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Mobile phones stopped being just ‘Mobile phones’ a long time ago. Local innovations by tech entrepreneurs are driving (and leading) advances in the country’s technology field.
On July 2, 2010 thousands of students who had appeared for their SLC examinations that year received their results on their cell phones through text message. Just a few years ago Gorkhapatra, the government owned national daily, used to be the only way of knowing the results; students would scan through thousands of symbol numbers printed in the daily to find their own. Over the years the results were made available online and through phone. According to reports by Nepal Telecom, by 2010, mobile penetration reached 27% of the Nepali population, up from less than 2% just ten years ago, and mobile SMS became a wholly convenient technology for delivering the results.
While SLC results may or may not predict a student’s future, the manner in which the ‘results’ were disseminated has evolved in the last decade indicates where we’re heading in terms of usage of technology in daily life. The 2000s in Nepal was a time when Internet usage and mobile phone service spiked among the general public as related technology progressed and became more accessible. While the two remained mutually exclusive for a long time, recent innovations in mobile technology including smart phones and 3G services have brought them closer together, creating exciting new possibilities for mobile phone users and tech entrepreneurs. A technological revolution seems to be brewing among young entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts; its results should prove to be significant on our personal, social and professional lives.
Although most tech startups are small in size, their numbers are very promising. 116 different groups competed in PIVOT Nepal 2013, Nepal’s first mobile app competition organized by Mobile Networking Nepal. Prawesh Shrestha, Project Manager at the organization, says, “Developing apps requires a minimum of resources. If you have the right skills and some ideas, all you need is a computer to code a program. So many youth who are passionate about programming have taken up the initiative to build apps that can have an impact on our society.”
According to Prawesh, most of these young startups are working in isolation from one another. Events like PIVOT Nepal and Startup WeekendKathmandu have been helping to bring them together to share ideas and resources.
PIVOT Nepal categorized apps into three groups according to their usage. The business and finance category consisted of apps that help to bridge gaps between businesses and their customers, and make their services and transactions more easily available. eSewa, for example, which was also the winner in this category, is an app for online bill payments. With a concept similar to ‘paypal’, the eSewa app makes it possible to transfer funds to and from various local banks, merchants, service providers, and other eSewa users just by using a smart phone with an Internet connection. Similarly, StoresMunk is an app that helps you carry your loyalty cards in your phone and also keeps you up to date about new arrivals, sales and discounts in different stores.
The second category was for apps targeted at different aspects of social development, like Birthday Forest that provides access to planting trees in community forests, parks and streets, and m-Varnamala, a learning app for kids that uses interactive graphics and games to develop motor skills in kids and teach Nepali, English and Maths. Under the third category are apps for personal utility and entertainment. NepalKhabar customizes news from various Nepali news sources. Similarly, nLocate, which is a personal utility as well as a business service app, gives its users relevant local information about different services, events and places in a particular locality.
Since most smart phone users are concentrated in urban areas like Kathmandu, the apps are also designed to meet their needs. While the cell phone penetration in Nepal, according to the Nepal Telecom data, has reached 70 percent this year, a significantly large portion of cell phone users, many from the lower economic class, still use traditional cell phones that don’t support smart phone apps. Keeping this in mind, a few tech companies have also been developing and providing various kinds of SMS-based services to address the needs of this demography. The SLC result through SMS service, developed by an up and coming tech company called SparrowSMS, is one among many SMS-based services that are currently in practice. Now people can send emails or make posts on Facebook without having an Internet connection by sending an SMS. Paybill is another SMS based service that allows its users to pay bills, shop online and subscribe to newspapers and magazines.
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The scenario looks promising but the challenges aren’t scarce either. Internet penetration, although rising, is doing so at a slow rate; so is the literacy rate which also determines to a certain extent the ability to use the services. Even in the smart-phone market, the app companies cannot sustain by selling their apps to Nepali customers due to challenges such as the lack of payment channels and an unprepared user-base.
In Nepal, however, being a fairly popular IT outsourcing destination for foreign companies, most IT startups depend on outsourced IT jobs to generate revenue that keeps them afloat. Amit Agrawal, CEO of Janaki Technologies – which runs SparrowSMS and provides IT solutions to businesses – says that his company survived its initial years by selling IT services to foreign companies. “But side by side, we were also working on our own projects anddeveloping our products,” he says, “Our goal was to reach a stage where we would be only doing our own work and selling our own products. Now we don’t do foreign projects anymore.”
A second way that IT companies collect revenue is by providing business transaction services and backhand services. eSewa, for instance, gets a certain percentage from every transaction made through it. nLocate on the other hand generates revenue by charging fee from the businesses that it features for any extra information that they want to provide to potential clients through the app.
