Back in 2017, when entrepreneur Subhakar Manandhar’s daughter asked him to get cheese popcorn for her, an idea struck him. At the time, popcorn (not the traditional Nepali kind) was only available at cinema halls. Already a trader who imported industrial-grade raw materials for the food industry, Manandhar then thought about launching his own brand of popcorn.
That’s how Wow Snacks Pvt Ltd, which manufactures the popular Wow Popcorn, began. In January 2018, the company started with two kiosks selling fresh popcorn at Ranjana Trade Center in New Road and Wimpy restaurant in Durbarmarg.
In just three years of its launch, the consumer packets of Wow Popcorn are now available in almost all districts of Nepal. For fresh popcorn, there are currently 70 plus kiosks operating in major cities including Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Dharan, while 30 more are in the pipeline.
The Wow product range has diversified from the various flavors of gourmet kiosks as well as consumer pack popcorn to cheese rings, potato chips, cookies, and other packageable fried snacks. “We manufacture everything at our plant in the Balaju Industrial Area in Kathmandu,” informs Manandhar, the managing director of the company. “For potato chips and cookies, we outsource to other manufacturers.”
The journey from running a printing press as a family business to importing industrial equipment and raw materials and then switching to FMCG has been a roller-coaster ride for Manandhar. “We are a homegrown Nepali company that produces snacks in Nepal, but our identity is still questioned,” Manandhar says. “This is because we import our raw materials from abroad.”
For the tons of popcorn Wow sells every year, the popcorn kernels are imported from Argentina, Brazil, and the US. “But it’s not only us, almost everything used in industrial food production comes from India and other countries,” Manadhar says. “The wheat for biscuits, oil, and even the packaging materials are imported.”
While Nepal is dependent on India and other countries for raw materials, manufacturers like Wow Snacks are also displacing FMCG imports with Nepali products. The shelves of huge departmental stores and smaller convenience stores are still filled with imported snacks and edibles. But Wow Snacks, only three years into operations, has been able to displace at least some of them, Manandhar says.
“We are struggling to create a homegrown product that does away with imports,” Manandhar says. “But our government has been the least helpful.” For a company like Wow Snacks that sells products starting at the Rs 20-30 range, competing against similarly priced Indian imports is tough. The Indian counterparts have bigger volumes and bigger marketing budgets, which creates the illusion of superiority in consumers’ minds. “The government should protect us by giving us more benefits and leeway compared to importers,” Manandhar says. “But our repeated requests have not been heeded.”
Instead, the government’s unsuccessful handling of the pandemic has made the businesses suffer, Manandhar says. The lockdowns have been haphazard and there has been no support for companies that were forced to shut down because of the lockdowns.
The lockdowns that began in March 2020 have affected Wow’s sales and distribution. Now, as the festival season approaches, sales are going up again. “But there is still fear and apprehension. The distributors are scared to stock up and we do not have the confidence of manufacturing on a large scale,” Manandhar says. “If there is another lockdown, we might not survive.”