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Rising of the Hills: Organic, Profitable, Nutritious Smallholder Farming in the Hills and River Valleys of Nepal - In Harmony with Nature

A food system in Nepal where farmers of all income levels have access to crucial inputs for successful, efficient and sustainable farming

Photo of Tei Overgoor
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

aQysta B.V.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

aQysta Nepal - the local entity of aQysta in Nepal with an office in Kathmandu

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

The Netherlands

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Hills of Nepal - The mountain region in Nepal where generally no snow is found. We added a map of the area in the place description.

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Co-Founder of aQysta, Pratap, was born in Lele, a small river-valley in the hilly region of Nepal, about 20 km from Kathmandu. Despite being close to the capital city, Lele was a pure rural village with little influence of the urban lifestyle, having to walk 3-4 hours to get to Kathmandu as there was no public transport.

When Pratap studied in the city, he spent 5 week-days in the city and the weekends in the village, living the rural livelihood with his family, fishing, farming and taking care of livestock. Because he experienced the dual life-style, he could clearly notice the difference between the urban hustle-bustle and rural livelihood, both the beautiful aspects as well as the challenges.

Lele is a typical hilly village of Nepal - blessed with natural beauty, a river running through the middle, with paddy farms on both sides of the river. When Pratap was a child, almost all inhabitant’s primary occupation was in the agriculture sector, even if some of the family members had a job in the city.

In the last 30 years, climate change, urbanization, use of extensive chemicals in farming, unprofitable and labor-intensive farming and increasing job opportunities in cities and in foreign countries (primarily in the middle-east) for physical labor, have changed Lele. Now, it is a poorly managed semi-urban area, with more facilities and infrastructure (the capital is in 30 min reach with bus/motorbike), but with a polluted river, and a large part of the food, mostly low-nutrient processed, imported from the city.

Lele is a representative story of the hills of Nepal, which covers 45% of the country’s surface. We selected this area, as Pratap has lived through both the challenges of the geography and its beautiful aspects– natural fresh food, a peaceful happy community and fresh unpolluted air. We wish the future of the food system to change back to be in balance with nature, by leveraging climate-resilient, technology-supported, profitable smallholder farming practices.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The hills of Nepal are made of lush green mountains and beautiful river valleys, where most people live and farm. About 70% of the population is involved in agriculture as a primary occupation, although, for most families, agriculture does not provide enough income or food to last the year. The people are friendly, humble and generally laid-back and happy with their life. Rice is the primary staple food.

Corn and wheat used to be part of the diet as well; however, it has been shifted primarily to rice, which is taken as a symbol of the economic status. With urbanization and increasing income and spending power, diets are shifting from a combination of rice, wheat, corn with vegetables and meat, to primarily rice-based diet. The meat consumption is also increasing rapidly as people relate meat consumption with economic status as well.

Although rice is the most important crop that is grown, filling almost all irrigable lands in monsoon, it is not sufficient to feed the families for the whole year and more rice is imported from other parts of the country and internationally.

There are four seasons – summer, winter, monsoon and spring. About 80% of the rain falls in the 3 months of monsoon, creating havoc with flooding and landslides, whereas the lands remain barren in late-winter and summer due to a lack of water to cultivate. About 80% of the hilly areas are rural, with the two major cities of the country being Kathmandu and Pokhara also lying in the hilly area.

The dynamics of rural livelihood started changing rapidly with the Maoist revolution, urbanization and opening of foreign employment in the middle eastern countries. People fled from their villages, looking for jobs in cities and leaving behind their agricultural land. The trend continues till date, with many people preferring to stay in the urban areas.

Farming is currently with very low productivity, highly labor intensive and non-profitable. Nepal is also one of the highly vulnerable countries to climate change, especially the hilly areas with rain-fed agriculture suffering the most with unpredictable erratic rainfall induced by climate change.

