When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, 55-year-old Sumitra Bhujel was already in a bad place. Her business, Dhankuta Sisters handicrafts, had been facing stiff competition for more than a year and had been forced to lay off staff. The pandemic only made things worse. Bhujel couldn’t afford to pay rent and had to shut down completely. She had worked for decades to establish her business, but shutting down was the only thing she could do.
“This past year was a remarkably difficult one for me and my business family,” said Bhujel.
Bhujel learned handicrafts as a 19-year-old in Dhankuta and came to Kathmandu at 22 to work in a handicrafts store. When she became confident in her marketing skills, she took over Dhankuta Sisters from the previous owner.
In the early days, Bhujel employed over 25 women in Dhankuta and Kathmandu for the production of handicrafts like bamboo products, bags and purses, shawls, embroidered cushions and hats. She worked mostly with financially disadvantaged women as she saw it an opportunity to help them acquire skills and earn some money, she said.
“Some 20 years ago, my customers were predominantly foreigners. I had a niche market, but my shop was running successfully. When I think of it now, it feels like a dream,” said Bhujel.
But competition increased and her sales began to decline. She was unable to keep up with digital trends. At a time when many handicraft stores targeting tourists have elaborate websites and a social media presence, Bhujel had continued to operate out of a storefront in Kupondole. Many of her customers have asked her to change her business model to incorporate digital sales.
In 2019, a year before the coronavirus hit, Bhujel had to shrink her staff down to 10. And within a few months of the nationwide lockdown in March, Dhankuta Sisters collapsed. Bhujel couldn’t pay her rent and she was forced to lay off all her employees.
As of now, it is uncertain what will happen to Bhujel’s over-20-year business. Her employees have asked her to take them back when things get better but Bhujel doesn’t know when, or if, that will happen.
As of now, she’s taken to baking cakes as a means to make some money. But she doesn’t get many orders since she’s not digitally-savvy and sells mostly to her friends and neighbours.
“The pandemic has been a wake-up call for my business to keep up with contemporary trends,” said Bhujel.