This description of Madan Rai's work was prepared when Madan Rai was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Madan Rai is establishing a powerful rural cash economy built on Nepal’s resources: water, people and land. His initiatives work directly with young people and farmers to increase agricultural productivity, create new job opportunities, and open access to domestic and international markets.
The New Idea
Madan is breaking the restrictions of feudalism for rural Nepalese by sparking a “green revolution.” Beginning with the Khotang district, he is improving agricultural productivity by providing expertise and materials that are appropriate for the local conditions. To help small-scale farmers successfully engage the global economy, he is helping build the basic infrastructure, such as roads, to connect them to new domestic and international markets in India and China. Once farmers are making more money, they will build and improve their homes and demand more services and products. Madan is providing targeted skills to build a local trained labor force that will be able to meet this increased local demand. Madan is also addressing the migration and “brain drain” issue in Nepal. He is giving rural youth the necessary job skills that will help them compete for better employment opportunities. Madan is also convincing skilled and experienced Nepalis residing in the capital or abroad to return home to their rural villages. He has created a pool of talent and resources in Khotang district, demonstrating what can be done throughout Nepal.
A barter economy, slow growth, inadequate employment, lack of easy access to material and technological resources, an absence of physical infrastructure, and feudalism—these are some of the major causes of deep-rooted poverty and growing socio-political tensions in the rural areas of Nepal. The quality of life in Nepal’s rural districts—including a scarcity of food, clothing and housing—is extremely low. Almost the entire rural population still lives on subsistence agriculture and uses antiquated techniques and crop varieties. Without a sustainable mechanism providing farmers material resources such as seeds or technological resources, this situation will not change. Large spending on agriculture by the government over the last two decades in Khotang district yielded limited or no concrete results. The right people were not sent to the right places and piecemeal strategies were unable to address the many different facets of the problem.National infrastructure improvements in recent times have not reached rural Nepal. Many districts remain isolated by road and air. Few districts have easy access to electricity, telephones, sanitation, or safe water. These factors inhibit industrial and market expansion as well as rural employment. Limited job opportunities have forced many young people to look for employment in foreign countries, mainly in the Middle East and South East Asia. Unfortunately, most of this labor force is unskilled or semi-skilled because virtually no job training exists in rural Nepal. Workers return home after long periods hardly any better off than when they left. Khotang district, where Madan was born and works today, lies in the Eastern mid-hills. It is a typical poverty-stricken and conflict-affected district. Khotang has a population of over 230,000, who are dependent on traditional forms of agriculture. The district does not have any urban centers, nor is it connected by road to any of the major commercial centers of the country. Among all districts of Nepal, the district falls in the bottom half of the human development and empowerment indices. The current annual cash income per household of Khotang is less than Rupees 10,000 (US$140), falling far below even the cost of basic necessities such as salt, kerosene, clothes, medicine, let alone paying for an education. There is no cash, no purchasing power, and no growth.What little demand does exist—for electricians, builders, local products and services—is met by skilled workers from outside the village or district. Local people do not have access to skill-building opportunities in or around Khotang district. The limited training offered is usually not appropriate for local resources, local needs or local talents. Further, most of the people of Khotang cannot afford to access skills training centers located in distant urban areas.Every year around 7,000 young people in Khotang reach employment age. However, no opportunity exists for them. Lack of economic activity and limited skills have created large-scale unemployment among young people. In addition, government-provided education and training lack any connection to a technical trade or job. These factors, directly linked to the present civil conflict, have led to a sense of hopelessness among those who live in Khotang.