Heavy use of chemicals in agriculture in the hilly areas have damaged the soil fertility significantly, entering a vicious cycle of having to use ever increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to maintain the level of productivity. The trend of going back to organic and natural farming methods are upcoming. The government promoted chemical fertilizers and related farming methods heavily in the 80s and 90s and is now looking to introduce policies promoting organic farming as policy makers are realizing the undesired impact of chemicals. Bordering areas of India in Sikkim region have been an inspiration to turn the hills and valleys into prime land of organic farming.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Food security is currently one of the most crucial challenge in the hills of Nepal and is expected to become even more pressing in the future as a result of climate change and a growing population. A direct consequence is malnutrition, which results in stunted growth, diseases and chronic health conditions, with lifelong economic consequences such as underperforming at school and in later work life due to slower brain development. The prevalence of under-five stunting in Nepal is with 36% higher than average in developing countries (25%). The high hills and mountainous regions are particularly susceptible to hunger and low income from agriculture, with more than 60% of children under five suffering from stunted growth and close to 50% of population living below the poverty line. By 2050, the population of Nepal is expected to reach 41 million from currently 25 million, doubling the food requirement.

Malnutrition results from a combination of lacking (nutritious) food availability and poverty, which are both directly linked to the root of the food system; the farmers producing the food. While agriculture is the predominant occupation, most farms are not profitable and are even struggling to meet their own needs. Due to government policies that are mainly subsidies for single solutions without a holistic approach, the farmers lack modern farming techniques, knowledge and skills required for commercial agriculture. Due to this, the agricultural production rate is declining, leading to massive migration of youths to urban areas and to the Gulf countries (about 650,000 Nepalese left country to work in Gulf Countries in 2018). The prediction is that this trend will continue and 60% of Nepal’s population will live in urban areas by 2050.

Access to reliable irrigation is one of the most effective ways to boost smallholders’ income and agricultural productivity by 3 to 5 times, compared to rain-fed agriculture, especially in a context of climate change causing rainfall to become more irregular. However, most smallholders simply depend on rainfall, despite the presence of many rivers in the area, as pumps that are required to lift water from river to croplands are prohibitively costly and time-intensive to acquire, operate and maintain. Pratap has also witnessed this challenge as he saw his parents carry heavy buckets of water from the river up to their higher situated fields, where crops cannot grow without irrigation. Rain-dependent agriculture also exposes farmers to low market prices due to an oversupply of the seasonal crops they can grow, tangling them in a vicious cycle of poverty. Moreover, a lack of infrastructure around the often remotely located farms limits the overall market access.

Furthermore, both a limited variety of available foods and cultural preferred diets, mainly rice and increasingly meat are challenging public health. The production of rice and animal products also have increased GHG emissions compared to traditional diets.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

As irrigation is one of the most effective ways to increase agricultural production and grow a larger variety of crops, creating better irrigation facilities is a must for commercial farming. By providing year-round access to reliable irrigation, smallholders can shift from subsistence to commercial farming, increase their income and break the vicious cycle of poverty.

When Pratap came to the Delft University of Technology to study a master, he started to think about a solution for his home village. Together with fellow students he founded the start-up aQysta (aQua + Quest) in 2013, with a vision to provide sustainable and affordable irrigation for all farmers, including smallholder farmers. We have developed the Barsha Pump (Barsha means rain in Nepalese) which utilizes energy from flowing water sources such as rivers or canals to pump water to lands, without requiring any fuel or electricity. The pump runs on zero operating costs and requires virtually no maintenance, making it suitable to be used in remote areas. The advantage of hydropower is also that it is available 24/7 making it less capital- intensive then other renewable energy pumps, and less maintenance is required because there are no electronic components like with other pumps.

