Face to Face : From the US to a dairy cooperative in Phobjikha

Sherab Dorji from Phobjikha is currently studying Environmental Science and Economics at Brown University in the United States of America. Sherab Dorji was one of the winners in the Golden Youth Program of 2012 and national  topper in Class X.

In May 2017, after receiving the Social Innovation Fellowship from college, Sherab decided to take a full year’s leave from college to work with local farmers in his home town Phobjikha. Since June 2017, Sherab has worked with the farmers, the local government and district livestock officials in Phobjikha Valley to form Khemdro Dairy Group (KDG).

KDG is a farmer-centric value chain for dairy products that works with local women to increase families’ monthly incomes by more than 100%. It seeks to economically empower women because for generations, they have been running dairy farms with little to no financial power in the family.

Business Bhutan reporter Tshering catches up with Sherab Dorji for a conversation on his entrepreneurial success.

1.How did you come up with this idea Khemdro Dairy? Why did you come out with such idea?

Answer: In mid-2016, I had a chance to visit the farmers’ dairy group in Rongthung, Trashigang. I witnessed firsthand how low-income smallholder farmers benefited from the better price and better access to the dairy market for their milk. It was an uplifting experience. I also noticed firsthand the challenges a group of farmers face while running a professional dairy business which is how I knew that for smallholder dairying to take off in Bhutan, something more than farmers’ group has to happen.

Linking these observations to my home in Phobjikha, I saw the immense potential for jumpstarting a thriving dairy enterprise with the smallholder farmers at the center. Thus came Khemdro Dairy which is a dairy social enterprise that works exclusively with farmers’ groups to bring them the best price for their milk as well as profit sharing.

2.How does your Khemdro Dairy functions?

Answer: Khemdro Dairy sources milk from farmers, add value to it and market these products to end consumers. We work exclusively with farmers dairy groups and cooperative which makes it easier for us to work with the farmers and vice versa. Coincidentally, it gives the farmers better bargaining power regarding milk price, and makes it easier for Khemdro Dairy to lend support and implementing dairy development projects.

3.How much loan did you avail and from where?

Answer: I have availed a few lakhs of interest-free loan from the Loden Foundation to jumpstart Khemdro Dairy.

4.Can you describe your work?

Answer: My work with Khemdro dairy is deeply motivated by a desire to work with people in my community to create a positive social change – which is to move away from over-dependence on potato trade and create a monthly income stream (which rural cash croppers currently lack) by promoting and developing smallholder dairying into a viable industry in Bhutan. Along the way, I think it’s time we get closer to dairy self-sufficiency as a country.

5.Where do you cater your products? How is your sale so far?

Answer: Our target customers are varied. When we start operations and sales in August, we will only deal in Datshi cheese and butter – two products everyone consumes at home. As our product lines mature, we will want to target more niche market such as cafes and hotels.

6.Could you tell us about the challenges in your work?

Answer: Seasonally fluctuating levels of milk production, scattered settlements are some challenges which will affect our operations and sales. Technically, we lack the expertise to optimize our processing based on the quantitative and qualitative values of milk which varies seasonally. Of course access to funding – and we needs lots of it to start with – is a challenge.

7.What is your comment on the Bhutanese market for your Khemdro Dairy Group?

Answer: Every year, we imports millions of worth of dairy products from India and Thailand. Thus, my only conclusion is the market for our products is ripe and it is good.

8.What are your future plans?

Answer: Khemdro Dairy Group is incredibly thankful that the Livestock Department of Wangduephodrang is providing sound technical and financial support to build and equip a milk processing unit for the group. I will be operating the processing unit on a contract basis for a few years.

Going in from now, I plan to find more support for the farmers to increase their dairy products and to diversify our product line so that we can make a wider range of higher value dairy goods. With the support from the livestock department and the farmers themselves, I am hopeful I will be able to achieve these goals

10.What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?

Answer: Sounds clichéd but I lose nothing significant if I fail at this attitude is proving essential. Its early for me to say this, but persistence is important, and having a vision and focusing on it is also key.

11.What advice would you give to youth who want to become entrepreneurs?

Answer: Never try, never know. My only advice is have a vision – a vision to solve a pressing problem and make things better, perhaps; what do you really want to see happen in our community? In our country? It far easier to work around a vision than to create one after you land a business idea.

Tshering from Thimphu