Nepal’s enterprising women in politicsFemale leaders also manage thriving businesses on the side to support their families and political careers
A Member of Parliament operates a fast-food restaurant. Another MP runs a trout hatchery. A female party leader owns a pig farm.
All three women are in the business of politics, and they have established and run their own enterprises on the side to augment household income and to backstop their careers.
While their male counterparts in local, provincial and federal governments have earned some notoriety for having a conflict of interest because they are also infrastructure contractors, these women multitask without mixing business with politics.
Coffee, avocado and banana
Devi Khadka is a former guerrilla and Maoist Centre MP from Dolakha who was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 2008. And while she might have once walked the corridors of power in Kathmandu, Khadka is still attached to the roots of her family’s farming profession.
In 2008, Khadka established a trout farm in Dolakha, but it was irreparably destroyed during the 2015 earthquake. However, she remained steadfast in her decision to continue her business and began growing tomatoes in greenhouses in Bhaktapur.
But while Khadka’s farm thrived, things were not going so well back home in Dolakha, where she was the district in-charge under the erstwhile Nepal Communist Party formed after the merger of the UML and the Maoist Centre.
A meeting of elected officials of nine municipalities of Dolakha were worried that subsidised farming and agriculture in general had become all but impossible in the district because of out-migration and low yield. Khadka was determined to do something about it – not through politics but with enterprise.
“The decline of agriculture shook me to my core,” Khadka recalls. “I realised that it would be impossible to revive the people's hope and trust in farming unless I did not show them myself that properly done agriculture in Dolakha was still worthwhile.”
So, Khadka returned home and set up the Women Floris Agriculture Private Limited in Gaurishankar Municipality, where for the last three years, Khadka and her husband Raj Kumar Shrestha have been growing coffee, avocados and bananas.
Along with two other women, she set up the farm with an investment of Rs5 million. The three women are involved full-time in the business and employ 12 men on a part-time basis whenever it is farming season.
Khadka juggles this with her role as a Central Committee member of the Maoist party. And while avocado and banana sell mostly in the domestic market, she has successfully negotiated to export her farm’s coffee to South Korea, Australia and Japan and other countries.
“The business has not only given me financial independence, it has also made me an ethical politician,” she says. “Because of my business, I am able to engage in politics without resorting to dirty business, I get to demonstrate a high moral standing to my children and ensure that they have a good future.”
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Fast food and slow fashion
Nabina Lama was an MP in Nepal’s last Federal Parliament and is currently a central member of the UML. But despite an active political career, Lama owns not only one but two businesses.
Her restaurant, Doban Pool Burger House in Kathmandu employs dozens of people. And many more benefit from her clothing store Rimthim Ethnic Collection, where she sells products made out of traditional dhaka and allo fabric.
Lama’s ethnic fashion store is a joint venture with four other women entrepreneurs, and she is a 70% partner in the fast food restaurant. Whenever Lama is busy with her party work, her husband looks after day-to-day business at both outlets.
Like Khadka, Lama agrees that entrepreneurship has made her financially self-sufficient and independent. She adds, “Having a business is the only reason I have been able to actively engage in politics.”
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Piggery and soap
Dhan Kumari Sunar, president of the Women's Organisation of the Scientific Socialist Communist Party of Nepal, operated a pig farm until it collapsed due to poor market management. But she did not let failure get her spirits down.
Two years ago, she started the Tillikka Jhol Sabun Udhyog that makes liquid detergent together with Rs120,000 in investments from 12 other women from her party. Sunar took inspiration from her party’s ‘scientific’ ideology of an independent and self-reliant economy to set up her business.
“The economic ownership of Nepali women in terms of resources and property is only 26%,” explains Sunar. “Entrepreneurship is crucial to women’s freedom, we cannot be truly free until we are financially independent.”
Sunar’s business runs on word-of-mouth, and is doing well. But the politician in her is critical of the lack of state support for small businesses, adding that her loan proposal has been stalled.
Says Sunar: “The government promises to facilitate self-employment of Nepali youth, but it is not happening on the ground. Powerful middlemen who control businesses seize the loans set aside for women and low-income individuals and communities."
Translated from the Himal Khabar original by Shristi Karki.
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