Nepal’s vegetable imports ballooned to nearly Rs 12 billion this year compared to Rs 7.55 billion last year.
The price of vegetables in our major cities has reached record highs in the past couple of weeks. Low production, multiple supply channels, flooding and inundation in Tarai belt and landslides in hills have all contributed to the skyrocketing vegetable prices.
Until some decades ago, the presence of vegetables in kitchen was considered a sign of elitism, something beyond general folks. Likewise, price of vegetables today is high and thus unaffordable for the working class.
Despite being an agricultural country, Nepal is not self-reliant in vegetables. Nepal’s vegetable imports ballooned to nearly Rs 12 billion in 2016/17 from Rs 7.55 billion in 2015/16. But, according to the Department of Customs, fresh vegetables, excluding dry ones, worth over Rs 20 billion were imported in 2016/17. Around a third of total imports take place via unofficial channels.
Among Nepal’s major exports, ginger brings just Rs 100 million. Nepal enjoys free access to Indian markets for almost all goods mentioned in the bilateral trade treaty, provided they meet the ‘rules of origin’ criteria. Vegetables as primary agricultural products are wholly produced in Nepal and enjoy duty-free access to Indian markets. But Indian customs officials’ recent reluctance to allow gingers produced in Nepal is a sign that this provision is not working. Besides that, high production cost and lack of consistency in our own products are big barriers in our vegetable export.
The South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE) estimates that a major customs point in the country exports 5,950 kg of vegetables per day in the rainy season, as it is a lean season in India. Significant amounts are exported to India via informal channels, carried over the border in small quantities on bicycles, three-wheelers and manual rickshaws.
We import chili, gourd, bitter gourd, pumpkin, onion, garlic and potato from India, mostly between April and June, the dry season here.
Generally, the climatic conditions of the Nepali Tarai, as well as India, are unsuitable for vegetable cultivation between July and September. Flooding and inundation badly affect production of major vegetable crops like cauliflower, cabbage and cucurbits.
The vegetables produced in Nepal don’t get good markets in off-season due to our failure to maintain cold storage in ‘pocket areas’ despite good production. Being geographically diverse, Nepal’s land is appropriate for a number of vegetables in all seasons. Such a huge potential could be utilized to export to the immense Indian markets.
But unlike India, we are yet to modernize and commercialize our agriculture. And agriculture is still seen as an occupation, not a profession. More subsidies for inputs, improved fertilizers, irrigation facility, improved seeds and training for farmers will also help. Likewise, vegetable collection centers and storage facilities in rural areas are also desperately needed. Again, if we can do this, the huge Indian market could be a big boon for our farmers.
Growing Indian demand for fresh vegetables has reflected an increase in their vegetable imports every year, reaching US $4 billion in 2015/016 from nearly $2 billion in 2011/012. This augurs well for Nepali vegetable exporters. Likewise, Indian citizens’ habit of consuming chilly and spicy foods is of comparative advantage to Nepali vegetable farmers. The quality of pointed gourd produced in Kanchanpur district was found higher compared to the same vegetable produced in India, and thus also fetched premium price.
Similarly, Bangladesh is also a lucrative market to export vegetables because of insufficient arable land and vast population of the Muslim country. However, Bangladesh charges high tariffs, as much as 25 percent, for some vegetables like tomato, cabbage, lettuce and carrots.
Besides India and Bangladesh, Gulf countries and Bhutan too could be the destinations for our vegetables, as import duties are generally low in the Gulf. The returnee migrants from the Gulf can grow vegetables that are in high demand in their work destinations. Currently, India and Pakistan export fresh vegetables to Gulf countries.
Nepal can also export vegetables to China’s Tibet—a less talked about yet lucrative market—via Kerung. In recent days, there has been an increased human mobility via Kerung, which augurs well for our vegetable producers and exporters.
Likewise, many returnee migrant workers from Israel have applied Israeli technology for vegetable farming in Kathmandu valley. Returnee migrants thus not only bring money but also technology, skills and passion for hard work.
So Nepal has great potential in vegetables. But we will be able to export substantial quantities only if we ensure quality of our products. That done, identifying new vegetable markets both at home and abroad, and encouraging growers on goods of comparative advantage will be the next course of action. Post-harvest handling is as vital for export growth.
Gurung is a former Member of National Planning Commission while Subedi
is a social researcher