When I graduated from Columbia Business School, I was given the opportunity to move to Asia and become an international banker in the heady 80's and 90's — eventually working in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Philippines, Singapore, and China. Building Mountain Hazelnuts in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan uses all my MBA skills, while also being a slightly unconventional career shift.
In 2008, my husband Daniel and I were searching for something meaningful to develop together, which also had significant profit upside. When we recognized there was a tremendous market opportunity in growing hazelnuts, the second largest tree nut crop globally in terms of value, we started thinking about where we could grow hazelnuts in a low-cost, high quality manner. Bhutan then held its first democratic elections, so it was on our minds. We believed that our business model would align with the focus of Bhutan on Gross National Happiness. We approached the Royal Government of Bhutan with a proposal to partner with farmers to plant 10 million hazelnut trees across the country, double the income of up to 15 percent of the population, and employ 1,000 staff, making us the largest private sector employer in the country.
Mountain Hazelnuts is deeply committed to ensuring the success of our farmer partners, which include nunneries, monasteries, and schools. Nun Ani Kinzang is one of our farmer partners. She planted hazelnut trees to earn income to build a retreat center for nuns. Ani signed a 30-year contract with us, where we provided her the trees at no cost and agreed to buy the hazelnuts at a minimum floor price or higher. We have over 150 field monitors who visit each of the current 10,000 orchards every 45 days to check on plant health. On top of this, we deploy a team of extension officers to visit the fields if problems occur. It’s important that we provide continuous support to our partners like Ani Kinzang.
Daniel and I believe in building strong partnerships — with the government, with our farmer partners and communities, and with our shareholders. We personally funded the company for five years to de-risk the venture and then brought in six impact investors who share our mission — foundations, individuals, and funds. We look for support from institutions to challenge our staff and strengthen our operations. A leading university has funded more than 20 MBA and graduate school consultants to work with us on critical operational projects. With the recent $12 million of equity and concessionary funding from The International Finance Corporation (IFC), Asian Development Bank, and The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), we are building a processing facility and getting ready to harvest and export hazelnuts to buyers all over the world. And in having secured this financing, Mountain Hazelnuts is able to expand on its social and environmental initiatives, like raising the financial literacy of women farmers and studying ways of increasing climate resilience.
What draws people to Mountain Hazelnuts is its potential and vision — as an impact venture affecting the lives of thousands of people at the bottom of the pyramid, as a commercial venture addressing a multi-million dollar market, and as a model of a public-private-community partnership that could be replicated elsewhere.
My mother asked me recently if I was still using my MBA education. I told her that those skills are put to the test every single day in Bhutan! To budding social entrepreneurs, my advice is to focus on execution and performance, adapt technology to local use, and build local capacity. We’ve built the largest hazelnut nursery in the world, developed an Android-based technology to connect our staff and farmers across the country, and devote 12,000 hours a year teaching government officials, farmers, students, and staff best practices and international management skills. Look out for "Brand Bhutan" hazelnuts in the near future!
Special thanks to the Social Enterprise Club for their collaboration on this article.