Lokta: Paper of the Future

Features Issue 29 Aug, 2010
Text by Sanjaya Dhakal

The strength of the Lokta paper can also be discerned from the way it is dyed. “Unlike ordinary paper, Lokta paper is just immersed into color dyes, which shows that it is not damaged by water at all,” said a Lokta manufacturer.

Lokta is to Nepal what Papyrus is to Egypt. While Papyrus has been able to draw attention of the whole world, Nepalese Lokta paper is just beginning  to gain admiration for it’s simple, tradi tional manufacturing method and unequalled strength. The Nepali people have been manufacturing and using Lokta or Nepali Kagaaz also known as rice paper since time immemorial. It is the paper of choice in Nepali government offices where all official documents of import, particularly those used for legal purposes are written in Lokta paper.

Because of its unique strength and resistance to insects like moths, Lokta paper was widely used in the past when documents had to be stored manually. But even in this age of computers and print papers, the Lokta has not entirely lost its usage. Rather, its variety and wide range of uses has enhanced its standing and even triggered a growth in exports to western countries.

What is Lokta?
Lokta or handmade Nepali paper is made from the fiber of a native plant. It is renowned for its rough but attractive texture, durability, strength and resistance to insects. Lokta derives its name from one of the local plant species (Daphne Papyracea or Daphne Cannabina) from which it is made. These plants are also known as Baruwa or Kaagte Paat. They are generally small and woody and grow as shrubs reaching a maximum height of 7 feet.

The Lokta plants are found in moist regions at altitudes ranging from 6,000 to 10,000 feet. The fiber for making the paper is extracted from the bark of this plant. October signals the beginning of the Lokta collection season. It is harvested like sugarcane by cutting the stem about 30 cm above the ground. Interestingly, the Lokta plants have the special ability to regenerate and reach maturity within 4 to 5 years after the first cutting.

Since these plants can easily regenerate, they provide a continuous source of raw materials provided they are used judiciously. But, if the Lokta’s stem is not removed from the forest in its optimum maturity, it simply dries up and starts decaying. It is, therefore, wiser to cut their stem in the harvesting season and use it for manufacturing paper.

Paper making process
The traditional process of making Lokta paper is simple. It does not involve huge machines and equipment. For ages, the Nepali people have been using the same process. The technique that has been handed down from generation to generation has been refined for mass production, by the present-day manufacturers who produce it for commercial purposes.

The paper making process begins with the cutting of the stem as mentioned earlier. The bark of the stem is then taken out and thoroughly cleansed and all the knots or dark spots are removed. This leaves only the clean white inner bark, which is then stored until needed

The bark is cooked in boiling water to remove organic matter and then well rinsed under cold running water. This part of the process is extremely important and must be handled with care and deliberation as it ensures a clean, high quality sheet of finished paper.

In the next step, the cooked bark is beaten with wooden hammers turning it into a muddy, sticky paste. This paste is then rolled into balls for easy measurement. Manual beating presses the long fibers closer together giving the paper added strength.

The resulting pulp is then mixed with the right proportion of water and poured into the frame plate making sure that it is evenly spread. The frame with the pulp stretched across it is then placed in the sun for drying. The surface texture of traditional paper comes from this natural drying process. Finally, when the paper sheets are thoroughly dry, they are taken out from the frame and stored.

These dry paper sheets are ready for use for various purposes like writing, drawing, etc. Today, different processes are used to modify and give various shapes to the paper or to add color.

Lokta’s popularity
In the last couple of years, the evolution of the usage of traditional Lokta paper has been incredible. While in the past it was used mostly in government offices and strictly as writing paper, these days it has found its way into modern day boardrooms and living rooms in the form of diaries, calendars, notebooks, photo-albums, wall paper, etc.

The variety of Lokta usage has been one reason for its resounding success abroad. The export of Lokta has been steadily growing in overseas markets, where it is used for many different purposes.

Differently colored Lokta papers are used even as fashion accessories. They are being used as carry bags, calendars, gift-boxes, file-folders, lampshades, greeting cards, wall paper, photo frames, art paper, picture albums, gift sets, postcards, paper jewelry, jewelry boxes, telephone diaries and so on. Even clothes made out of Lokta have begun to emerge as new and viable products.

The strength of the Lokta paper can also be discerned from the way it is dyed. “Unlike ordinary paper, Lokta paper is just immersed into color dyes, which shows that it is not damaged by water at all,” said a Lokta manufacturer.

The trend of using Lokta paper is on the rise. Beyond their traditional usage, Lokta is now being used to make visiting cards, invitation cards, wrapping paper, envelopes and so on. Until today, its use as an important official document remains unchallenged.

In the subsequent decades after Nepal opened up to the outside world in 1950, the use of Lokta began to decline due to the flooding of cheap machine made papers. The machine made papers imported mainly from India did replace Lokta, but of late, it is gradually making a comeback.

Business aspect of lokta
Nepal has been exporting handicraft products for the past 35 years or so. It contributes approximately 2 percent to Nepal’s total export. Experts estimate that more than 50 percent of handicraft products find their way to the export market.

Out of these handicraft exports, Lokta paper and paper products, also account for a significant contribution. The Nepalese paper and paper products are very popular in the overseas market.

The business of Lokta is growing steadily. Its market overseas is bigger and brighter than within the country. The figures released by the Handicraft Association of Nepal (HAN) state that Lokta paper worth NRs 275 million  were exported in the year 2002/2003. This was a marked rise from exports worth NRs 242 million, a year ago. The sale of Lokta within the country is around 15 percent of the volume of its overseas market. Lokta products are mostly sold in handicraft shops around Kupondole, Lazimpat and Thamel.

“The market of Lokta is growing,” said Kiran Kumar Dangol, secretary of the Nepal Handmade Paper Association and managing director of Lotus Paper Crafts. According to him, the market of Lokta has been growing by 7 to 8 percent on an average every year.

The primary export market of Lokta includes European countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy as well as the United States of America and Canada. Japan is yet another big market. “There is immense potential for expanding and extending the market of Lokta paper,” said Dangol. “We need to make a strong and concerted effort to market Lokta internationally to realize its potential.”

“The business of Lokta will also benefit the poorer section of the Nepali people. Thousands of them will be employed and income generated by the business will be distributed among people from the lower strata of society who are involved in harvesting, collecting and manufacturing these products,” said an official at HAN.

A larger part of the process of manufacturing the paper is carried out in the villages while the finishing and polishing takes place in city factories. Rural communities in districts like Kavre, Sindhupalchowk, Dolakha, Ramechhap, Myagdi, Baglung, etc. benefit from Lokta collection and manufacturing. At present, the Lokta business employs around 20,000 people in nearly 200 different companies.

As such, Nepalese Lokta enjoys growing credibility among its domestic as well as international users. Product and market diversification could lead to further growth in its market. Besides, there is a need to promote this paper through the government as well as the tourism sector. When Papyrus of Egypt could draw so much attention, there is no reason why Lokta of Nepal cannot achieve the same status in the days ahead.