Furthermore, we have developed the EASI-Pay Model, in which farmers can pay for the Barsha Pump with a proportion of the harvest they grow, using the pump. As a result, smallholder farmers which cannot afford to pay for the technology upfront are still able to adopt it. In addition to the pump also other agricultural supplies and knowledge are made available via the model as we believe in a holistic approach where multiple factors need to be accounted for in agriculture before a production becomes successful. With the increased income of the enhanced production the initial investment can be paid back over time. For this model we built partnerships with agricultural cooperatives that process products from smallholder farmers, which also bring in a direct link for the farmers to the market with assured fair prices. However, it can also work without cooperatives, by linking farmers with for example hotels (eco-tourism is large and ever increasing in Nepal) or online market platforms.

Barsha Pumps operate in harmony with the environment as it does not create any noise, oil spills or harm to aquatic live. It prevents 500kg of CO2 emissions per ha-year compared to fuel pumps. Since the Barsha Pump is a hydropowered pump, the water output is dependent on the flow of the river, which allows a sustainable way of river management, since the pump will pump less water if the water level in the river is lower. It is thereby assured that there will always be water available downstream. In contrast, conventional pumps propelled by other sources of energy are the major reason for the depletion of water sources in today’s world.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In 2050, 60% of the population in the hilly area of Nepal will live in urban areas compared to the 20% of now. All the food required for the population of the hills is produced regionally by the rural population, different from the current status where about 50% of the food is imported from outside.

After an initial shift to unhealthy diets after 2020, with too much white rice and meat, in 2050 people will eat more nutritious diets, as people have become more conscious about the plentiful natural resources of the hills of Nepal and healthy high value crops have been promoted by the government.

By 2050, the hills of Nepal will be filled with organic, natural holistic farming methods, integrating livestock, fish, fruits, vegetables and cereals instead of chemical powered monoculture and polluting machines. Food production will be working with - rather than against - nature. Farming will take place by making optimal use of renewable energy, soils and biodiversity to improve agricultural productivity instead of polluting pesticides and fertilizers.

By 2050, a joined force from the government and business sector have provided smallholder farmers with technology equipment to counter the currently labour-intensive, low productivity smallholder farming and large-scale energy-intensive mechanized farming trends. Smallholder farming is now commercial instead of only for sustenance, and profitable, with direct farm-to-fork reach in an efficient value chain. Farmers will have access to year-round irrigation facilities instead of being dependent on uncertain rain-dependent farming like they do now, which is getting worse with climate change. With help of technology they will apply water and energy saving, non-polluting farming practices.

Furthermore, the transport will be improved with using drones as a solution for the lack of infrastructure in the challenging topography. Increased access to internet via satellites will also help farmers to get a direct link to the market.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

It is the year 2050 and Kumar walks down the flush green hill that is situated at the side of his tomato farm. He enjoys the spectacular view over the valley and the sound of the flowing river sooths him. The air is fresh and clean and the temperature feels pleasant warm on this early summer day, with a gentle breeze.

In the river runs a green hydropowered pump which is connected to a drip irrigation system that brings small drops localized to his tomato's with optimal water efficiency. Since he has access to irrigation, he is able to farm also during the dry season which has become extra important as a result of climate change. Via an app on his phone, he receives information about climate conditions and agro-technical tips and tricks which helps him to act on the weather forecasts and make decisions towards the planning of the planting, fertilizing, irrigation and taking extra protection measures for his crops.

In the distance he sees his wife Daxa turning the parabolic solar collector – a sign that she is starting to prepare the lunch. He shortly remembers how his dad had to leave the family to work in the gulf countries, sighs and walks on – happy to be with his family.

The children are in school which they are able to afford from the earned money from increased year-round production of the farm. Due to the sugar tax, and created awareness of the government about the benefits of raw natural ingredients, Kumar’s family eats a healthy varied diet based on the output of their farm and his children do not have any health issues limiting their development.

