Agriculture in Nepal: Prime Movers

One thing that hit me in Nepal (right after the state of roads and different norms around throat clearing and spitting) was the lack of industry and of mechanization in agriculture.

In Europe and the US, you see harvesting done by combines. In Nepalese hills and mountains, you see grannies bending their backs under stacks of fodder for their cows and buffalo. Transport is typically handled by mules.

Unsurprisingly, this shows in data. Value added per worker in agriculture (calculated simply from national accounts based on inputs and outputs in the sector) shows a huge difference between Nepal, Western countries, and more developed Asian countries.

Value added per worker in agriculture. Source: Our World in Data, based on World Bank’s World Development Indicators

Somewhat alarmingly, agricultural productivity as measured by this statistic hasn’t been growing very much in Nepal.

It seems to me that Nepal can’t afford to rely too much on imports. This is possible for a country like Singapore or Japan where ships are coming from all over the world. For Nepal, with only a few border crossings with India and Japan (and a terrible internal transport network), this strategy doesn’t seem robust.

I’m not sure where the main problem lies. It could be due to the tricky terrain – combines are harder to imagine on hilly rice paddies than in European flatland. But then again, I suppose countries like Switzerland made things work despite having similar conditions.

It may just be very hard to get the requisite machines all the way to remote rural areas. And even then, people might not be able to pay.

A little less noticeable problem is the lack of irrigation systems in almost a half of Nepal’s rural areas. People are still relying on monsoons. This is not a failure to adopt a novel industrial technology. This is being some 5,000 years behind the cutting edge.

It’s surprising to me that I don’t here much about agricultural migration. In the US, you hear a lot about the shortage of labor in agriculture. Here in Nepal, many would be grateful for an agricultural job in the West and could potentially bring back more productive methods. But most migrants seem to gravitate to services and industries.

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