After years of researching ancient healing techniques and drawing from the knowledge of traditional healers, a company has been creating products from ingredients found in some of the remotest regions of the Himalayas. The company has not only brought the best of the Himalayan herbs to store shelves but also brought much-needed improvements in the lives of women who live in the regions where these herbs grow.
With its small garden and homely environment, the Wild Earth factory outlet appears to be a quiet household. But it is a busy place, filled with the aroma of herbs and folk songs floating out from a radio. A company founded in 1999, Wild earth makes body and skin care products from Himalayan herbs. Carroll Dunham, a medical anthropologist and National Geographic’s Mongolia Expert, founded the company after local women in Humla, a place she often visited, asked her to help them start something economically sustainable from their natural resources.
Carroll had vast experience of researching traditional healing techniques in the Himalayas. She had studied the ancient Ayurveda and Tibetan medicine and learned from traditional healers of the region. Drawing from these ancient traditions and acquaintances she’d made during her research, she started making soaps from natural herbs that grew in places like Humla.
For a long time, when people thought of Wild Earth, they thought soap. “We were the first to bring out yak [nak] milk soap,” says Aashish Pradhan, the company’s sales manager. “This soap is one of the most popular of our products.” Another soap that is likely to attract attention for its ingredient, if not for its medicinal properties, is the Mongolian Mare’s Milk and Rose Soap. The milk is brought from Mongolia in powder form and then mixed with other materials in Kathmandu. Another unique offering is the Baby Chamomile Soap, which is made from immune-boosting herbs and has antiseptic qualities. Wild Earth makes over 40 different kinds of soaps.
Wild Earth, however, is more than about soap. They have a large range of oils. “We have a variety of products. We have different collections, like Mother Baby, that have a number of products that are beneficial to the intended users. There are oils in the Mother Baby collection for pregnant women. It has massage oil for babies and oils for mothers after they have given birth. The oils help reduce stretch marks and other pregnancy related problems,” says Pradhan.
Wild Earth’s products are as much the combination of natural herbs as ancient wisdom. Tenets of Ayurveda and Sowa Rigpa, the Tibetan medicine system, are its source of reference. So is the wisdom imparted orally by traditional healers. “We are focusing on things people have traditionally used for body care. That is one of the things we look at when we create our products,” says Pradhan of Wild Earth’s choice of ingredients. It also has a documentation and research team that constantly examines and explores the medicinal benefits of Himalayan herbs. “Once our team recommends a particular herb and its benefits, we try and create something out of it.”
The knowledge of the ancient texts and treatment systems are not something Wild Earth wishes to safeguard as a secret. In fact, they want more and more people to know about the richness of the traditions of Nepal’s various ethnic communities. “In addition to bringing the freshest, healthiest body care products to a global clientele, we also strive to bring the best of ancient Himalayan-Ayurvedic and Tibetan teachings to the modern world of body care,” says Pradhan.
The wisdom of the ages culminates in over 450 products at the Wild Earth factory. They have products amulets, smudge sticks, aromatic pillows (including one that helps alleviate hangovers and another that is an aphrodisiac), aromatic eye pillows, incense, mud rub, face and body scrub, balm and cream, and herbal tea. Wild Earth exports its products to over 40 countries, including the US, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Singapore. The Body Shop has bought from them and they supply to Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts and Trump Towers.
But go to a local department store looking for a Wild Earth product and you are likely to return empty-handed. Yak and Mongolian mare’s milk don’t come cheap; naturally, neither do soaps made from them. They are beyond the common people, who have been using much cheaper soaps for generations. Pradhan says that their high prices are due to the high quality ingredients that go into making the products. Wild Earth is among the rare businesses that survived the Nepali Civil War years, a period during which many businesses perished. To a large extent, looking to markets outside Nepal helped them survive. “Though we were the first company in Nepal that introduced traditional herbal cosmetic products and had a significant hold in the local market, we were keen on introducing our products to the world. This might be one of the reasons that though the country was going through a tough phase we were to some extent able to focus our efforts to a market that had better scenarios than ours.”
Exporting is not easy, especially for small businesses like Wild Earth. Pradhan sees the lack of a proper payment channel as a major deterrent to Wild Earth’s growth. “Clients do not like to buy things for which you have to pay an advance and wait for 3-4 weeks to get it delivered from a third world country.” Pradhan believes a stronger payment channel would encourage buyers abroad to buy from small businesses like Wild Earth.
There is also the issue of consistency in the quality and price of herbs, something that is difficult in Nepal. Prices tend to rise overnight for no reason. Finding herbs that are consistently of high quality is a challenge, more so because Wild Earth buys from different areas in Nepal. Pradhan believes an agency that looks into quality and pricing of Nepali herbs would help maintain high quality and fair prices. The business also has to cope with some of the common problems unique to Nepal. One is the high transportation cost owing to it being land-locked. The other is power cuts.
When asked if their soaps could not compete with the likes of Dettol or Lifebuoy, Pradhan says that Wild Earth’s goal is not to outdo brands like those but to excel at creating chemical-free products. “There is a small niche market for products like ours. Our products are for people who are conscious about applying natural body care products on their skin and who care about the environment and sustainability of herbs.” That niche market, Pradhan believes, is now expanding. “The domestic market is also a priority. We now sell to the Hyatt Regency, Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge, Kasara Resort, Annapurna Hotel, to name a few.” Their client base, although small, is loyal. “There are people who come from Jawalakhel [Wild Earth’s factory outlet is in Bansbari, near the Ganga Lal Hospital] to buy from us.”
Wild Earth products are not limited to spas and luxury hotels. They are developing a range aimed at trekkers. It will be a cyclical creation of sorts—using the things that grow in areas that people trek through to produce items that they can use while trekking. The products will be eco-friendly. Paper soap and dry shampoo are two products Wild Earth has created. The paper soap is biodegradable and the dry shampoo does not require water.
The changing trend of buying something other than khukuris and photo frames and posters is also benefiting Wild Earth, says Pradhan. “Why would you want to take back a khukuri to a mother, sister, or girlfriend? You would want to give her something from Nepal, something authentic and unique. Our products are an alternative to the typical souvenirs that are hung on walls or become mantle pieces.”