Mountain Hazelnuts puts staff on unpaid leave

It was a difficult move for the venture as they looks to offset COVID-19 impacts and for the long-term continuity of the company

By Phurpa Wangmmo

The Impact of COVID- 19 is being felt by individuals, businesses, and countries all around the world. In Bhutan, Mountain Hazelnuts Ventures Pvt. Ltd. is the latest company to take a hit from the ensuing COVID-19 crisis.

The company is one of the largest private sector companies working with more than 11,000 smallholder farming communities to grow hazelnuts in 19 Dzongkhags for the last 10 years.

At present, the company is still employing a third of staff (150 people) on rotation at any given time during this period. Taking these steps enables Mountain Hazelnuts to move to a more sustainable position for long term success.

However, they said no staffs have been laid off despite the capital crunch the company is going through. This has been done to preserve the value the Company has built over the last decade.

August 2021, some of Mountain Hazelnuts’ staff will be been put on Unpaid Leave (UL) for up to three months as a cost cutting measure.

Company officials said while this step might seem sudden, the company has been mindful of its budgetary constraints and therefore maintained stringent cash conservation measures from December 2020.

β€œMountain Hazelnuts was hopeful that it would be able to secure funds before exhausting its resources, but due to ongoing COVID restrictions on foreign entry, investors due diligence visits have not been possible. The COVID pandemic has brought unprecedented hardship to the Company, as it has many other companies in Bhutan,” the company stated.

Dr Tshering Dorji, Director of Field Operations and Research & Development, said that although the number of field staff has been reduced to one third in this three month period, the Company is committed to providing necessary technical services to its growers in a timely manner.

Therefore, he added our farmers should not worry. He said we are not closing the company but are preparing for the long term sustainability of the company.

 β€œAll Operational Heads for Central, East and West have been retained as key operational staff and delivery of the following grower services will be the top priority for the Company during this three month period, Post grafting care, Nut inventory and Preparing for harvest,” Tshering Dorji said.

He added that because of the 2019 and 2020 grafting and 2021 manual pollination programs, the company anticipates a bigger harvest this year and plans to buy all harvested nuts based on the existing price.

Most importantly, Mountain Hazelnuts was not able to collect most of last year’s harvest due to a nationwide lockdown. As a result, the company missed some key investor funding milestones.

Sources from the company said every aspect of operations has been affected by COVID, from land registration, to bringing in tissue culture, to procuring materials from India, to distributing trees, to even performing an audit.

β€œMountain Hazelnuts has informed the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) as well as the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR). Both partners understand the circumstances around the company’s decision, and have been supportive and flexible in working with our Senior Management team to carve out a path forward. The Company is also in the process of informing other key stakeholders, including our growers,” the company further stated.

In the short term, MH is doing everything it can to support its staff that has been put on Unpaid Leave, Assisting staffs who wish to explore other job opportunities with recommendation letters and working closely with landlords and banks, to explore the possibility of rent reductions for this three month period, and easing loan repayments respectively.

Meanwhile, Mountain Hazelnuts has also established an internal Hazay Emergency Fund and this is a fund of β€œlast resort”, under which financial assistance can be granted to those in extreme financial hardship.

Staffs working full time during this period have contributed a significant portion of their salaries to this Fund.

While they have to work to develop the new funding model and manage critical operations, which will see the company through to sustainability, they recognize the genuine hardship that many staff will be experiencing, and want to do their bit to help.

β€œWe have also arranged for professional counseling service for staff during this challenging period assisting staffs who wish to explore other job opportunities with recommendation letters,” the company reiterated.

Despite all the flak, the company have also arranged for professional counseling service for staff during this challenging period.

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