man from the Dalit community.

Among them is Sita Bishwakarma, who has proven to be a reliable hand, often overseeing the production in Gurung’s absence. Bishwakarma, who earns a monthly salary of Rs. 7,000, says the money is enough to support her family of three, including her children’s education. “We used to work the field and it was very hard to survive with what we earned. This is far better,” she says. 

The AEPC, under the Ministry of Population and Environment, is supported by UNDP through the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood (RERL) project--a joint undertaking of the Government of Nepal, UNDP and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The programme seeks to increase equitable access to energy services, with a focus on enhancing rural livelihood.

While the installation of the electric boiler and beater machine has made the work more efficient, Gurung is exploring ways to fund a drying room, so he doesn’t have to halt production during the monsoon, from June to September, when the rains make drying lokta paper virtually impossible, and his workers have to be temporarily laid off. “If the AEPC would help me explore suitable technology for drying, I could not only retain my staff but also increase my production and therefore the net profit,” he says.

In the tourist region of Ghandruk, relatively better off compared to other villages around Nepal, it’s hard to find workers. Gurung relies on migrant workers from Sindhupalchowk for harvesting the raw material. Additionally, a group of Dalit women, most of them single mothers, has proved a workforce that is reliable. Apart from five porters for collecting raw materials, Gurung has hired five single women and a man from the Dalit community.

Among them is Sita Bishwakarma, who has proven to be a reliable hand, often overseeing the production in Gurung’s absence. Bishwakarma, who earns a monthly salary of Rs. 7,000, says the money is enough to support her family of three, including her children’s education. “We used to work the field and it was very hard to survive with what we earned. This is far better,” she says. 

The AEPC, under the Ministry of Population and Environment, is supported by UNDP through the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood (RERL) project--a joint undertaking of the Government of Nepal, UNDP and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The programme seeks to increase equitable access to energy services, with a focus on enhancing rural livelihood.

While the installation of the electric boiler and beater machine has made the work more efficient, Gurung is exploring ways to fund a drying room, so he doesn’t have to halt production during the monsoon, from June to September, when the rains make drying lokta paper virtually impossible, and his workers have to be temporarily laid off. “If the AEPC would help me explore suitable technology for drying, I could not only retain my staff but also increase my production and therefore the net profit,” he says.

In the tourist region of Ghandruk, relatively better off compared to other villages around Nepal, it’s hard to find workers. Gurung relies on migrant workers from Sindhupalchowk for harvesting the raw material. Additionally, a group of Dalit women, most of them single mothers, has proved a workforce that is reliable. Apart from five porters for collecting raw materials, Gurung has hired five single women and a man from the Dalit community.

Among them is Sita Bishwakarma, who has proven to be a reliable hand, often overseeing the production in Gurung’s absence. Bishwakarma, who earns a monthly salary of Rs. 7,000, says the money is enough to support her family of three, including her children’s education. “We used to work the field and it was very hard to survive with what we earned. This is far better,” she says. 

The AEPC, under the Ministry of Population and Environment, is supported by UNDP through the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood (RERL) project--a joint undertaking of the Government of Nepal, UNDP and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The programme seeks to increase equitable access to energy services, with a focus on enhancing rural livelihood.