Rise of Bhutan’s CSI: A Small Market with Global Ambitions

In the year 2020, the pandemic-induced slowdown crippled many industries, including the humble business of Thinley Yangzom, a farmhouse operator in Paro, Bhutan. As the tourism industry took a nosedive, the supply chain froze, compelling her to discard her perishable products and bringing her small Damjee-based food production business to the brink of closure. In a fortunate turn of events, the Cottage and Small Industries Market (CSI) in Changzamtok, Thimphu offered a lifeline. Today, Yangzom, a mother of two, is the proud proprietor of Bhutan Super Food and Herbs, with her products such as red rice, quinoa, assorted flour products, and tea making waves in Bhutan, Singapore, and Australia’s markets.

With the launch of the second CSI market in her hometown of Paro, Yangzom found herself liberated from market-related concerns. The 38-year-old entrepreneur now centres her attention on production and packaging, sourcing her raw materials directly from farmers. “The CSI market has afforded us the platform to excel, as small producers often struggle to secure a stable market due to limited time and resources for marketing,” she explains. Yangzom is looking ahead to enhancing her product packaging to be competitive in the international arena.

Over the last three years, the CSI Market has served as a launchpad for approximately 500 entrepreneurs like Yangzom, enabling them to grow their businesses without fretting over market access. The market now showcases 50-100 local products, over 70 per cent of which are food items, and the remainder being craft and skill-based offerings.

The Thimphu-based CSI market has evolved into a local hub for dining, socializing, and shopping. Initially, Sonam Chophel, CEO of the CSI Market and Druksell, focused on buyers within the 25-45 age demographic, but the market now enjoys popularity across all age groups. “There’s a fascinating intergenerational knowledge transfer happening among the Bhutanese in our store,” said Chophel. The market rakes in a substantial monthly income of Nu 4-5 million.

Chophel is optimistic about the newly opened market in Paro attracting an international clientele. “We’ve responded to international visitors who were unable to visit our Thimphu location by opening one in Paro. We believe this will meet their needs,” he said.

As the demand for locally produced, natural items surges, Sonam Choki, the owner of Bhutan Herbal Tea from Shaba, confirms the high demand for her tea products.

Ambitious and resolute, Chophel, with backing from the Department of Industry, aims to launch CSI markets in 10-15 countries over the next decade. “We aspire to join the global supply chain. It’s a challenging goal, but not an impossible one,” he asserted.

An outlet in Perth, Australia is already retailing 125 distinct Bhutanese products, and a CSI outlet in Bangladesh is slated to open by the end of the year. Markets in the United States, Europe, and India are also on the horizon.

Chophel emphasized the necessity for local producers to adopt industrialization over home-based manufacturing to align with global standards. While the road ahead is challenging, it is no longer obscure. The CSI market represents a beacon of hope for small producers to broaden their businesses and explore new markets.

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