July 4, 2023
KATHMANDU – Rajendra Acchami of Mechinagar-12 in eastern Nepal has been making bamboo stools for the last four decades. There are around 800 households here who are engaged in this craft. The handmade stools are sold across Nepal and are important to the local economy.
“I learnt the skill of making the stools at a young age. Later, I went into business for myself,” said Acchami. His son, who is now 30 years old, works with him.
According to Acchami, the craftsmen initially used buffalo leather for the seats. Now leather is not available, and they have switched to fibre, nylon and velvet ropes. The stools are sold in major cities such as Kathmandu, Pokhara, Butwal and Bhairahawa.
Acchami says he used to sell stools with nylon seats for Rs250 each in the past. Now it is difficult to get Rs134 each. Stools with seats made of velvet rope used to sell for Rs170 each.
“We are forced to sell the stools at a lower price nowadays,” said Tanka Century, president of the Nepal Dalit Garima Sanstha, a non-governmental organisation.
Obtaining raw materials is difficult too.
“The craftsmen have to buy raw materials like bamboo sticks, old cycle tyres and ropes at a higher price,” said Century, who has been engaged in the business for a long time.
“The market price doesn’t even cover the cost of raw materials.”
The craftsmen say that due to the proliferation of foreign goods, demand for homemade stools has dropped sharply. So have prices.
According to them, old bicycle tyres, which they import from India, cost Rs25 each. The old tyres are sewn around the edge of the base of the stools.
A small-sized bamboo costs Rs25 which can be split into 100 sticks. Velvet ropes come from Kathmandu and cost Rs300 per kg.
“A couple of years ago, velvet ropes cost Rs30 per kg. Now the price has increased by 10 times,” said Century.
Suresh Ramtel of Nayabasti in Mechinagar-12 says it costs Rs130 to make a stool and they have to sell it for Rs134.
Acchami exports his stools to China. Previously, he shipped them to the United States too. “Foreigners want the stools to be made of high quality materials. They also pay well,” he said.
“The entire village, where most of the inhabitants are Dalits, is dependent on this business because no one has an alternative source of income,” said Acchami.
Many of them have purchased plots and constructed houses with the money they earned from making stools.
Traders go to the stool makers’ houses to buy them. Some craftsmen market their products themselves.
Khadga Acchami of Kalijhoda in Mechinagar-12 is credited with introducing the stool making craft to the villagers.
In 1978, he was jailed after being falsely accused of slaughtering cows and smuggling the skins to India.
Acchami’s family used to collect the skins of the buffalos slaughtered in the district. Indian traders used to come to him to buy the skins.
But some of the locals didn’t think well of Acchami’s business. They filed a complaint with Bansbari Leather and Shoe Factory that Acchami was slaughtering cows and smuggling the skins. Killing cows is illegal in Nepal.
“None of the neighbours supported us at that time,” said his wife Krishna Kumari. “My husband had to stay in jail for two months for no reason.”
During his two-month stay in Chandragadhi jail, he learnt the skill of making bamboo stools. He returned home with a plan to start selling the stools commercially.
Initially, he started making the stools using the skins collected from nearby places. But the neighbours complained because of the foul smell of the skins.
“We had to stop using skins as the complaints increased,” said Krishna Kumari.
Acchami continued making stools but he used fibre for the seats instead of leather.
Gradually, his stools gained popularity in the local market, and he provided training to some youths because he needed more hands as demand increased.
Khadga Acchami passed away three years ago. He left behind a craft that has become a major source of income for the entire village.
“Initially, our house looked like a stool factory,” said Rajendra Acchami, Khadga’s younger brother. “We used to produce hundreds of stools a day and employed some of the locals as well.”
Subsequently, the employees left and started their own business.
Janak Lwagun says that the government has not paid enough attention to transforming this skill-based activity into a commercial enterprise.
“If the government invests money to create a sustainable business, thousands of youths can be self-employed and they will not have to go to foreign lands to find work.”
According to Lwagun, the stools are being exported to China again after a break caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ramtel says that the cost of raw materials is increasing while the price of the finished product is going down.
Middlemen have been stepping in and pocketing a large share of the profits.
“They buy from us at a low price and sell to end customers at an inflated price,” said Ramtel. “They have been taking most of our hard-earned income.”