Farmers prosper making betel leaf plates and bowlsBetel nut trees provide multiple benefits—everything from leaves to nuts can be sold, farmers say.
Narayan Prasad Rijal is a betel fan. The 74-year-old farmer from Buddhashanti rural municipality in Jhapa district is doing very well growing betel nuts.
The betel nut, also known as areca nut, is chewed for its stimulant effect. The nut is chewed alone or in the form of quids or mixed with tobacco.
Rijal got his big break several years ago when he was selected to go on an observation tour to India through the Betel Nut Farming Development Association.
In India, he learned how to make plates and bowls using the leaves of the betel nut tree. Now, he not only sells betel nuts, he has a flourishing business selling bio cups and plates.
"It totally grabbed my attention. I too decided to produce bio cups and plates," Rijal said. He bought a machine that is used to make plates and cups for IRs1.2 million.
In the beginning, he had a hard time selling his cups and plates. Nobody wanted them. “In the early days, I struggled to sell them. Nepali consumers refused to buy them.”
According to Rijal, people even made fun of him by calling him Tapare Rijal, after the leaf bowls he was making. But Rijal did not give up.
In those days, there were long hours of load-shedding. “When I tried to run the machine, the lights would go out,” Rijal said. So he bought a generator.
But sales of his bio products did not improve. He was forced to slash prices and began offering his plates for Rs8 and bowls for Rs5 each. Even then, consumers found his products too expensive.
The leaves of the betel nut tree are about 1 metre long. They are soaked in water and brushed before being dried for 3 hours. Then they are put in a heat press machine which forms them into plates, cups and bowls.
People were surprised to see betel nut leaves being used to make plates and cups, which provided an alternative to the common metal utensils.
“My plates and cups remained unsold for two years. Everybody used to say that the product was good, but nobody bought them," he said.
But after almost four years, Rijal began receiving orders for his products.
“Demand for bio plates and cups has grown so much that other farmers in Jhapa also began producing them by importing their own machines,” said Rijal, who now owns two factories.
The products are not only sold in the domestic market, they are also exported to Japan, Australia, Germany and other countries. "Many farmers are now earning US dollars," he added.
Farmers have also benefited from the sale of goods made from betel nut leaves which formerly used to be burnt as cooking fuel.
As the number of factories is growing, demand for betel leaves has also swelled. The factories pay Rs3 per leaf.
“The leaves have become the main source of income for many farmers who grow betel nuts,” said Rijal.
Farmers say that betel nut trees provide multiple benefits—everything from leaves to nuts can be sold.
According to them, betel nut leaves are collected from mid-March to mid-May. They can be stored to produce cups and plates throughout the year.
The Betel Nut Association says there are about 3.6 million areca nut trees in Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari districts.
A betel nut tree naturally sheds eight to nine leaves per year, which means around 32.4 million leaves go to waste annually when they could be used to produce plates.
More than 50,000 units of products made from the leaves are churned out every month in Jhapa and Hetauda, according to the association. Betel nut leaves are shipped from Jhapa to factories in Hetauda.
Rijal said that the government should promote the eco-friendly products that are 100 percent biodegradable.
"If the government encourages the factories, we can stop importing harmful thermo plates. Nepal imports millions of rupees worth of plates annually, mostly from India," he said.
These environmentally-friendly products are more sustainable, and have increased the income of the farmers, the association said.
Companies are hoping to widen their market scope to make people eat food out of eco-friendly cups and plates, said Rijal.
A majority of farmers in Budhabare, Sanishchare, Arjundhara, Shantinagar and Dhaijan in Jhapa have large betel nut plantations.
Jhapa district was declared a betel nut zone two years ago under the 10-year Prime Minister Agriculture Modernisation Project. The government has even allocated funds to promote its production and processing.
Most of the disposable plates available in the market are either made of plastic or paper. A novel way to penetrate the sector and carve a niche is biodegradable leaf plates, say experts.
According to farmers, two to three plates can be made from a leaf. Utensils made of betel nut leaves are biodegradable, waterproof, microwave safe and refrigerator friendly.