When it comes to monetizing the applications, the future seems to lie in an advertising-supported model. A majority of Andriod and iOS users resist paying for apps. A study by the University of Cambridge showed that 73% of apps in the Android marketplace were free and out of those, 80% relied on advertising as their main business model. This is truer in the Nepali market where mobile technology is still a new thing. So utility apps like BattiGayo and Nepal Khabar that make information available conveniently, and for free alley have to rely on advertising strategies in order to generate revenue from apps alone.
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The issue is of trust when it comes to embracing new technology. It is especially true in Nepal where traditionally speaking, risk taking has never been an area of strength. According to Himal Niraula, Head of Sales at eSewa, gaining the trust of potential customers was the biggest challenge for the company during its initial years. ESewa first made it service available through its website in 2009. “People are used to making direct cash payments. Although there was some demand for electronic transactions, our potential users hesitated to entrust their money to the service,” says Mr. Niraula, “When eSewa was launched, clients would experiment with only Rs 200 to Rs 300 to try the service and remain on the safe side. Now we limit the amount of transaction to Rs 20,000.” Since its launch ESewa’s user-base has grown significantly. According to Mr. Niraula, ESewa had around 3000 users during the first year after its launch and now more than 180,000 people use the service, 60% of whom use it regularly. ESewa has also launched its Android app, which will make its services even more accessible. The increasing confidence in mobile phone services indicates a potentially great market for new IT and phone-based services.
Another factor affecting acceptance of technology in a market is also the ability to use the service afforded by it. Decreasing costs of mobile phones have made them ubiquitous, but in the context of a country like Nepal where the literacy rate is a little over 50%, availability of advanced technology does not necessarily mean people are going to use it. Deepen Chapagain of nLocate, says, “Much of the country’s revenue that comes from remittance is spent in buying smart phones, but that doesn’t guarantee that people are making smart use of smart phones.” In order to prepare the market for their products, IT companies will need to work on educating the users about the potential uses of their devices and creating a mature user-base. Before expecting people to use their phones for shopping or to get news updates, companies need to use marketing strategies to make people understand why they need such services in the first place. Unless users are adequately fluent in using the technology and are confident about its benefits, the market for new mobile services and apps will take much longer to expand.
A part of the solution lies in changing user behavior as increasing numbers of people become more dependent on their phones. The app nLocate gets several thousand searches every day and according to Mr. Chapagain, the highest number of searches it gets for any day is for ‘restaurants with WiFi’. These days most cafes and mid-range restaurants in Kathmandu are equipped with WiFi facilities. In such a scenario, this search is especially relevant because the demand for WiFi in urban areas clearly shows that it become a necessary part of urban life. With larger numbers of smartphone users and increasing Internet bandwidths, access through 3G services and WiFi, new trends in people’s habits and lifestyles might soon be observed. “People will have their eyes glued to digital screens on phones and tablets even while walking,” Mr. Chapagain says, “Advertising through bill boards and poster will become obsolete and businesses will have to find ways to reach out to customers through mobile phones.” While Mr. Chapagain’s vision may not materialize in any time near future, companies will soon need to be able to channel their products to their customers through mobile phones. Mobile technology may not completely replace all traditional methods, but it will definitely provide complementary channels which may be more convenient and efficient.
Connecting tech with business
With increasing interest in the field among youth and a growing number of IT institutions, Nepal is abounding with skilled manpower in the IT field. But building a really compelling app and putting it out there on appstores does not guarantee that people will take notice and use it. Above all, technical finesse is not enough for a tech startup to succeed. It needs proper understanding of the market and business strategies to generate revenue. “Technical expertise and business expertise needs to complement each other for an IT company to flourish,” says Mr. Chapagain. Most new IT ventures especially in mobile technology have been working independently, isolated from each other. “An efficient mobile ecosystem is yet to be established in Nepal,” says Prawesh Shrestha of Mobile Social Networking Nepal adding, “Programmers and IT experts have to come together to share their ideas and collaborate with the business field to look for solutions.”
An initiative of Young Innovations and World Bank, Mobile Social Networking Nepal is an organization that works to create a community of organizations and individuals who work around mobile technologies. Its goal is to provide a platform where mobile application developers, businesses and community members are able to generate ideas and initiate discussions around mobile technology and take it forward toward implementing the ideas collectively. It has been organizing various competitions, training programs and workshops in which new ideas get shared and discussed. It has also started Mobile Monday recently, a globally practiced open community platform for mobile industry professionals and visionaries to demonstrate products, share ideas and discuss trends in both local and global markets. At Mobile Monday’s first meeting, Medic Mobile introduced an SMS technology that can be used to communicate health related information to disconnected, rural communities through mobile phones. The audience was an enthusiastic but shy group of tech entrepreneurs and engineering college students. The interaction after the session was surprisingly strong, delving deeper into the particulars, raising technical and financial issues regarding the project.
