Pitambar Shrestha/LI-BIRD

Plastic Tunnel: Turning the Lives of Women in Humla

Posted on: 9/1/2016

By: Anish Subedi and Pitambar Shrestha, LI-BIRD

"Eating vegetables regularly has improved my health and the health of my children!"

- Baanchu Upadhyay, Chhipra 1, Humla

"Neither my parents nor my husband taught me how to grow vegetables in plastic tunnel but it is LI-BIRD who developed this skill, provided knowledge and changed our mind set for cultivating and consuming vegetables!"

- Rumpha Upadhyay, Chhipra 1, Humla 

Humla is one of the remote and least developed districts lying in the north-western mountains of Nepal. In Humla, people rely on food aid and subsidy as they own limited arable lands, lack access to quality seed, information and technology, can grow only one crop a year, and the crop productivity is very low. Food deficiency, malnutrition and poor health are prominent problems of people of Humla, especially among women and children. 

In order to address some of these issues, Humla Development Initiatives (HDI) project was launched in 2009 as a joint initiative of Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD) and some other local organizations with financial support from the Development Fund, Norway. Among the many activities introduced and supported by HDI, vegetable cultivation in plastic tunnel has become a successful practice for improving food security and nutrition, and income of people of Humla, mainly women.

Baanchu Upadhyay (35) of Chhipra Village Development Committee (VDC) ward number 1 is one of the 281 woman members receiving plastic tunnel support from the HDI project. As soon as she built a plastic tunnel next to her house in 2014, she has started cultivating vegetables year round. Earlier, it was not possible to grow vegetables in winter due to extreme cold and snowfall. When asking benefits of plastic tunnel, she says, ''now we are eating fresh vegetable every day even in winter, it has improved my health condition and the health of children, I am feeling stronger than earlier. In the past, people had shown a poster of Bhatbahadur (rice eater) and the Saagbahadur (vegetable eater) but I did not pay attention. Now, as I am eating fresh vegetables regularly having realize the importance of the poster encouraging us to eat vegetables. Before I started cultivating vegetables in the plastic tunnel, I had to pay hundred and sixty rupees for a single cucumber, but now I cultivate it myself and consume different types of vegetables every day. I also sell surplus vegetables at Simkot, from which I earned an income of NPR 15,000 last year. Earlier, I had to burrow loan for my children’s education, but now I can afford the cost by selling vegetables”.

Baanchu is happy to show cucumber grown in plastic tunnel. Photo: Pitambar Shrestha, LI-BIRD

There are many farmers in HDI project VDCs who are eager to share success of plastic tunnel and thank the organizations that supported it. Rumpha Updahyay (47) is another woman from Chhipra whose story is a source of inspiration for many women in Humla. When a team of LI-BIRD visited her plastic tunnel, she said, ''neither my parents nor my husband taught me how to grow vegetables in plastic tunnel but it is LI-BIRD who developed our skills, provided knowledge and changed our mind set for cultivating and consuming vegetables''. She grows vegetables inside the tunnel and produces cucumber, onion and carrot seeds. In the last two years, she earned net income of NPR 70,000 which she has kept in her own bank account. She further says, ''I had never dreamed about opening a bank account in my name''. 

Vegetable cultivation in plastic tunnel was completely a new technology for the people of Humla. It was introduced by a foreigner working in Himanchal Pradesh in India around the same time when HDI project was started in Humla. The project team considered this as a potential technology to disseminate and started its scaling up immediately. HDI project has covered 11 VDCs in the district where 516 resource poor households have received plastic tunnel support. From the success of plastic tunnel supported by HDI, many NGOs and government agencies including District Agriculture Development Office (DADO) provide regular support on plastic tunnel. As a result, the level of knowledge of the farmers on vegetable cultivation has increased. Women have started to make their own income, support for their children’s education and plan for future investment.

Before the introduction of vegetable cultivation in plastic tunnels, people of Humla used to eat dried vegetables (Sukuti) in winter, which was available when seasonal local vegetables were surplus. Both Baanchu and Rumpha recall having no other choice but eating dried vegetables in the past. They both have now learned that the reason why people were thin and unhealthy was because of inadequate intake of vegetables. A very surprising traditional belief prevalent in the community – “Hariyo khaye hariyo farkinchha”, meaning eating green is indigestible — was also the cause of eating little amount of fresh vegetables. It was also misconceived that green vegetables should not be fed to the pregnant women and children.

Rumpha in her plastic tunnel. Photo: Pitambar Shrestha, LIBIRD

As a result of continuous efforts of HDI and other organizations, these traditional beliefs are no more in use. People have learned cultivating diverse vegetables both inside and outside the tunnel. Vegetables they grow have been a good source of family nutrition and income of women. People of Humla now grow cauliflower, cabbage, tomato, onions, green leafy vegetables, sugar-beet, carrot, cucumber, radish and zucchini inside the tunnel in winter and outside the tunnels during flush season in summer. Availability of these diverse vegetables in the diet has contributed significantly to the nutrition security of the farmer families, especially of women and children, as mentioned by Baanchu Upadhyay. 

As women farmers are more involved in vegetable production, they are empowered with enhanced knowledge and increased income obtained through permanent plastic tunnels. Devsara Upadhyay (65), who started plastic tunnel first at Chhipra VDC five years ago, makes a good sum of income from the sales of the vegetables. She remarks, “I started to sell vegetables four years ago and in the first year I earned sixty thousand rupees from vegetable sale, same was my income in the second year. I made fifty thousand rupees in the third year and this year I have made twenty-five thousand in the first half of 2016”. Farmers like Devsara with their toil have been able to capitalize the market at Simkot, which is three hours walk away from their village. 

Plastic tunnels in Humla are not what we normally see in lower parts of the country.
Photo: Pitambar Shrestha, LIBIRD

Plastic tunnels as supported by the project are not what we normally see in lower parts of the country. The tunnel has a fixed wall facing south and the tunnel is oriented longitudinally from east to west. This allows the wall to absorb enough heat from sunlight and maintain the temperature inside the tunnels in the cold night. The width of the tunnel is 6 meters and the length depends on the size of farmers’ land. The total cost is estimated to be around fifty thousand of which project contributes the materials like plastic, nails, hinges, door handles, garden pipes and rose can which are worth around thirteen thousand per farmer. All other materials are locally available and farmers manage such materials themselves. Now, it is estimated that there are more than one thousand farmers who have built such tunnels in Humla district. These tunnels, if scaling up is done in other parts of the district, can be a boon to many smallholder women farmers like Baanchu, Rumpha and Devsara in reducing hunger and alleviating poverty in the long run.

Humla Development Initiatives (HDI) is a joint initiative of LI-BIRD and SHIP Nepal being implemented in Humla district since 2010 with financial support from NORAD through The Development Fund, Norway.