Beginning in the Khotang district, Madan is combining increased-yield farming with vocational skill training to ensure higher levels of income and better employment opportunities for people. Until the districts move on to a cash-based economy with higher levels of rural purchasing power, the chances of increasing living standards are slim. The key to accomplish these goals are physical inputs, which include roads, seeds, irrigation and other agricultural inputs, and technical inputs through knowledge and demonstration. Madan’s multi-faceted approach is focused on providing these critical resources.The Khotang Agriculture Resource Centre (KARC), which Madan established in Khalle VDC near the district headquarters of Khotang, stimulates the expansion of cash-based and commercial farming in Khotang, as well as the middle hills of Nepal. The second institution, Khotang Vocational Skill Resource Centre (KVSRC), in Diktel, prepares skilled labor to provide required services to the villages of Khotang. It will also provide more lucrative employment opportunities for those who wish to migrate within Nepal or abroad. KARC is developing the essential technology and material resources suitable for commercial farming in the district. Around 6 hectares of land have been acquired for the purpose of training personnel, testing technology, and replicating materials and technology. Key to KARC’s initial and long-term success is carefully selecting promising young people to train. The first class of 20 local youth are about to graduate from KARC. Madan is creating local expertise instead of relying on external specialists who have little knowledge of the district and its agricultural potential. The local experts now have the know-how to construct irrigation systems, introduce new seed and crop varieties and breed plants and animals, along with sound management systems for rural agriculture. Madan is building a pool of 60 professionals who will be able to spread the basic knowledge and techniques to villagers.Madan selects potential villages and prospective farming groups for commercial crop production, which will include vegetables, fruits, spices, tea and livestock. The involvement of village shopkeepers and farmers as sales representatives will expand the reach among the villagers. These representatives already supply a route to transfer materials (seeds, seedlings etc.) and technological know-how from KARC to the doorsteps of the villagers. Madan sees this as a progression of development strategies from initially unsuccessful efforts pushed by the government, to this current citizen-led initiative, which will eventually lead to full sustainability through a growing private sector. Selected households around KARC have already been provided support and technical assistance to help start cash-crop farming businesses. Madan is providing simple and practical demonstrations, such as utilizing the waste water from households to start up small kitchen gardens in places where proper irrigation is not available. Early successes will be replicated across other villages. Work is speeding up at KARC to ensure that its support and commercial activities scale up to reach most of the farmers of Khotang district.Madan has already realized that once KARC becomes fully functional, the villagers will require assistance in post-harvest handling, processing, packaging and marketing in order to bring better prices for their products. It is a very important component in order to realize the goal of elevating the rural cash-based income to at least Rs.100,000 (US$1,400) per year. Madan is leveraging his own reputation, experience and connections to establish a method of knowledge dissemination to all villages. He is currently planning for a community FM radio service to provide mass communication services to rural farming communities.With his initiative and community support, he has convinced the government to build an airport and negotiations are moving forward to link Khotang with international connection roads. Even before the infrastructure is complete, he wants to prepare the villagers, so that their produce can be consumed within the district, outside the district, and in neighboring China and India. This will open up huge opportunities for full economic participation, and the free flow of goods. Madan has initiated the KVSRC in order to address the current problem of rural youth lacking job skills. KVSRC will provide skills, training to the youth of the districts in the areas that are connected to present and projected job markets. A training building has already been constructed and the required training materials and equipment have been procured. The first graduate trainers are now prepared to train others. KVSRC is planning for another class of trainers and looking into options for mobile training in villages. Madan feels that this will help reduce costs, increase participation, and improve the effectiveness of the training. He intends to involve around 10,000 youth through the mobile training scheme to significantly improve basic village infrastructure while creating new employment opportunities. Madan is collaborating with other international and domestic citizen organizations working in his district, and with government agencies. By consolidating their efforts, Madan envisions a national network of resource centers like KVSRC and KARC.
Born in extreme poverty in a remote village of Eastern Nepal, Khotang, Madan did not have even a pair of shoes when he finished his schooling. Rising before dawn, gathering firewood, tending the cattle, cooking, and then going to school was just the beginning of his daily routine. It is hard to imagine, but from 400 years ago until the 1950s, it was forbidden for anyone in Nepal, except royalty and Brahmins, to study and read. Violations were punishable by having one’s hands cut off. Madan’s own grandfather discouraged him from seeking an education. He feared that Madan would become like the Brahmins who were often perceived to have used their education to cheat the poor. As a child Madan asked, “Why does our life have to be so desperate?” He swore he would be different. He was abandoned for 12 years by his father, but his determination was so strong that his mother, who supported his ambition, sacrificed her own relationship with Madan’s grandparents, sold her gold earrings and sent him to school. Madan only met his father, who had left the country to fight in World War II and then joined the Kathmandu police force, when he was 17. Life took a positive turn when Madan received a scholarship and free housing and food in an army hostel. This provided him the breathing space to concentrate on his studies. He recalls the hostel days which provided good food, including meat and rice, as some of his happiest times.Madan became the first seed specialist in the country and pioneered the first agro-based tourism model in Mustang district. He became a nationally respected agronomist and enjoyed an evolving career beyond Nepal through the FAO. His experience abroad taught him that it was almost impossible for poor and unhealthy people to successfully participate in the new world economy and for their governments to provide the stimulus and infrastructure for growth. As a response to this realization, he came up with a set of ingredients that, if sequenced and coordinated, could fundamentally change Nepal. Working and learning around the world, Madan saw that he was respected as an individual but not as a Nepali. He remembers countless times at foreign airport immigration counters, that his FAO colleagues from other countries were whisked through while he—also with a diplomatic passport but stamped with his Nepal citizenship—was delayed for hours and humiliated. These experiences were just one factor that led him to quit his work for international institutions, return home to Khotang and resolve to contribute to a successful Nepal. Madan leverages his domestic and international reputation to mobilize the necessary government, international community, and local resources to set in motion economic growth in Nepal. Due to his efforts, the first public–private airport is now being built in Khotang. He is also a key driver behind the joint DFID/ADB road construction project linking Khotang to India and China. Madan aspires to make Khotang a model district that will inspire the entire nation.