Award-Winning Women’s Eco-Café in the Himalaya Breaks Boundaries

Life in the remote Markha Valley can be tough, but even more so for the women who live here. Opportunities can be few and far between – until now.

The Hankar Women’s Eco Café began life as a somewhat run down building in Hankar, a small village in the Hemis High Altitude National Park, Indian Himalaya. The village is right on the path of the Markha Valley trekking route, but despite the steady flow of walkers each summer, very little of the income generated trickles down to the average Ladakhi villager. Most walkers hire a camping team before starting the trek, and stay within their campsites. The café looks to address that problem.

Trekkers approaching Hankar village Trekkers approaching Hankar village

Work on the Women’s Eco Café began in 2013, spearheaded by Exodus leader Valerie Parkinson. This wasn’t about another unsustainable handout, but a way of using our leaders and their local connections in the region to make systemic change. Everything that could be locally sourced was, from the building materials used for the renovations, to the carefully devised menu which is designed to appeal to hungry travellers, but is cooked exclusively from locally grown ingredients.

Hankar eco cafe Lady mixing cement for the repairs to the cafe building

By combining what we know would appeal to trekkers, and what the locals know about their area, we were able to come up with a practical, sustainable café that would benefit everyone – proof, if ever it was needed, that working together yields the best results.

Not only that, but the café is managed by Ladakhi women. Run jointly by 13 women in a village of 13 families, the café is run in shifts, with each woman taking her turn to ensure the benefits are distributed equally among everyone. Their entrepreneurial spirit is what powers the café day to day, and with a little needed support from us, has proved a very successful enterprise. So much so, that we’re honoured to say the café won an international award – The Giving Back Award at the Adventure Travel Awards 2016 – and was short listed for a second, the Best Innovation by a Tour Operator from the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2016. We’re thrilled with the accolades and the way they benefit the women in Hankar.

The ladies inside the recently decorated cafe The ladies inside the recently decorated cafe

So what do travellers get? Apart from the knowledge that their money goes to local women, and their purchases help protect the fragile ecosystem of the high mountains, they get a fantastic authentic experience. They can indulge in wholesome, traditional Ladakhi food – and get a sense of what it’s really like to live here. The café serves tea and freshly ground coffee – a rare luxury on a trek like this – as well as fresh apricot juice, which tastes all the better for being grown locally and juiced at the café, not bottled and imported from elsewhere.

A huge problem in the Markha Valley is the amount of plastic waste from imported fizzy drinks and water bottles – the plastic doesn’t get recycled and all that packaging creates a lot of waste artificially created by the demand. So not only is the apricot juice ecologically friendly, but it’s also fresh, free of preservatives, and absolutely delicious. As for bottled water, well the café has that covered too. The women sell completely safe UV filtered water at a fraction of the price, with none of the plastic waste.

Installing the UV water purifier ready for trekkers Installing the UV water purifier ready for trekkers

Alongside the food, board games and social spaces entice trekkers to spend time  and money in the café. Because the Markha Valley is a camping trek, most people hire a team before they set off on the trek, and eat and drink at their campsite with a guides. This makes it trickier for the villagers to make money. But having the café as a warm social space lures the trekkers in – and the tantalising smell of fresh coffee and food means that before long they’ve settled in for a pleasant few hours in the café.

hankar eco cafe Lady with felted animal handicrafts

The final aspect of the café is the handicrafts. Our leader Valerie has held felting workshops throughout the valley to teach local women this skill, which uses for materials by-products from traditional Ladakhi life – transforming unwanted goat and sheep’s wool and old apricot seeds into souvenirs for travellers to buy. Because the trekking season in Ladakh is so short – just three months in high summer – the women have plenty of time in the winter to create their handicrafts, which range from purses to miniature stuffed snow leopards. It’s upcycling at its finest, and it creates an extra revenue stream for the women in the café.

Felted snow leopards Felted snow leopards

One lady sold 30 felted souvenirs during the 2016 trekking season, which made her enough money to buy food that couldn’t be grown locally (such as rice, sugar and oil) to feed her whole family of seven for the entire year. Exodus has run several felting workshops for women’s groups throughout the valley to spread the knowledge to more women.

Felting workshop Felting workshop

It’s almost impossible to overestimate the impact of a café like this to the women in the village. Apart from the financial benefits, the chance to run their own business and have a sense of ownership and empowerment from the café, are so important.

The whole project has proven so successful we’re thrilled to say we’ve been approached by women from another village named Skiu requesting the same assistance, and Exodus will be helping to replicate the programme several more times in the next few years.

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Visit the café: Trekking the Markha Valley

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