This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Eric McCallum says he likes to invest in “simple and elegant business models that have multiple impacts.” A startup called Himalayan Wild Fibers fit the bill and he led a round of financing.
Founder and CEO, Ellie Skeele, 64, has been working in Nepal for nearly two decades to commercialize her idea.
“Himalayan Wild Fibers is a company that is commercializing a textile fiber that’s extracted from a wild growing plant, a form of stinging nettle that grows in the forests of the Himalayas. It is wild harvested. We extract from that a fiber, we refine it and then we sell into existing developed supply chains,” she explains.
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Himalayan Wild Fibers, HWF, sells the fibers in a refined state, but not as thread or yarn. Her clients use the fibers to create yarns, fabrics and ultimately finished products.
Her goal is to help subsistence farmers who have virtually no cash income. She sees significant environmental benefits in the bargain.
Early during her time in Nepal, she came across the fiber being used for a variety of rudimentary handicrafts, ropes and other rough purposes. Then she encountered someone who had created a blend of cotton and the nettle fiber and her mind began to race.
She and her team determined that the best way to enhance “economic justice” for her Nepali friends was to focus on sourcing the fiber from the farmers, paying them a “really good price for it.”
“HWF creates jobs for some of the poorest people in the world,” he says. “In six to eight weeks they can double their yearly income harvesting giant nettle without interfering with their seasonal subsistence farming,” McCallum boasts.
The fiber, because it grows in the wild, far from any industrial agriculture, has not been exposed to any fertilizers or pesticides. Skeele says, “This is the most sustainable fiber and the cleanest, purest fiber on the market.” She says “emphatically” that the product is not toxic.
She hastens to add that the nettle grows wild on land that cannot be used for farming, so doesn’t compete with food or other crops important to the Nepali farmers she hopes to help. No irrigation is required to grow it and only a fraction of the water required for processing organic cotton is used to refine it.
The nettle is a rhizome. It actually benefits from the harvesting. The stalks are cut off, but the rhizome and roots remain in the ground and flourish season after season.
“The nettle grows wild under the high elevation forest canopy, is very leafy so converts CO2 to oxygen,” notes McCallum. “The Gov. of Nepal is eager to find non-timber forest products to stimulate the local economy in these high elevation forest areas. The nettle needs the forest canopy to thrive. By creating these jobs HWF is protecting the forest.”
For Skeele, the quest to help the Nepali subsistence farmers is personal. “I have two children adopted from Nepal and the came to me from poverty. They come from mountain families.” She felt this was a gift she should repay.
She went to Nepal about 20 years ago after working in Silicon Valley and finding herself unfulfilled. She says she called her sister and said, “I’m going to sell my house and I’m going to stay in Nepal for a while to get my head screwed on straight and see if I can’t do something more meaningful with my life.”
To date, she acknowledges, the impact has been modest. “When we scale it will be, by Nepal’s standards, huge,” she adds. She says she doesn’t expect the business to ever grow to $500 million. There isn’t enough of the fiber to harvest to create a business of that scale. But the benefits to Nepal will be meaningful even at a much smaller scale.
Led by McCallum, HWF has raised money from 19 investors. The company has 14 employees and is just now beginning to generate revenue.
Of his investment in HWF, McCallum says, “For me personally, it’s a test to see if one can invest in the third world, get a modest return and have an impact. Because if this works, it could potentially attract more impact capital from more people who desire to get more than just a financial return but also a social ROI.”
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