That farmers not getting fair price for their hard labour, climate change driving low agriculture productivity, and lack of value chain and market linkages hitting the agriculture sector are challenges not unique to Bhutan. The whole of the South Asia region is facing these problems.

This was highlighted during an inception meeting on a project initiated by the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) in Thimphu yesterday where delegates from six member states attended.

The project titled “Livelihood enhancement of small farmers in SAARC region through small scale agribusiness focusing on value chain development,” is expected to increase income and improve livelihood of farmers, empower rural women and generate employment. It is also targeted to develop value chain of agriculture products.

The SDF is injecting USD 1.81M and the implementing agencies of the member states will pump in USD 0.435M for the project.

The project will help establish market linkages, set up processing industries, and bring in technologies and best practices in certain targeted sites identified by the member states.

“We will pursue product development by creating a network and all products will be marketed as SAARC product,” Chief Executive Officer of SDF Dr Sunil Motiwal said. He added that a web portal would be developed to market the products.

The two-year project, according to Dr Sunil Motiwal, is a pilot project that could be replicated. This project will closely build up on the success and initiatives of the two existing SDF projects-post harvest management and value addition and scaling up of zero energy cold storage technology for horticulture commodities.

For Bhutan, Chukha and Samtse are identified as pilot sites where the emphasis would be on agri produce like broccoli, beans, chilli, potato, tomato, oranges, bananas, jack fruit, and litchi.

The Department of Agriculture plans to establish about three argo-processing units, train the farmers and establish trade linkages during the course of the project.

While the department has project sustainability plans, one of the key challenges the Bhutanese delegates highlighted was lack of pool vehicles for movement to project sites.

Irrigation infrastructure, loss of land to urbanisation, and declining budget to agriculture were other reasons.

Dr Sunil Motiwal said that the member countries must focus on sustainability. To ensure that, he said adopting best practices would make the project impactful despite a small funding of USD 2.2M.

The director of social window, SDF, Anuj Goel, said that member states complained of long procedure and delay in fund disbursement.  “But we don’t get proper documentation and reports on time,” he said. Sometimes, he said there is total variation in the plans. “We have more stringent rules than a government,” he said, adding that some fundings are not justifiable.

For instance, for a trip that could be taken by three individual, seven are listed.

Some projects, he said, were not closed properly. “When audit issues come up, we are informed that the dealing officer has left two years ago,” he said. Anuj Goel said that the concerned organisation must set a ground rule, at least involving a proper handing taking.

Finance Minister Namgay Tshering said that it is a humble beginning for a small country like Bhutan where access to funding is an issue. “The government accords high priority to improving the livelihoods of rural farmers and self-sufficiency,” he said.

Director of agriculture department, Kinlay Tshering, said despite progress in agriculture sector, it is confronted with a number of challenges.

She said that livelihood enhancement, women empowerment, youth engagement, income generation, which are the objectives of the project goes well with targets of the 12th plan.

“The Project is going to contribute to fulfilling the 12th Plan and agri-business goes well with our focus of promoting enterprise and innovative farming,” she said.

There is no representation from the Maldives in the meeting. Afghanistan withdrew from the project.

Tshering Dorji