Nepal – making a failure out of a success

Introduction

After an extended visit to Nepal in 2018 I realized that the countries agricultural problems could be summed up as 1) a deficit in horticultural knowledge, 2) a lack of equipment and 3) a failure to use appropriate technology.

I concluded that Nepal had the climate to be highly productive all year round. What it needed was an educational and research station where intensive horticulture and fertility management could be taught and novel ideas developed into working.

So when I left in February 2019 I left loaded up with soft furnishing goods bought from India and Nepal that I intended to sell over the summer. I posted most goods ahead and then carried more goods on the flight back. I hoped to raise £10k however it was a struggle and at times I found myself carting 50kg of goods on a bus to markets where I failed to even cover the bus fare home. I did though manage to sell some and so in November 2019 I returned with some tools and £3500 in cash; a third of what I had hoped to raise. However it was along with my knowledge and passion what I had. It was also to be the last ‘push’ for, having spent the last 13 years trying to help NGO’s and farmers build sustainable projects, I had had enough of engineered failure.

2018 Reconnaissance Survey

During my visit in 2018 I had laid down some foundations; I made some inquires and through those some connections. I further executed a reconnaissance survey on the terraces above Sedi village and concluded that whilst the soils were poor they could, given the climate, be far more productive than they were. The problem lay in a lack of basic knowledge in soil and plant husbandry. sedi-reconnaissance-survey

map of sedi reconnaissance area

So it was here on my return that I first started, with the guest house owner and on the terraces I had previously surveyed . However the owner had not taken on board any of the advice I had given him in the reconnaissance survey and it was soon apparent that he had no intention of doing so.

Thus I began to look elsewhere. It though proved to be a struggle for, as has been the perennial problem I have encountered in Asia, everyone you meet is keen on the ideas but shy on practical action. Their interest is superficial and once they realize that progress require effort that interest rapidly withers.

ADAOS

ADAOS

This search led me to ADAOS, a small NGO that was introduced to me by Sushil, a young plant pathologist I had met on a bus from Kathmandu. We had discussed ideas on the bus and later met to discuss them further. Sushil showed me several sites to begin a compost operation; one of which was ADAOS. A small NGO running a retirement home for Nepali cows and whose main stock in trade was bottling the urine for human consumption. back-in-the-shit

new vermiculture bed

They also had a fledgling vermicomost operation and were interested in nursery production. Their unshakable belief in the medicinal benefits of ‘holy cow’ urine though put me off.

It was also far from a suitable site with poor access and a lack of water but I could at least help them improve their compost and vermicompost operation and as it was already February I needed to start something, to put something practical into operation so I agreed to show them how to make better compost. 3-2-1 compost

This developed into a basic strategy to produce compost and manufacture potting compost for nursery production. I moved to an apartment to be nearer and then a few weeks later the Covid19 lockdown came in. The attitude changed, and as foreigner I was seen as the source of Covid19 and thus found myself barred from the site. Plants I had raised for the growing operations withered in their pots as Narandra constantly failed to pick them up. It was clear the end of the road had been reached. ADAOS

Lockdown also saw a puppy I would name Pinto come into my life. Whilst I had not intended on keeping him the extended lockdown saw me becoming attached and I determined to eventually take him back to the UK with me. a-rescued-puppy

CESAR

Whilst working with ADAOS I met Santosh Koirala, who was minding his fathers joinery shop and who got the joke on the back of my t-shirt (Greta was angry but I’m fecking livid). On inquiring further I learned that he had spent 15 years in the States where he had completed a degree in chemical engineering (Texas A&M) and a doctorate in bio-molecular engineering (Lincoln). He was potentially an ideal partner for the biochar and biodiesel projects and so I returned and raised the ideas with him. Santosh was interested but before we could discuss the ideas further Lockdown intervened and progress stalled until July.

CESAR

Following the easing of restrictions we met, visited the Amar Singh Chowk site and agreed a basic plan to build a training and research operation built upon a working nursery. The four months of lockdown meant time was of the essence if things were to be in place for the new year. First was the manufacture of compost and then to start building the raised beds. Plans were drawn up, agreed and work commenced. The full story will be written up but for now there is the overview I produced in December

The Successes

Water Hyacinth Organic Fertilizer

At the end of lockdown last year I was able to gather some water hyacinth from the Fewa lake. Most was used to make compost but some I kept aside and using a basic barrel press extracted the liquid. In total 50 ltrs was extracted and held onto for a liquid fertilizer trial. The trial was executed over 4 weeks in February and proved extremely successful.

Basil growth after twice weekly feeds of 1) 50ml water hyacinth extract (WHE), 2) 50ml of mineral nutrient solution (MNF), 3) 50ml water (control) over a 4 week period.

A paper for this will be written in due course and there is still time to turn the control of water hyacinth from an expense for the municipality to a benefit to the municipality and environment. All it requires is the willingness to do so.