The birds are chirping and a drone that flies by the village frequently to collect the harvest to transport it to the market, makes a whirring sound while landing in front of his house. Together with other farmers he is united in a community which share their knowledge and machines and jointly make agreements and partnerships with buyers of their products. They have access to modern tools to communicate with buyers and stakeholders since internet and electricity is available everywhere through satellite connection, powered by innovative renewable energy solutions.

For lunch Kumar’s family eats Dal Bhat, a delicious traditional dish, of locally grown lentils with vegetables and spices from the village, an optimal balanced meal good for health and the environment. Conscious food is popular as people are aware of the many benefits. Also,  the city’s restaurants with traditional and modern plant-based dishes are hot and an happening for both locals and tourists. The 2050 Nepali cuisine is all about sustainable cooking, one that's both innovative and a throwback to their roots.

At night Kumar can go to sleep without worries about food or financial problems. He is excited for the next day because his community will receive a training provided by the agricultural department of the government that is organized once a year about optimal planting with new technologies.

We think that in 2050 the food system in the hilly area in Nepal can be 100% sustainable with modern innovative techniques that at the same time go back to traditional Nepali practices, making use of the area’s natural available renewable resources. By 2050, with introduction of technologies in the agriculture sector, small hilly farms can be converted into mechanized, productive, profitable farms. It is key to preserve the benefits of small-sized family farms, and prevent transformation to mechanized industrial farms, as small farms are proven to be more energy and resource efficient. Smallholder farmers have significantly less impact on and in many cases even contribute to biodiversity as their limited field size maintains diversity, in contrast to the trend of the large farms with monocultures. Tackling food security by including smallholder farmers also creates more employment opportunities than the trend of increasingly large farms in which everything is automated. The hills & valleys will be filled with permaculture, integrated Farms with a large diversity of livestock, fish, fruits, vegetables and cereals without necessity to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides preventing environmental degradation.

We think that a holistic approach is crucial in this vision, meaning that small farmers need access to all components required for sustainable food production, being e.g. the right technologies, seeds, fertilizers, knowledge and market linkage. We strongly believe this can be achieved with a combination of modern and innovative technologies, access to innovative financing mechanisms and the right policies for smallholder farmers.

One of the most crucial inputs for increasing productivity is water, but most farmers depend only on rainfall which is a huge limitation, which will be even bigger in 2050 when effects of climate change will have further increased irregularity in rainfall patterns. However, farmers cannot afford pumps and infrastructure for irrigation. Even though there are many rivers flowing in the hilly area of Nepal, an affordable and sustainable method to bring the water to the higher fields is lacking. Our hydro-powered Barsha Pumps is a solution for that. It operates without operating costs as it is works only with the energy that is present in flowing water. It is a beautiful example of an innovative take on an centuries old technique that works in harmony with nature.

Access to irrigation allows farmers to produce year-round instead of just one season, enables them to switch from subsistence to commercial farming, and thus become entrepreneurs. Furthermore, with irrigation farmers can switch to production of different crops, with both higher market value and higher nutritional value, which contributes to increasing the farmers income and also to food and nutrition security. Barsha Pumps are especially suitable for production of vegetables and fruit because of the continuing moderate water supply they provide. Furthermore, the pumps are also ideal for high water-efficient pressurized techniques such as drip irrigation. These are often not practiced because of the high energy costs, which are eliminated with our hydro-powered pumps.

Since just providing hydro powered pumps cannot change the complete system, we have been working on an integrated vision, also taking into account all related components in the system. We believe that a pay-per-harvest model can facilitate a major shift to a highly sustainable and productive food production in the area. In this model, farmers can pay for an investment in modern farming equipment such as a hydro-powered pump over time and in proportion to their harvest. This on one hand, gives farmers initial access to game changing equipment, but also gives them an incentive to make optimal use of it, because they still pay for it themselves instead of receiving a subsidy.

Next to only financing, also agricultural training is provided in the model and other relevant inputs are also made available to farmers. Furthermore, there is assistance in providing access and linking the farmers directly to the market where they can receive a proper price for their products. In many cases farmers are united in a community and because the small size of their individual plots, they can jointly make us of the model. We have piloted this model successfully in Nepal and we think it has a huge potential if scaled in the future.

