YK Poudel

Cottage and Small Industries (CSI), Thimphu—A blonde haired tourist enters, grabs a packet of cookies, and spells out ‘druna ghu’. Curious, she selects two different biscuits and heads to the counter.

After taking a bite, she exclaims, “Delicious! Where are these cookies made?” she asks the staff.

In a time of declining agricultural production, Chimi Dema’s agri-business, ‘Bhutan Druna Ghu’, shines as a symbol of resilience and dedication, producing authentic Bhutanese cookies in Dawakha, Paro.

Despite challenges such as limited skills, market support, and access to financial assistance, women in agri-business are thriving. While an official survey is underway, the CSI department notes an increase in the number of business licences registered in women’s names.

Druna Ghu incorporates nine indigenous grains: rice (bja or rey), maize (gayza), wheat (ka), barley (nah), buckwheat (bjo or jarey), millets (memja or cham), pulses (sem), oilseeds (peka), and amaranths (zimtse) to bake their cookies. The business made its mark on the Bhutanese market in August 2018.

Determination to preserve Bhutanese grains

In the past, Bhutanese communities thrived on self-sufficiency, relying on strong agricultural practices and trading surplus with neighbouring Tibet and India.

“However, as imports grew, traditional practices like using druna ghu in rituals also declined,” Chimi Dema said.

Inspired by her father’s wisdom, Chimi Dema conceived a plan: Bhutanese farmers would cultivate traditional grains, while her business would champion locally grown produce. 

Her business hit Bhutanese market in August 2018. Initially based at the CSI startup centre until 2023, the operation has since moved to Dogar in Paro.

The 40 year-old Chimi Dema aims to reduce reliance on imported biscuits and cookies by introducing Bhutanese alternatives. Starting small with a generous Nu 1 million grant from the Loden Foundation, the venture now employs two full-time staff and six daily-wage workers.

Thanks to support from the CSI market, Druna Ghu is now all across Bhutan, as well as in Gujarat (India), Australia, and Singapore. With four varieties already on shelves and two-new products in development, Chimi Dema’s vision is thriving.

Addressing challenges

Chimi Dema emphasises the urgent need to break down gender barriers and provide robust support for women working in agriculture and agri-business, particularly in areas of nutrition, food security, and dietary habits.

“There’s still a pervasive lack of faith in women entrepreneurs compared to their male counterparts,” she observes.

Moreover, the shift towards cash crops has made it increasingly difficult to source locally grown cereals, posing a significant challenge for businesses like Chimi Dema’s.

“The absence of certification and accreditation processes, compounded by the lack of mutual recognition agreements, hampers our ability to sell in large quantities,” Chimi Dema says. “Given the size of the Bhutanese market, profitability remains a challenge.”

Chimi Dema stresses the importance of skills development through training and workshops, highlighting the critical role they play in overcoming these obstacles.

Furthermore, she identifies the packaging industry as a particular area where Bhutanese businesses lag behind. Investing in training opportunities for entrepreneurs and farmers not only fosters collaboration with relevant agencies but also enhances essential skills vital for success in the industry.

Improving access to finance

Chimi Dema emphasises the crucial need for accessing finance from suitable sources, pointing out the lack of sustainability support in Bhutan. She calls for government intervention, advocating for interest-free loans, particularly for startups focused on value-added businesses that benefit the common people.

Despite various financing options available, Chimi Dema highlights disparities in financial literacy, especially among women. 

The Royal Monetary Authority’s survey indicates that women lag behind men in understanding financial terms and institutions.

Moreover, limited access to financial services poses a significant barrier to economic empowerment, particularly for women. This disparity, coupled with insufficient investments in gender equality, hinders women’s economic opportunities in agrifood systems, contributing to global food insecurity. 

Addressing these gaps is essential for fostering economic growth and reducing inequality.

Empowering women farmers in agribusiness

Agriculture is vital for livelihoods in Bhutan, especially for women, who make up over 40 percent of those involved in primary sector activities. However, their roles go beyond just assisting. 

Chimi Dema stresses the need to recognise women’s contributions and address the challenges they face, including limited access to land, low productivity, and technology gaps.

Rural farmers, mostly women, struggle with labor shortages, market access issues, and a lack of mechanisation. This hinders productivity and the shift to market-oriented farming.

Tailored small-scale mechanisation for women could boost efficiency and resilience to climate change, crucial for Bhutan’s limited arable land. 

Access to appropriate technology is essential to empower women farmers and enhance the agricultural sector’s potential.

Focused policies and extension services 

In a bid to address challenges faced by women farmers and boost agricultural productivity, Bhutan has implemented focused policies and extension services.

During the 12th Five Year Plan, an additional 6,746 acres of land were allocated for farm mechanisation, aiming to modernise practices and alleviate labour shortages, particularly benefiting women smallholders.

The draft 13th Five Year Plan sets ambitious targets for the agricultural sector, aiming for a GDP contribution of Nu 58.7 billion, reflecting a 43 percent increase from 2022 levels. This indicates the government’s commitment to revitalising agriculture and fostering sustainable growth.

Additionally, investments in climate resilience initiatives, such as climate-smart farming technologies and stress-tolerant crop varieties, aim to mitigate the impact of climate change on agriculture and ensure food security.

However, effective extension services tailored to women farmers’ needs are essential for successful adoption of modern agricultural technologies. 

By providing targeted support and training, extension services can empower women farmers to maximise the benefits of mechanisation and drive sustainable agricultural development in Bhutan.

Support for women smallholder farmers

Chimi Dema advocates for prioritising support for women smallholder farmers in Bhutan, emphasising the need for government policies to promote mechanization and provide affordable tools and technologies tailored to their specific needs. 

“Policy frameworks should recognise the additional challenges faced by women farmers due to climate variability and social shifts, incorporating their input in program formulation,” she says. 

In 2018, the agriculture sector employed 162,239 individuals, constituting 54 percent of total employment, but by 2022, this figure decreased to 125,160, comprising 43.5 percent of total employment—a 22 percent decline in four years. 

“During this period, women accounted for the highest employment within the agriculture sector, with approximately 85,700 women out of 135,649 total employed, representing 63 percent of all employed women,” says Chimi Dema. 

The RMA’s annual report for 2023 highlights the sector’s modest contribution to the country’s economy, despite a slight increase—from 12.93 percent in 2017 to 14.67 percent in 2022.” 

Way forward in agri-business

Chimi Dema highlights the challenges faced by women in accessing training opportunities and calls for government investment to support entrepreneurs and women farmers. 

She emphasises the need for increased demand for locally grown produce to justify higher prices, suggesting interventions such as boosting production for smallholder farmers and improving post-harvest management to minimize losses. 

Climate-smart agriculture and resilience are crucial, requiring investment in high-end products and modern technologies like greenhouses and drip irrigation systems. 

Chimi Dema also advocates for a review of financial policies to enable women to invest in agri-business and support its sustainability, emphasising the importance of gender responsive budgeting. 

With over 60 percent of Bhutan’s population residing in rural areas engaged in low-productivity agriculture, addressing these challenges is vital for enhancing agricultural efficiency and rural livelihoods.

Kuensel partners with FAO Bhutan to spotlight women in agrifood systems, empowering their participation and transformation.