Raised beds: Continuous Cropping

Whilst the raised beds were intended for seed production and teaching they provided an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of all year round intensive cropping systems. Originally this was to be done using cold frames but with the decision by Santosh to cancel building the greenhouse, bamboo supports and plastic were erected to produce a hybrid cold frame and green house. Whilst the project was started the decision by Santosh to starve both the project and myself of funds and the subsequent theft of my dog meant that only the first crop was ever planted.

Biochar: the abandoned project

Biochar is an organic carbon that has a long half life and can be made from any carbon based material from wood wastes to plastic. Biochar has the potential to improve agricultural land and sequester carbon to address climate change. Nepal’s soils are low in carbon and in many cases this could be addressed with biocar additions. Furthermore I had interest from both National and International institutions to partner on biochar projects.

Carbon Sequestration Opportunities in the Agricultural Land of Nepal

The Failures

Why ADAOS Failed

It has to be said that ADAOS was always going to be a temporary engagement. The sites was unsuitable and the superstitious beliefs always going to get in the way of proper progress. It didn’t help that I was misled at the start into believing that I was dealing with a committee when in truth all decisions were Naranda’s. When the Covid lockdown begun those same irrational beliefs simply morphed into xenophobia and I was cast out like the proverbial leaper.

Why CESAR Failed

CESAR had much more promise and with Santosh having spent 15 years in the States where he gained his degree, masters and doctorate before doing several years work in industry I erroneously believed that things would be different. However;

  1. Santosh did no work. When we agreed to partner to build the project we agreed to split the work load whereby I was responsible for the design and operations to build the infrastructure whilst Santosh would take care of admin and communications. Sadly whilst I executed my side of the agreement Santosh did not do his and when I complained he openly admitted such but then did nothing to address it. If anything he came over as ‘entitled’ and if to add insult to injury then did less. The project could not survive if the admin and networking were not executed.
  2. What Santosh did do he then corrupted. There was in truth only one thing Santosh did: set up the NGO. Something only he could do as NGO’s in Nepal can only be set up and contain Nepali nationals on the board. Santosh took a long time to set the NGO up and when he did the board consisted of four family members none of whom had any interest in CESAR. This included the treasurer, secretary and vice chair. Thus as chair he did not have the casting vote but the majority. Not only was this in contravention of CESAR’s own constitution but it meant I was not dealing with an organization but an individual; one who ruled completely and who was similarly not committed to the project or prepared to do the bare minimum.
  3. Santosh agreed to a plan and then changed his mind after half the infrastructure had been built. This just creates crisis and increases the amount of work I have to do.
  4. Santosh refused to address issues such as water, rubbish burning and security. Water was a constant issue with a complete failure to provide as agreed sufficient storage. This included water for domestic use. Rubbish burning by the residents was common practice and went against the whole ethos of organization. Santosh addressed this by paying for the rubbish to be collected but did not enforce the collecting and disposing of rubbish and so the burning continued. Not one single bag was ever collected.
  5. Security, particularly the leaving open of gates by the residents was a major concern that I raised constantly but was ignored and one that ultimately led to the theft of my dog.

This wasn’t about money but interest and commitment to the project and the lack of concern about the security and well being of others. Santosh liked the idea of CESAR as a route to advance his Doctorate in bio-molecular engineering but when it came to the crunch not the idea of doing any work towards achieving this. When I started to complain not only did he do less but he also withheld funding. I was in the last few months starved into submission, no water, no gas and no food. In hindsight I wish I had walked away in January, after he decided to ditch the plans we had agreed a few weeks earlier and starve me of funds, but I wanted to complete the hyacinth and continuous cropping projects, I had put a lot of time and effort in and so I wanted something for my labours. The theft of my dog, a month later, a consequence of Santosh’s failure to address security was the worst of all possibilities. Hence I now regret continuing, had I left in January both myself and Pinto would already be back in the UK. Instead I will likely return on my own, financially broke, emotionally drained and bereft of all hope for planet Earth. Pinto

Conclusion

The irony here is that despite the failures of Santosh CESAR was proving to be a success. I had single handedly got the interest of international and national partners and was on target to build a first class teaching and research establishment. In all likelihood I would have succeeded in creating this in less time than the five years originally envisaged and similarly at a fraction of the costs. However this was only possible if others contributed and whilst I remained the only person committed, the only person doing any work then the project was doomed to fail.

I would aver that it wasn’t too much to ask for the organization to be created honestly and with an active and committed board; or for Santosh to make the necessary calls and arrange meetings with relevant civil departments. In particular turning an expense, the invasive water hyacinth, into a resource. The work was a success, the projects were working but whilst I was the only contributing partner I was in the end just another man’s slave.

Nepal whilst being one of the few countries that has the resources and climate to become a successful and sustainable agricultural society sadly lacks the will to do so. As the saying goes you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink and thus a success is turned into a failure.

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