A native of Guinan (Mang rdzong) County, Qinghai Province in Western China, Nangchukja has experienced both agricultural and nomadic lifestyles that are typical for many people in the region. His understanding of the challenges facing Tibetan farmers and herders led him to initiate several projects aimed at helping local communities overcome these challenges. These projects included setting up libraries in local schools, building water pipes to transport water to remote areas and constructing clean, affordable outhouses. In 2005, Nangchukja founded Friendship Charity Association (FCA) to expand his work in the areas of basic education, rural development, healthcare, environmental protection and cultural preservation.
Entrepreneurial and resourceful by nature, Nangchukja has looked outside his region at examples of incorporating entrepreneurship into development activities. Undaunted by lack of local examples, support or resources, he is putting what he has learned into practice while adapting it to his local context. Nangchukja is also the author of A Mang rdzong Tibetan Life, an autobiography account of life on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
In Guinan County, where Tibetan communities make up more than 70% of the population, Tibetans typically depend on farming and herding to support themselves. Environmental problems such as grassland degradation and water shortages are making it progressively more difficult to survive on growing crops and raising livestock alone. Despite the discouraging prospects for this way of life, many Tibetans find it difficult to find alternative employment due to lack of Chinese language and vocational skills. The combination of relatively high cost of attending school, low quality teaching and perception of limited benefits of education among nomadic communities living in remote areas mean that many Tibetans in Guinan are illiterate and hence have few other means of generating income.
In addition, Tibetan communities in Guinan contend with the risk of losing a part of their cultural heritage. Guinan is famous for its diverse culture and textile crafts such as embroidery, but economic pressures in recent years have forced artisans to give up their traditional textile work to create simpler and cheaper products. As a result, traditional craftsmanship that has been passed down for generations is now slowly disappearing.
By harnessing these existing textile skills, Nangchukja started a cooperative called Drong (which means wild yak in the Tibetan language) to create stable employment, particularly for women, who typically bear the burden of generating family income. Drong hires women to make such commonly used goods as traditional robes, hats, bags and tents. These products are sold to local Tibetans who use them on a daily basis. In addition, Drong helps the women to design and develop more modern products that incorporate Tibetan culture. For example, t-shirts with traditional Tibetan embroidery designs can be sold to foreign tourists or Tibetan youth moving away from home.
Drong helps Tibetan women to translate their existing household skills into income-generating opportunities. This enables the women to support their families and afford basic services such as healthcare and education and break the cycle of poverty in the long term. Training from Drong gives women the opportunity to continuously refine their existing skills while developing new skills.
Through Drong, local Tibetans have an incentive to preserve traditional artisanal dressmaking skills that otherwise risk being lost. Drong’s unique combination of traditional and contemporary designs also enables younger generations to proudly display their cultural identity in a modern way. Drong intends to establish retail outlets in major cities and develop an online store, which would enable Tibetans to share their culture with city-dwellers and foreigners.
In addition to the salaries paid directly to its employees, Drong pools a portion of its profits for small-scale development projects that will help to further improve the living standards of local Tibetans in Guinan. Projects include literacy and vocational training, scholarships for secondary school and university students, local health clinics and reforestation programs.