With the large height difference in the landscape, infrastructure is challenging in the region. By 2050 envision that this issue is solved with modern technologies such as drones which are not dependent on the complex development of roads or tunnels in the hilly context of Nepal.

In 2050, 60% of hilly population will live in urban areas from current 20%. In our vision, all the food needed for the area is produced in the region, different from the current stage where about 50% of the food is imported from other regions. After being self-sufficient in nutritious, organic food, the hill regions can also export a unique, diverse range of spices and herbs globally.

With secured healthy food availability, malnutrition can be banned and will not cause health problems. However, a risk still exits that people adopt unbalanced diets mainly existing from rice and meat culturally associated with economic status. The government should promote healthy crops with high nutrition values to address this risk or even introduce a tax on foods with a high sugar content (as it is already the case in other countries). Irrigation will allow to grow a larger variety of crops. By 2050, hopefully, the first wave of the too heavy meat-based diet is changed to more of a balanced diet with a fair share of vegetables for protein sources. The government should also keep a close eye on innovative ideas coming from the rising start-up culture and support them to help to contribute to a more sustainable food system in Nepal. For the environment, the government by now understands that the promotion of heavy fertilizers and pesticides has many negative effects. It has therefore started, and should introduce more, organic farm focused policies in a holistic approach rather than subsidizing a stand-alone solution when a system is dependents on multiple variables. The farm community in Nepal has shown a positive reaction towards aQysta’s Barsha Pumps and has purchased 200 pumps over the past years. Although this is only part of the solution it is an important step towards scaling our vision.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Photo of Nicole Civita

Hi Tei Overgoor -- I read your vision with great interest, as ours also focuses on smallholders in South Asia. It is incredibly important to provide year-round access to reliable irrigation, but when smallholders shift from subsistence to commercial farming, in addition to increasing their income and breaking the vicious cycle of poverty, what other changes to the system will result? What are the less beneficial outcomes? How might those be mitigated?

We're working on Maati-Paani-Asha: Regeneration of Hope, Health, Land & Community in the Face of Extreme Poverty & Climate Crisis  -- and we'll be updating our vision this week to provide more information about water resources and irrigation, too. Our region is grappling with drought and unreliable monsoons. We'd love your input.

Photo of Tei Overgoor

Dear Nicole Civita,

Thank you for your interest and for the relevant question, which helped us to review our vision which we will also update soon.

The first thing that comes to mind is that when incomes increase the meat consumption increases fast, as is usually seen in developing countries. Our hope is that by 2050, the first wave is over and more balanced diet come into place, similar to what is happening in developed countries at the moment. We also think that it should be a focus point of the government and other organizations to promote crops with both a high market value and which are also high in nutrition values to stimulate a healthy and sustainable food consumption.

Another risk is increased use of fertilizers and pesticides with negative effects on the environment. However, we believe that smallholder farmers with small fields are much more sustainable food producers than large farms with monocultures which require more pesticides, as the risk of pests is much higher when biodiversity is low.

As for the water resources, we have noticed that in India issues emerged from pumping from groundwater sources which are rapidly depleting, causing increased energy use for pumping from greater depths and also mixing in from salt water which cannot be used for irrigation. As a result, we think it is important that more focus should go to pumping from surface water and on innovative technologies to irrigate as water-efficient as possible. At the moment the technique with the highest efficiency is drip, which is often not practiced because of the large amount of pressure and thus energy costs that it brings. We think that innovative pumps that can eliminate the energy costs by using renewable energy sources can be a solution and possibly even more improved innovative water saving techniques as well. Irrigation is a crucial factor for crop production, and especialy in extreme climates, like you mention, reliable irrigation makes a huge change for farmers.

Good luck with your vision!

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