A chewy cheese made by generations of yak herders in Nepal has become an unexpected hit overseas — as a dog treat — bringing entrepreneurs and Himalayan farmers a windfall.
Known as “Churpi”, the dried cheese made from churned yak’s milk and cow’s milk has long been a popular snack domestically.
But businessman Sujan Shrestha said he had “a lightbulb moment” after an American friend bought the cheese for his pooch before returning home from the Himalayan country.
“We were actually offended at first (that)…he was giving Churpi to his dog,” Shrestha said.
Then they saw the business opportunities.
Shrestha, a former handicrafts salesman, and two friends decided to test the water in 2007, setting up a stall at a farmers’ market in Washington DC and selling the cheese exclusively for dogs.
They sold out within half an hour.
Since then, business has nearly doubled year-on-year.
The company, known as Himalayan Dog Chew, is now a frontrunner among a handful of firms which market Churpi in the United States, Britain, Canada and Japan.
It exported over 200 tonnes of Churpi from Nepal in 2014, with sales in North America and Japan totalling $9 million.
Industry-wide, Shrestha and rival firms like Yeti Dog Chew say the US market alone accounts for annual sales of at least $10 million.
Nepal exported around 300 tonnes of dog chew in 2013 in total, with suppliers struggling to keep up with demand, according to a report by Kathmandu-based non-profit, Institution for Suitable Actions For Prosperity.
Shrestha also decided to establish a production plant in Seattle, where 60 workers use machines to try to replicate the laborious techniques of Himalayan farmers.
The traditional process — unchanged for centuries — sees yak herders churn and strain the milk by hand, before wrapping the semi-solid residue in a cloth and hanging it up to dry and ferment.
For farmers like Mingma Sherpa from Nepal’s Everest region, surging demand for his cheese has meant about $1,500 a year in extra income — a bonanza in a country where one quarter of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.
“It is strange to think that our Churpi is eaten by dogs. But it is so good… they must like it too,” Sherpa, 30, told AFP.