Massive slump in demand during the peak season has the nursery industry on edge

This time last year, SR Nursery in Dhumbarahi was bustling with activity. There was a constant flow of customers coming in and out, and throughout the day, the nursery’s staff remained busy loading dozens of plant saplings on the back of trucks, which were then transported to hotels, restaurants, party palaces and offices.

On a single day, the nursery sold anywhere between 500 to 1,000 saplings.

But this year, the scenario is starkly different.

The number of customers visiting the nursery is less than 10 a day, and demand for saplings has fallen so dramatically that Sunil Syangtang, the nursery’s proprietor, says that these days he barely sells more than 20 saplings a day.

This massive dip in demand is alarming because the months from September to November, which is when Dashain and Tihar falls, are the peak business months for the nursery industry.

According to Kumar Kasaju Shrestha, president of Floriculture Association Nepal, the nursery industry makes around 60 percent of its annual sales from September to November. But the drop in demand during the peak business season is now causing anxiety and worry across the industry.

Like almost every other industry, Covid-19 badly hit the nursery industry. When Nepal went into lockdown in March, demand for plants hit rock bottom. “For the first few months of the lockdown, business came to a grinding halt,” said Shrestha, who also owns Kathmandu Nursery. “But people were still hopeful that by the end of August, which is when people begin buying plants for the festive season, things would return to normalcy and business would pick up, and things would get better.”

But as the infection continues to spread, showing no signs of stopping, optimism has frayed.

“Hotels, restaurants and party palaces make up a huge chunk of our clientele during the festive season,” said Shrestha. “But these businesses have been badly hit by the pandemic and so they are unlikely to spend the same way they do on plants during the festive season.”

Anticipating low demand, nurseries across the city have made changes to their production, with many cutting production by half.

Every year as the festive season nears, Kathmandu Nursery used to get 40,000 saplings ready. “Since demand for plants is low, we halved our production and planted only around 20,000 saplings,” said Shrestha.

According to Syangtang, SR Nursery used to sell around 50,000 marigold, globe amaranth, and chrysanthemum—plants that are the highest in demand during the festive season—saplings. “Covid-19 has caused demand to hit rock bottom, and judging by how the pandemic is still out of control, we thought it would be best to halve our production to avoid major losses,” said Syangtang. “We have only planted some 25,000 seeds, and I don’t know if we will even manage to sell that.”

Given that Covid-19 job losses and salary cuts have become common across industries, Nepali families, say industry’s stakeholders, are likely to scale back on their spending on decorating their residences with flowers for the festive season. “For families, beautifying their residences with flowers is a norm during Dashain and Tihar. Families flock to nurseries and spend money on flowers and other gardening accessories during the festive season,” said Shrestha.

“But due to the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic, many families are unlikely to spend much on flowers this festive season, and with the number of cases continuing to rise, people are hesitant to come to nurseries to buy plants.”

Another major source of revenue for the nursery industry is the gardening services they provide. That aspect of the business has also been badly hit by the pandemic.

“We provide regular garden maintenance service to six hotels, 12 restaurants and five residences. But many of them have discontinued the service. We also have five major orders all of which have been cancelled,” said Syangtang.

After months of a complete halt in business and a dismal demand during the peak season, the pandemic is threatening the existence of the industry, say stakeholders.

“The floriculture industry in the country is losing Rs 10 million every day. So far, due to the pandemic, it has already lost one billion rupees,” said Shrestha. “In order to make buying plants much easier, the association is coming up with an online platform where people can buy a wide variety of plants from the comfort of their own homes and have them delivered.”

But with all the uncertainty surrounding the infection, say industry’s stakeholders, the future looks uncertain. “The floriculture business in the country has investments worth Rs 6.5 billion and it provides direct and indirect employment to more than 42,000 people,” said Shrestha.

“If the current scenario prolongs for another five to six months, 20 percent of nurseries in the country will not be able to survive and will close, and 20 percent of those employed by the industry will lose their jobs.”

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