On a cold, wet August morning in the windswept high pastures of the Nepalese Himalayas, a stream of herders bring fresh milk to a makeshift tent at an altitude of 4,200 metres. The bells of grazing yaks and chauris (a cross between male yaks and female cattle) echo across the silent valleys as men work under a tarpaulin measuring, boiling and separating milk into curds and whey.
The curds are strained in cloth bags and pressed under weights to remove as much whey as possible before being sent to the village below to be made into churpi (or chhurpi), a dried snack that has found an unlikely new lease of life, transforming pastoralists’ lives in Nepal in the process.
A staple among Himalayan people in Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and eastern India, churpi is fermented and smoked for months, sometimes years, to form a tasteless hard cheese that is very high in protein and nutrients.
For centuries, herders living in these resource-scarce barren highlands have depended upon their livestock to eke out a livelihood. As well as being one of the best ways to use excess milk, churpi sustains them during harsh winters in the mountains.
Churpi was once used to barter for essentials such as grains, oil, vegetables and salt. When it lost its currency value, it remained a favoured snack among the people living in mountainous regions. It would have continued as an obscure cottage industry were it not for an accidental discovery by three Nepalis living in the United States.
In the early 2000s, Nishes Shrestha brought some churpi back to the US after visiting family in Nepal. When his friend Suman Shrestha noticed Nishes’ dog chomping down on a stick of churpi it was a eureka moment. The pair began to test the snack out on friends’ dogs. Soon they had roped in Suman’s brother, Sujan, and in 2007 they launched Himalayan Pet Supply, the first company to sell Himalayan yak churpi as an organic dog chew.
While dairy farming is an important source of income for millions in Nepal, milk and dairy products are primarily bought by the state-owned Dairy Development Corporation, which operates in 45 of Nepal’s 77 districts, along with a few private firms.
Selling churpi as a dog chew created a profitable new market that has also solved the problem of excess milk going to waste as demand fluctuates.
Today churpi is a major export from Nepal, with at least 30 cheese dog-chew companies generating $22m (£18m) in 2021-22. By comparison, tea exports are worth $29m and carpets $81m. Over the last five years, Nepal’s churpi export has grown by nearly 250%, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development.
Starting with 200kg (440lb) of churpi in 2007, Himalayan Pet Supply now imports 600 tonnes a year to the US, sourcing churpi from 300 dairies and supporting nearly 12,000 farmers. It has 400 employees in the country.
However, most of the production takes place in the US where it produces another 2,000 tonnes of churpi a year from cow’s milk in Washington state. The company was bought by Prairie Dog Pet Products in 2021.
“In Nepal, we started this campaign among farmers that if they only had nine cows, then their annual income would be six times the per capita income,” says Sujan, who stepped down as chief executive in 2018. “Our farmers were making about $5-6,000 per year, just by selling us the chews.” Nepal’s annual per capita income was $1,027 in 2021.
Melamchi Tamang, 42, of Gatlang village, is one of many herders in Rasuwa, northern Nepal, to have benefited from the growing demand for churpi. She has been herding chauri for the past six years after previously rearing sheep.
“There was not much income from the sheep but chauris have been profitable,” says Tamang. “My daily household expenses are all covered, and I have also been able to send my children out of the village for better opportunities.”
Duga Tamang, 50, who is also from Gatlang, makes $2,300 to $3,000 a year from his 16 chauris. “We have been herding chauris from the age of our grandparents. We have no other means of livelihood here except this,” he says.
While the income has not changed significantly since he went from making churpi for people to supplying milk to the dog-chew company two years ago, it is much easier than making churpi himself and selling it in markets nearby.
The idea of turning a Nepali food of cultural importance into dog food was not universally accepted at first, though. The founders received letters and phone calls from Nepalis who were appalled at what they had done. “I’ve been told that I’m not a Nepali. We faced a lot of slander in the beginning,” says Sujan.
But after appearing on Shark Tank, a Dragon’s Den-style reality-TV show in 2015, where the founders explained how the product was helping families in Nepal, the criticism turned to praise.
According to one recent study, most of the dairy producers were earning up to $3,800 a year from churpi, and more educated young people in the country are being drawn to the growing industry. Rohit Marwadi, 29, founded Agroculture Nepal in 2016 soon after graduating from university. Today his company works with 1,500 dairy farmers and exports nearly 10 tonnes of churpi a month to the US, Europe and some Asian countries.
Income from churpi has also transformed 50-year-old Raju Rai’s economic situation. Financial pressures forced Rai to look for work outside Nepal, but after six years in Saudi Arabia, he decided to return home. “I was earning about 40,000 Nepalese rupee [£245] a month when I was in Saudi. But after coming back to Nepal, I was able to double my income through the churpi business,” he says.
Rai, from Khamnuwa in eastern Nepal, has supplied dog chews for 14 years. Five years ago he started his own dairy farm. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to send my son to Bangalore or Australia [to study] if not for this business,” he says.
“And it hasn’t helped just me,” he adds. “Many people in the village have been able to improve their livelihood because of this business. There was no source of income, and now people can earn £123 a month from one cow. Life has become easier for people in my village these days.”
Sharmila Rai, 35, from nearby Chulachuli, has been making churpi for nearly 16 years. But it was only eight years ago that she started supplying it for export. “Since I’ve been running this business, I have been able to eat much better food, and pay for salt and oil without worry,” says the mother of three.
“Before this, I was mainly rearing cattle at home and working in the fields. I had no other means of income. I later decided to open my own dairy in the village. Now there are dairies like mine in every village in our area.”
But the security that churpi has brought to the village is also a source of anxiety. “During Covid, there was a drop in demand. Since then, I worry about what will happen if the churpi business declines in the future. It has been immensely helpful for our livelihood and children’s education but this is our only means of survival for now. If demand drops again, we will be in a terrible position.”
But Rai’s fears may be unfounded. With the global pet-food industry projected to grow strongly, it looks like churpi could be the herders’ best friend for a long time to come.