When establishing the business 3 years ago, it was incredibly important for me to source our berries from the most ethically and sustainably grown and processed crops in the world. Nepal was a fabulous choice for me, and I found a partner who was passionate about giving back to the communities that rely on the income provided by the sale of our TRH soapberries. Through Grow Nepal, we have been able to ensure we safeguard the wellbeing and living conditions of those communities upon whom we rely so much.
But in order for us to truly understand the whole process and act in an informed way, we need to see it for ourselves and immerse ourselves in the culture and experience. We hope to contribute to specific projects going forward, and ensure we are looking after our Nepalese friends.
We left for Kathmandu, not really knowing what we would ultimately be faced with when we arrived. But the most confronting part would come when we travelled to the Far Western Region and met with the cooperatives and communities that are responsible for harvesting our berries.
We knew that the remote areas of Nepal are badly affected by poverty, but we were not prepared for the sheer cultural differences that we encountered. Our intention has always been to find a way to support our communities, and being open to the experience allowed us to truly appreciate their culture and challenges. The journey itself was nothing short of terrifying. The roads are narrow and quite deadly. Blind corners coupled with huge oncoming vehicles taking them at horrifying speeds was awful. We endured 30 hours of this overall, and we are thankful to have survived.
The small roadside villages that lined the roads on our journey provided an eye opening insight into the scale and nature of the poverty in the Far Western region. Small ‘huts’ that serve as shops during the day and double as shelter at night, are numerous and less than adequate for human residential use. But it is simply a way of life for these communities, and whilst it was confronting for us… we embraced and immersed ourselves in the culture. We passed small farms on which soapberry trees are situated, and we were able to meet the land owners that are paid for the berries we harvest. We source from many different areas around the region, so the very best quality berries are harvested and eventually reach our customers all over the world.
Eventually we arrived in a little village nestled in the stunning Himalayas. Golkwelshor is located on a fresh, rapidly flowing river which is the lifeline for this remote community. The setting was idyllic, but still the undeniable reality of absolute poverty was present. It was a true dichotomy both visually and emotionally. But the true gravity of the situation was yet to hit us. We met with the community leaders and co-operative representatives to discuss such issues as payment terms, timelines and quality control. But our true objective was to speak with them about their humanitarian needs. How can we as a business help and support them?
After the ‘business banter’ concluded, we asked the very questions that had driven us to take this journey. This was what had enabled us to wipe the tears away when we witnessed the scenes of desperation and poverty that is simply their way of life. It was then we discovered that the problems these communities are facing are more than just the size or quality of their shelter. It is far more serious than what we saw with our eyes. It transcends anything we are accustomed to in the comfort of our first world lives.
The gender divide in Nepal, whilst ingrained in their culture… is shocking. The women are responsible for the majority of the laborious tasks, including looking after the animals, domestic duties, sourcing food for both the animals and the family, sourcing firewood and of course looking after the babies and children. Let me reiterate that this is not a feminist rant, nor is it a rant about gender equality. It is simply the culture, and we found it devastating. Not just because of the inequality, but because of the health implications that are inherent when this expectation is placed on the females.
You see, there is no access to health care in these areas. NONE. The closest heath care is a mere 7 hour drive, but for those without vehicles (everyone really) it is a 4-5 day hike. And the standard of care when they finally reach it? Substandard at best. So the women give birth in their homes – which as previously described is nothing more than a hut… and given their domestic and laborious duties… are forced back to work the same day, or if they are lucky the next day; with the newborn strapped to their bodies.
Now as a mother of 4… I cannot bring myself to even imagine the sheer pain these women endure in the days and weeks following the risky birth of their babies. The complications that arise from returning to laborious duties so soon after giving birth, are numerous and life threatening. Prolapse, infection, blood loss and long term illness are just the beginning. We were made aware of these issues by the women at the end of our meeting, and they were overcome with emotion at the idea that we were concerned for their wellbeing. They don’t ever speak about their health issues… even with eachother. It is just not spoken of. EVER. So for them to open up to two western business women was something I will never forget… and a responsibility we do not take lightly.
Given the sensitive nature of their problems, and the fact that it is a taboo topic, they suggested that we meet with the women alone the next morning to discuss the extent of their health issues. They walked up to six hours, in pain just to meet with us. They brought their daughters, mothers and grandmothers. They came in hope. But we too were overwhelmed. The night before we cried to eachother as we recounted the events of the day. It was our form of therapy. We debriefed every detail in order to be at our best… After all, we were not the ones born into this life, and shortly we would be on a plane back to the comfort of our first world lives. We needed to listen, absorb and empathise. We needed to understand what these communities need and work out how we can support them.
So with the help of our seriously intermittent internet connection, we attempted to translate and reach a common understanding with these women. We summoned strength and compassion, and learned that their struggles are lifelong but more importantly… preventable. With some basic medical support and intervention, these women could avoid many of the illnesses and conditions which plague them. A mobile health care unit with basic specialised female medical staff will assist in treating and educating the women and hopefully give them a level of care that they deserve.
So as we listened, learned and cried with them… our language barrier faded into the background. Simple gestures were enough for us to understand their pain. We resonated as mothers and shared pictures of our children with them. But most importantly, we made a promise to each and every one of them. We will do everything in our power to help them. It is our responsibility as business owners, and as women to help these communities.
We left feeling overwhelmed and emotional. It was so much to take in. Not only had we been incredibly uncomfortable in our surroundings, but the sheer task ahead of us seemed insurmountable. Where do we even start? How can we make a difference? Can we make a difference? Are we wasting our time? In a country riddled with corruption and political turmoil… how can we get help to these communities? I’m not going to lie… we have been torn, confused and saddened. Some have even told us to give up… ‘there’s no point!’ But they were not there… they did not look into the eyes of these women and see their pain.
So we are about to embark on one of the biggest projects of our lives… we will now start the journey to help the communities that rely on the income provided by the harvest of our soapberries. We are in this together, and we are calling on all the advice and help we can. We will partner with our colleagues in Kathmandu, and somehow get help to these people. We made a commitment, and now begins the hard work. Once we establish the best vessel by which to assist… we will invite partners and sponsors to join us on this journey. Stay tuned…