Over the past decade, the role mobile technology is playing in Nepali society and the potential it has, has changed from a nicety to a necessity. Around the world, mobile phones are altering the course of social, economic and political system. They have become tools for fighting corruption, e-commerce, empowering women, providing education, bolstering health care, advertising – the list goes on. More importantly they have created a fertile new ground for new entrepreneurial ventures to grow, flourish and transform the very communities they are a product of. Nepal has yet to catch up with the rest of the world, but exciting opportunities lie everywhere. Students getting their results over SMS may be a good sign for the future of mobile technology in Nepal, but how long before students even in rural areas are studying and sharing their notes for exams through cell phones? Only time will tell.
PIVOT Nepal 2013: Nepal’s first app development competition Finalists went through 2 months of technical and business development training App Ideas
116 submitted selected as finalists in three categories 18
$1000-$3000 prize money to take their ideas further Winners in each category received and the overall winner received additional.
Race Your Town (Android):
Race Your Town is a gaming app developed by Ritesh Bhattarai and his team that can simulate any local street where gamers can play the racing game. By using Map API, the app can turn any street from google maps into a racing zone.
Parakhi Hotel Booking(Android):
This app version of Parakhi.com a hotel booking website is available on Android. It allows users to search and book hotels in Nepal. Mainly targeted for tourists, this app also provides information on local events, maps and weather.
TG (Trek Guide) (Android):
Developed by Santosh Dhakal and his team for PIVOT Nepal 2013, this app provides users easy access to information about various trekking destinations in Nepal. In addition to essential information regarding directions, time, cost, whereabouts of amenities and emergency numbers, it also give insights from previous trekkers and lets users upload their own experiences.
Fonepay (F1soft International):
Fonepay is a mobile payment network which enables mobile banking users of the partner banks to use their mobile as a wallet. Through Fonepay, users can transfer funds to any other partner bank account or pay any store that, which is a merchant of Fonepay without having to withdraw the funds using cards or cheque.
Hello Paisa (Finaccess Pvt. Ltd.):
Hello Paisa provides banking services, merchant services (that allows Hello Paisa associated businesses to accept mobile payments from hello paisa customers), money transfer services between individuals and bill payment services.
eSewa (F1soft): Web / App based e-payment tool
mCommerce or your phone as a wallet: Some mobile money/ wallet and mobile payment service providers in Nepal
Kathmandu, Biratnagar and Pokhara where most users are based Mobile Money & Mobile Khata (Laxmi Bank): Laxmi Bank’s Mobile Money service allows its customers to transfer money to other accounts, withdraw cash through remittance agents, pay phone and credit card bills and pay at restaurants or shops through mobile phones.
Storesmunk: Launched in PIVOT Nepal 2013 by Appsmunk
I paid a bribe (Android):
Developed by the team at Appsmunk, this android application and website allow users to anonymously report if they had paid bribe to get any work done. The app collects data from all users and locations. The idea is to come up with numbers since bribery and corruption data is scarce.
Other social utility services by Sparrow SMS
Fighting Violence Against Women: In collaboration with Yuwa, Sparrow SMS launched a Facebook group called Voices Heard, which allows people to post their views or report issues on VAW (Violence Against Women) also by SMS. The message can be typed on a cellphone and sent to 5455 and it will be automatically posted on the Facebook group in real time so it will be addressed by concerned individuals and social organizations according to the need of the post.
Donate Blood: To address the problem of shortage of blood in hospitals and blood bank during emergencies, SparrowSMS teamed up with Sankalpa Nepal to launch HamroBlood – which allows voluntary donors to register themselves with the National Database of Volunteer Blood donors. People in need of blood can then get the contact number of donors in their locality by typing the blood group and sending an SMS to 3001.
PicoVico (another product of Janaki Technologies): A Nepali App that is popular world wide
Co-creators: Manish Modi and Suraj Saptkota, PicoVico is an app available online and for the iPhone that allows users to create videos by blending photographs with text and music. A public beta version of the app was launched in March 2012 and in less the two weeks, its usage crossed 500+ users, 400+ videos and 3000+ views across all videos. Now from Facebook and Instragram users who love to click and share photos to photographers and business enterprises from all over the world have been using this tool. Currently according to its website, 300,000+ photos have been uploaded by its users. PicoVico was also selected for Start-Up Chile Fifth Generation, a program by the Chilean government that gathers high-potential entrepreneurs to bootstrap their start-ups in Chile, using it as a platform to go global.
Clever cash based on ads
(latest F1soft product) Cash-on-ad is an android app that plays six-second long advertisements during incoming calls. If the user receives the call after the full ad is played, the user receives 1 cent (Re. 1) for viewing the advert. Once the credit accumulates to over 10 dollars, the user can retrieve the money either through eSewa, paypal or check. Shiran Tech the company that developed the app receives revenue with every app viewed. The company launched the app in Nepal for a trial period, but it soon plans to go global.