Sarah Rooney and Nayan Pokhrel (Fixer)

Behind the Lagankhel bus station two rows of vegetable stalls are lined up just inches away from a never-ending queue of vans. Here, amid the relentless noise and chaos of the bus station, Samjhana, 23, and her husband Bashu, 29, have set up their first vegetable stall. Their single table is laden with a plentiful array of over-sized bitter gourds, glossy green capsicums, okra, and chilies as thick as a child’s finger.

This small, informal market is just one link in the food chain that keeps fresh produce coming from rural farms into the valley’s central urban areas, the three closely connected cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Each morning of the week, Samjhana and Bashu buy vegetables for their stall from the main hub of the Kalimati Fruits & Vegetables Collection Centre, where farmers from around and beyond the valley send their produce. At the market, hundreds of brokers sit in front of veritable mountains of vegetables. “You have to know how to haggle,” warns Samjhana who inspects each and every vegetable she buys. “When you’re buying in bulk, it’s easy for them to slip in bad vegetables, but because I have to answer to my customers I check all the vegetables we buy so that I’m sure I can sell them.”

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Playing the Vegetable Stock Market

While Samjhana is busy selecting saleable produce, Bashu traverses the market collecting information – he chats with the brokers trying to gauge which vegetables will drop in price and which will rise. If he senses a vegetable will go up in cost, he may decide to stockpile it in order to widen his profit margins if and when the selling price goes up.

“Sure, there’s an element of risk but that’s how you make the big money,” says Bashu, flashing a wide grin. “People tend to place more value on things that are in low supply. Take snow peas, for instance, they aren’t yet in season so the price is currently around 100 rupees [approximately US$1] per kilo – that’s a lot! Come back in a week or two and the price will have dropped to 20 rupees a kilo. This kind of fluctuation can happen within a matter of days so we have to be savvy, keep up-to-date, and work out when to buy and when to sell.”

Bashu has learned how to play this vegetable stock market though trial and error. “When you lose money, you learn fast,” he says.

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Watch out for pests, bad weather and foreign lands

Samjhana and Bashu come from a village some 30 kilometres outside of the valley. “We could sell vegetables in the village, sure,” says Samjhana, “but we wouldn’t be able to make much profit!” Even here in the city, where they have a steady supply of customers passing through the bus station, business can be uncertain.

Their income ebbs and flows with the seasons; during the rains there are less shoppers at the open-air market and during winter fewer vegetables are grown. “We are also totally dependent on what is happening on the farms,” says Bashu. “If pests ruin a crop or if there’s been a drought, there will be no produce and we’ll have nothing to sell.”

Rising competition is also a problem. Nepal is urbanizing at a rapid-fire rate and the Kathmandu Valley has seen an enormous influx of migrants from the countryside over the past two decades. Bashu spots new sellers arriving every week and sometimes makes the tough decision to undercut his own profits just to beat his competitors. “The government can’t handle the rising number of people in the city,” says Bashu. “It has failed to create promise and opportunity for young people so we have to learn how to look after ourselves.”

Many people opt to work in foreign lands. More than two million Nepali people are estimated to be working abroad. Though Bashu himself spent three years at a plastics factory in Malaysia, he has no intention of leaving again. Samjhana, too, is determined to stay in Nepal. “Who would want to live so far from their family?” she asks. Indeed, for a young couple working long days, immediate family is indispensible; Bashu’s mother babysits their toddler daughter while Samjhana’s sisters help at the stall.

Besides, they both know that working abroad can be perilous. Unsuspecting migrants get overcharged for visa fees, or they are promised jobs or destinations but end up being placed elsewhere. “Sometimes the bosses even hijack passports and then the workers are at their mercy,” says Bashu. “These sorts of tricks are very common – I’ve been around long enough, I’ve seen them all!”

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Building a reliable future on potatoes, onions and garlic

For some time now Bashu has been looking for a way to earn a more stable income for his family and ensure he never has to go abroad again. Having analyzed the vegetable market, he finally settled on potatoes, onions and garlic. “These are the bedrock vegetables that we Nepali folk are eating year round,” he explains. “Nepal can’t meet its own supply so someone has to organize importing them from India and China.”

A few months ago, Bashu and friends from his village set up a new business importing and selling potatoes, onion and garlic. “The skills you need are different from those used at the market,” says Bashu, who has only completed the equivalent of tenth grade schooling but speaks with the confidence of a business graduate. “For this, you need to be a good negotiator and you need a trustworthy network for buying, selling, and transporting.”

There are still risks with the business, of course, and Bashu is still beholden to the ups and downs of the vegetable stock market but, already, he and his partners are discussing how to expand their business.

Meanwhile, there will always be a significant risk to life in Nepal that remains beyond Bashu’s control. The country, located in one of the world’s most active seismic zones, is considered by geologists to be overdue for a major earthquake. “I hear-tell it will affect the entire country,” says Bashu. “It’s a scary thing, for sure. And it’s obvious it’ll be pretty bad in the city as there are so many people living here. If it happens, we just have to hope we’re in an open space where it’s safer. You know, now I think about it, the market might not be such a bad place to be…”

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This article is part of our ongoing series Tales from the Himalaya: Urban Lives in Kathmandu

Photos by Nic Dunlop for Asia Dialogue

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Categories: Food Security, Informality, Livelihoods, Migration