In Bhutan, cooperatives help villagers turn chores into profit

 Beneficiaries of a cooperative group implemented by the Government of Bhutan and UNDP. Cooperatives in Bhutan existed as early as the 1960s but were informal community groups which did not generate income.
Karma (in red) and members of her dairy cooperative in rural Bhutan, where their products bring in enough income to support their families. (Photo: Sonam Tsoki Tenzin/UNDP Bhutan)

Ten years ago, 44-year-old Karma Choeni Dema, a divorcee and mother of seven children in Bhutan, may not have imagined herself as the breadwinner of the family. She survived on the little that was harvested from the land that they owned.

Today, Karma is the chairwoman of the Shershong Cooperative in Mongar. She earns about US $100-120 every month from the milk and dairy products she sells to the cooperative, which helps pay for her children’s education. She also invested her savings to start a poultry farm, bringing in an additional US $100 on a good month.


  • UNDP extended support in 2011 through its Food Security Project to enhance the existing structure of cooperatives in Bhutan, and the project is set to run through 2013.
  • After joining the cooperative, Karma earns between US $100-120 monthly.
  • UNDP provided US $30,000 in 2011 to procure equipment for the remote dairy cooperatives in five eastern districts.

Karma is one of many beneficiaries of a project implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Cooperatives in Bhutan existed as early as the 1960s but were informal community groups which did not generate income.

Bhutan is trying to revive the cooperatives to help people make money from their farming activities. UNDP extended support in 2011 through the Food Security Project, mainly to enhance the existing structure of the cooperatives. The project was designed to create opportunities for income generation and self-employment in rural areas, and to help small farmers and rural women gain a steady income through the formation of self-help groups and cooperatives.

“I am self-sufficient and don’t depend on anyone,” Karma says. “I make enough money to send all my children to school.”

After leaving behind an alcoholic husband and an abusive life, she enjoys working for her community and doesn’t look back. She says her dream is to help develop her community and improve the quality of life for rural women. As the chairwoman of her cooperative, she represents her community with the Project Officer and the livestock office in Mongar.

As part of her responsibilities, Karma holds monthly meetings with the members of her cooperative where they discuss future expansion plans, report on the finances and approve loans for members. In order to support the Department of Agriculture and Marketing Cooperatives (DAMC) in the implementation of cooperatives, UNDP provided US $30,000 in 2011 to procure equipment for the remote dairy cooperatives in five eastern districts.

The equipment was critical to help improve the dairy products and market them. With the dairy equipment (separators and churners), the farmers are able to hygienically process milk into butter and cheese and sell them for higher prices. This not only produces clean and safe products but also saves time in processing compared to traditional methods. Additionally, cold-storage facilities like deep freezers have benefited the farmers immensely by increasing the shelf-life of their surplus products during summer.

In addition, UNDP also coordinated trainings and orientation sessions for the local farmers, instructing them on setting up small businesses, the importance of cooperatives, group formation and development strategies.

Today cooperatives across Bhutan are being established and many farmers, especially women, are benefitting from these programmes. The women say their engagement in cooperatives and farmers groups has given them a sense of independence and confidence. They are able to contribute to the family and household expenses, educate their children and run their daily chores. The security of having their own income has empowered women who never dreamed their daily chores would generate income.

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