An Enriching Experience: Following Up with SIF Sherab Dorji on his Khemdro Dairy Project

by Kia Sadahiro '18
April 20, 2018

“When it comes to dairy farming in Phobjikha, there is an implicit rule of thumb: women do it all - from milking, selling the products to buyers, and fortunately, to keeping the money from the sales as well.”

Sherab Dorji (‘21) is on the leave from his academics at Brown University to make a change in the farms in Bhutan. He tackles the problem caused by middleman inefficiencies between farmers and consumers - low price, no long-term benefits to the farmers (e.g. no cattle breed improvement scheme from the middlemen) - and gives back to the community he grew up in.

Founded last year, the Khemdro Dairy Group (KDG) is a registered group of currently 41 smallholder dairy farmers based in Phobjikha Valley in central Bhutan. The mission is to economically empower women by creating a supply chain where proper components are linked together, eventually selling their products at a fair price.

Founder of Khemdro Dairy, Sherab Dorji answered questions about the updates on his project.

It’s been a year since you founded KDG. What has the process been like since day one?

It has been an enriching experience. I would say that 40% of the time I was working with the farmers and the government to form and train the farmers’ group, and 60% was spent hustling for funding/capital- applying to government grants, getting documents ready, applying for clearances and letters from government agencies, as well as applying to non-governmental grants.

What are the updates on the project? How has the community changed through your program?

Right now, we are working with 41 member households. We haven’t started collecting milk and paying the farmers but we have started some key things: we have started the construction of our milk processing unit (with government funding). In November 2017, we piloted a silage making program to initiate a progress towards better nutrition for the cattle, and as a follow-up, this year, we are working with the livestock office to build a few silage-making pits for the farmers and distribute free fodder seeds to the member farmers so that they can prepare more silage for the coming winter (when everything turns dry and cold).

Why did you decide to do this during the school year? Did you consider working on it after graduation?

Khemdro Dairy is life for me. If I fail this time, I can come back to Brown, seek help, learn what I need know, acquire the skills and return to my place to do it better. I guess that is the reason why I decided to do it in the middle of degree. I felt that at Brown, I was learning a lot of things - I declared Environmental Studies (Sc.B) - which are pretty useful all in all but not within the scope of what I want to achieve.

Any challenges you are facing?

Raising the funding has been the challenge: Khemdro Dairy addresses a very local problem with a national scope, so its difficult to, I think, get international grants that seek international-scale impact. For the local farmer I am working with, it’s tough making ends meet. There are 400,000 such farmers all over rural Bhutan. A successful Khemdro Dairy Group will not only help the current farmers I am working with by doubling their earnings from dairying (which means much better and stabler livelihoods for them), it will also be a springboard from where we can launch ourselves to reach more farmers, first in the vicinity, then in the outlying regions to bring the same impact to them.

So you’ve mentioned funding. The website says, “needs to raise US$50,000 in seed money to cover the upfront costs of filling in the grey boxes in our supply chain.”

Diagram from website

Can you elaborate on the grey boxes? What do you need to work on?

Right now, we have the farmers who rear the cattle and produce the milk. Then we have the domestic market where the demand for dairy products is only increasing over the years.

Thus far, we have been able to secure funding for the processing unit where we can add value to the farmers’ dairy milk. But now, we face 2 questions: (1) how do we get the milk from the farmers - who are scattered all over the place - to the processing unit and (2) how do we get the processed products from the processing unit to the market? So these are the grey boxes I mentioned - linkages are what we lack, and we badly need funding to invest in them. One additional challenge going forward is the erratic power supply we have here - in rainy months, weeks can elapse without electricity. So we need to hook up to a reliable source of power - solar - and also invest in cold storage to store the fresh dairy products before marketing.

Coming up with this model seems to be very difficult.What kind of knowledge, experiences, support did you use or are you using to come up with and operate this project? Did you just one day wake up and think, “Hmm! This should work?”

Haha, not really. In retrospect, we built the actual nitty gritties of the model as we we went along - the livestock official, the farmers and me. I have friends who are very enthusiastic about cooperatives as a good way of mobilizing people and resources to create impact. I had visited other farmers groups in other parts of Bhutan, interviewed the farmers and tried to look at what they are doing right and what they could do better. The livestock department has been a huge huge partner since day one- offering technical and capacity building support to the farmers and I - since that is what we lack. So that gave a good framework for the KD model.

So the project is rolling, and you’re taking a gap year right now— what’s next?

Yes, another gap year has been decided! I mean, I have so far not achieved much in terms of creating a vibrant business that can thrive without me at the helm. I am hoping I can hire managers and workers, train them, design SOP(Standard Operating Procedure)s and ensure they can function without me.

So in the short term, I want to get KD going (operations-wise), and create a strong supply chain for our products so that we can continue buying milk from farmers and increasing their incomes (by having a strong market for our processed products). In the medium run, I want to spread to other villages and more farmers. In the long run, I want to invest in sophisticated machinery with which we can produce high-value dairy products like powdered milk, mozzarella and pizza cheese (all of which we import from India currently).

Anything else you want people to know about KD?

I want to thank everyone who has helped me along the way and made it possible for KD to be where it is today. I am grateful. There is still so much I need to learn and cover towards making KD fully viable and as impactful as it claims to be, and I would appreciate any help/support along the way! Please reach out to sherab_dorji@brown.edu if you want to know more about my work here in Bhutan.

Links:

Khemdro Dairy Website

Previous article about Sherab’s project.