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Putting Himalayan Superfoods on the menu

Private sector representatives at Nepal NUS workshop/G. Meldrum

Research fellow Gennifer Meldrum reports from Pokhara on how nutrition is once again returning to the heart of Nepalese cuisine.

By Gennifer Meldrum, Research Fellow, Nutrition and Marketing Diversity

“This is the first time all these stakeholders have come together” remarked Sandesh Neupane from Local Initiatives for Biodiversity Research and Development (LI-BIRD) as representatives of the private sector, NGOs and government gathered with professors, students, journalists and others in Pokhara, Nepal.

The meeting, held at the end of February, was to share the results of a research project on neglected and underutilized species, and to explore opportunities to further promote these crops in Nepal.

LI-BIRD has taken to calling these species 'Himalayan Superfoods ’ to give them a marketable appeal. They are focusing their research on amaranth, minor millets, buckwheat, barley, naked barley and beans but there are many other candidates, including various fruits and vegetables.

Himalayan Superfoods are highly nutritious. For instance amaranth is rich in iron and lysine - an amino acid found in low levels in the major cereals. Nevertheless, they have been neglected by agricultural research and development and have fallen out of favour in the Nepali kitchen with the increasing availability of rice. Times are changing though as rising demand for alternative grains presents a big opportunity to promote these crops.

Madhav K.C, the owner of an organic cafe in the touristy Lakeside district of Pokhara commented that his sales notably increased by putting a gluten-free label on the bread and muffins he was preparing from buckwheat and finger millet. Pratish Palikhe, manager of Binayek's Supermarket, observed that Nepali people are also becoming more nutrition-conscious. He is keen to start a special section in his store to stock items like those the farmers displayed at the meeting.

Private sector engagement like this is necessary for successful promotion. Bringing nearly forgotten species back into the light and raising their supply and demand together is no simple task. Participants discussed at length the many challenges faced in developing the value chains of these crops: difficult processing, negative cultural perceptions, irregular supply, and restrictions on selling uncertified products were just some of the issues brought up. Ram Rana, Director of Programme Operations of LI-BIRD, interjected that “the problems we already know - what are the answers? Now we want people to accompany us and walk forward with us together”.

Bashu Aryal of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) suggested identifying a few promising crops to start with and work to develop their links with markets, supporting producers and other value chain actors. He stressed that demonstrating the profitability of these crops will be key in attracting investment. Success stories of promoting Andean grains in Bolivia and minor millets in India were shared by Dr. Stefano Padulosi, Bioversity International and Dr. Oliver King, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, showing the great potential this approach has to raise incomes of small-scale producers.

Himalayan Superfoods PosterTaking action to raise appreciation of Nepalese cuisine was one constructive theme of the discussions. Sajal Sthapit, LI-BIRD, suggested that preserving local names can help create a sort of brand. Translations into English can be inaccurate and tend to lose the unique quality of the product. He gave an example that their most important green vegetable – rayo which is a broad leaf mustard - is often translated as spinach on tourist menus. There is great scope to increase public awareness of Nepal's regional specialities and to generate agrotourism in this country that is already a major travel destination.

The enthusiastic participation of hotel owners, chefs, and students of hotel management in the meeting was a positive step in engaging them in this effort. Amrit Lamicchane, a young chef and owner of Hotel Ambrosia in the Begnas lake area shared how he has been developing recipes based on local products: finger millet chowmein, fish stuffed with taro, organic coffee with cardamom, and local fish oil. In addition to good flavour, using locally sourced grains and vegetables saves him the cost and time of travelling to the main market. One student expressed with enthusiasm that we need more people to get involved in promoting local crops “why are there only 50 stakeholders in this meeting? There should be more!”

A very important point brought up in the closing comments was that we can't forget about diversity. We have to ensure that we are conserving a portfolio of local varieties and not just promoting one variety. A holistic approach is needed to foster development of more sustainable and nutritious food systems. Padulosi commented that “the green revolution was easy, you just focus on one thing: improving yields, and forget the rest. This is a different revolution that is more complex ... It's not impossible but it requires change in multi-stakeholder interactions”. His recommendation to establish a permanent forum for discussion between sectors was well-received.

This particular multi-stakeholder exchange marked the end of the Bioversity International-led project on neglected and underutilized species funded by IFAD in Nepal but with the beginning of another project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), collaboration to promote Himalayan Superfoods is set to continue.

For more information, contact Gennifer Meldrum

Photo: Panel of private sector representatives discuss opportunities to integrate local crops in the business. Credit: Bioversity International/G. Meldrum