Belimaya Ginel Magar and a handful of other young women from the village of Kapilakot in southeastern Nepal had just finished a training course in traditional Dhaka cloth weaving when the worst earthquake in the country’s recent history struck on April 25, 2015.
The 7.8-magnitude quake flattened the women’s village. But Belimaya and her fellow weavers refused to let the disaster quash their dreams of using their new skills to earn a living. One year on, their Panchakanya Micro Entrepreneurs Group is among the hundreds of new and thriving small businesses helping to regenerate Nepal’s economy.
Last year’s earthquake and subsequent aftershocks in central Nepal left around 9,000 people dead, more than 22,000 injured and millions homeless. There was significant damage to small enterprises and markets – up to 90 percent in the most affected areas, with small farms, artisanal products and tourism services among the worst hit.
Belimaya and her coworkers from the Dhamile Village Development Committee (VDC) of Sindhuli District are among the more than 80 percent of Nepal’s population living in rural areas. Income-earning opportunities are scarce, which has resulted in a huge exodus of the productive workforce – predominantly young men – to India, the Gulf states and beyond. Women (along with children and older people) remain in the villages and are responsible for taking care of their families.
Belimaya, 26, cares for her two elementary-school-age children while her husband works in Qatar. Before the earthquake, she was excited to hear about the chance to learn a new income-earning skill through the Micro-Enterprise Development Programme (MEDEP) – a scheme set up in 1998 by the government of Nepal and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and currently funded by the Australian government to encourage employment opportunities.
“One year back, we did not have any skills to make money. We had plenty of leisure time after sending the kids to school,” Belimaya said. “The training to make Dhaka clothes came as an opportunity to start a business. The training boosted our confidence to set up the microenterprise. We believed that this business would change our life.”
For centuries, Nepal’s craftspeople have woven the pure cotton cloth known as Dhaka. Still produced by hand loom with traditional designs, modern Dhaka is used to create everything from saris and shirts to bed sheets and table mats. This unique weaving style is one of Nepal’s most recognizable and commercially popular handicrafts.
Belimaya was among a group of 10 women to embark on a three-month weaving training course run by MEDEP in 2015, beginning just before the earthquake and ending when the frequent aftershocks subsided.
When the earthquake struck, she and four fellow trainees were in the process of setting up a weaving workshop. “The quake fully damaged our bamboo-made cottage [workshop],” said Belimaya, now chair of the Panchakanya group. “A few weeks after the earthquake, we rebuilt a makeshift [one].”
But as their homes were far from the workshop, Belimaya and her colleagues were spending an entire day traveling to their new workplace. “So we decided to rent around Kapilakot,” she said. “We had to leave home and shift to a new place, along with children. But we were determined to do this.”
And that was not the only challenge that these women faced. “Disbelief upon our initiative… was most discouraging for us,” said Belimaya, referring to the reaction from local people to the group’s devotion to building the workshop and starting a business.
When villagers saw these women – most of whom were under 25 at the time – cutting and laying bamboo, digging small holes and fixing sticks, they presumed that they were building homes for earthquake victims or constructing poultry farms.
“Initially, nobody believed in us. Many men assumed that we girls would not be able to build a cottage by ourselves. They said we were wasting our time. But we showed them,” said Suntali Maya Ghalan, another member of the Panchakanya group.
The women began building their bamboo cottage in October 2015. Within a week, they had built a modest cottage with a tarpaulin roof, at a cost of 1,500 Nepalese rupees ($14) funded by the VDC office and a local cooperative. This inspired three more women to join the group, bringing the total to eight members.
Through the Rapid Enterprise and Livelihoods Recovery Project (RELRP), another UNDP-administered scheme funded by the Australian government and launched in June 2015, the Panchakanya group received a week-long Dhaka weaving refresher course. Three members visited Tanahun District in central Nepal for an additional three-month advanced weaving course, funded in part by the Nepal government’s program for small business regeneration.
The group funded and set up seven manual weaving machines before formally launching their enterprise in October 2015. Their products – sold at local markets – include kurtas (traditional loose shirts), handkerchiefs, coverlets, hats, shawls, blouses and ties. Members invest their profits to scale up their business and have started a monthly savings program with a local cooperative.
Belimaya is delighted with Panchakanya’s success, which has seen the group grow to 25 active members who each receive an income of around $90 to $140 per month from sales of their Dhaka products.
“The amount covers most of the expenses of our daily life. We pay rent, fulfill daily needs and pay our children’s school fees as well,” said Belimaya, adding that the enterprise has earned members respect from their husbands and other family members.
“These women have shown such promise within such a short time,” said Indra Hyau, district coordinator of RELRP in Sindhuli. “RELRP is currently supporting the construction of a common facility center for them to work in a safer environment. We are very impressed with their dedication.”
Over 8,000 women have been able to restart their businesses through the support of UNDP/RELRP and 1,400 new women entrepreneurs have been created, earning as much as $90 per month.
With Nepal’s youth unemployment at an all-time high, self-sufficient entrepreneurs such as the Panchakanya members are role models for others in their village.
“Those who were discouraging us in the beginning were curious to send their daughters to our enterprise for learning. Now, the villagers extend support towards us and treat us with respect. We hope that more women will join us and more women will be empowered in the remote villages,” Belimaya said.
“Today, we don’t have to wait for our husbands to send money from the Gulf countries. We are able to manage on our own.”