is Kathmandu a new Silicon Valley?

Since the past 2 years, the new wave of tech companies and startups have increased, and herein lies the genuine winds of change for Nepal. It’s about time everyone took notice and a step forward.

If you’ve watched the movie The Social Network, you know what a startup is, and the potential of technology, and the men and women of Google Developers Group (GDG) Nepal all share a passion to change the way we do things with just an idea. The drive to achieve that goal of these tech entrepreneurs can only be challenged by their unfaltering tenacity to confront head-on the constraints that only affect a Nepali. These risk-takers endeavor to build and nurture an ecosystem that would benefit all and strive to evolve Nepal towards a better future. Unhinging their mechanics, their challenges, their possibilities and their potential solutions, starts off with one important question.

Does Google Care About Nepal?
“Yes, with gusto!” begins Bhupal Sapkota, “They see Nepal as an emerging country with a lot of untapped opportunities. We love the independence they provide, and though our activities and the opinions expressed are in no way linked to Google, their support never falters.” True to Google’s words, it has provided advisors, technicians, financial resources, one-on-one talks with Google representatives, and early access to developer resources, products, and international conferences.

As soon as Google opened doors on 2011 for other countries to start their own local GDG chapters, Sapkota grabbed the opportunity and June 22 of that year saw the first event from GDG at Himalaya College of Engineering. “My love affair with Google started since the internet first grabbed Nepal. I wondered how many minds this innovation had captured,” explains Sapkota. He got his answer with a strong GDG membership of 500 Google enthusiasts. Together they plan events and meet-ups to discuss, share ideas and experiences, and collaborate regarding everything under the Google sun: Android, Maps, Chrome OS, Google App Engine, Google Engine and Google Data APIs.

That Wednesday saw an impressive number of 50 engineering students, Google Dev supporters, and members who took the first step to initiate an ecosystem of kindred minds that love everything Google and believes in the tremendous potential of technology. This common interest has attracted members from all walks of life as anyone can join GDG as long as they have a vivid interest in Google and software development.

GDG receives most of its requests from colleges, from enthusiastic young minds interested in the potential of startups and the technology. Thoroughly connected through Google Hangout, Gmail, GTalk and their mailing list, they have conducted two successful workshops in Pokhara, one in Chitwan and two in Kathmandu with top-notch professors, instructors and developers who provide on-spot training and brainstorm sessions for a 3-4 hours time period with a mere entrance cost of Rs. 100, and since then have strived to nurture an infant ecosystem.

“Believe it or not, the growth of new internet users has been the same for the past 2-3 years, and Google is amused to say the least,” says Sapkota. And the cause may lie in the language barrier that may have excluded the entire half of the Nepali populace. Since Google’s motto has always been to provide accessible and organized information to everyone for free, they have stressed enthusiastically on localization, giving GDG a great boost in lieu of the mass of talented developers in Nepal. This localization of all Google products, from maps to translation to search engine, can put Nepal on a global map and help Google improve their products as well. This national opportunity has members of GDG receiving direct employment and freelancing opportunities from top international companies. “We have come a long way with our group,” says Sapkota, “And the feedback we get from their regional representative is golden.”

“Have you noticed how Google Maps for Nepal has evolved within the last 4-5 years?” begins Keshav Maharjan, a GDG member who works on Google MapMaker, the cloud-sourcing tool for populating Google Maps. Maharjan joined GDG with the motto ‘Help each other and both shall win’ and create a platform for beginners to learn and for the experienced to share. “Tourists can ditch their hard copies of maps, and just pick up their cell phones to navigate Pokhara or Namche Bazaar. No one will get lost as long as they’re connected to Google,” says Sapkota.

“There are concrete issues that need to be dealt with now but I see many opportunities. Since early 2009, citizen cartographers have contributed to make the map of Nepal better. If you’ve got a Gmail ID, you can responsibly add features to Google Maps. Moreover, efforts shown by Google to contact and communicate with Nepali developers and invite them along in this ride is inspiring and admirable to say the least. Just a weeks ago they invited me to their headquarters for the “Geo for Good User Summit 2013” participated by 120 selected people from 30 different countries from all 7 continents,” says Maharjan, who aims to work on more Google products.

GDG has conducted workshops and training on Google MapMaker in Kathmandu and Pokhara in 2012 and this year in Kathmandu too during DevFest Kathmandu.

Sudarshan Pant was already trying to get in touch with Android developers through his Facebook group for Nepali Android developers when he was studying in S. Korea. He was more than ecstatic in 2012 when he came to know about GDG Kathmandu through Sapkota. He says, “for an emerging market like Nepal, Google provides robust, faster and easier development tools, programming languages and libraries that make app development, distribution and management easier and effective.”

App developers like Sapkota can charge up to Rs. 70,000 from international customers that require his expertise, while Sudarshan Pant, a Sr. Android developer at TekTak Nepal, has amassed a total of 222,200 (and counting) downloads of his various mobile apps.

Passionate about Android development, Pant has developed apps such as Baghchal, UkhanTukka, Loadshedding+, Fontoosh, and Nepali Videos. “Baghchal is also a popular traditional board game in Nepal so I thought it would be great to have this on my phone and upload it to the Play store for others to play.”

With his apps, Pant’s main purpose has been to promote Nepali content in a readable Devanagari script as versions of Android didn’t support Devanagari fonts. Loadshedding+, another utility app became popular when they introduced flashlight, custom notifications along with the load shedding schedule in Nepali, while Fontoosh, a font Installer utility app, found a huge demography in India as it helps to install fonts in rooted android devices with just a tap. Another famous app for people abroad was Nepali Videos, popular among Nepali Android users for its organized and convenient list of Nepali content from YouTube.

However, Pant admits there needs to be a better and proper business model in these free apps to generate good revenue.
His prediction: Google has a lot to offer for development of Information technology in Nepal in near future.

Game On:
Bhattarai sees Google as an inspiration and believes that since its products continue to grow, we should too.

“As a developer, I have developed several games of different genres; educational ones like     “Everyday Words”, “Rhyming Words”, “Penguin Jump math”, classic Nepali games like “Water Game”, “5 Balls Challenge”, racing games like “Moto Stunt Mania”,  “Glow Racer” and other several fun games like “The Egg Drop”, “Tap Reflex”, and “Go Banana”. Some games have been downloaded more than 100,000 times. There is also a game called “Hanuman- Mission Sanjeevani” where Lord Hanuman travels to get Sanjeevani by defeating monsters on the way. Bhattarai aims to release these games for iOS, Windows Mobile and PC as well. Always engrossed with his smartphone, Bhattarai further explains, “For game development, having a device to test is very important, and testing with the emulator is slow and not always feasible, so I find my Android phone extremely useful with Gmail being my favorite Google product. These are exciting times,, and developers think so too, as there is talk of officially adding Nepali in Google Translate.

The Woes of Women:
“Currently out of the 500 GDG members, only 55 are women,” says Sovita Dahal, a software test engineer and women moderator of GDG. She tests applications to ensure the quality of the products also comes from female representatives, and appreciates the fact that GDG conducts women-centric training programs and workshops on Android and web application development like the recent Startup Weekend: Women Edition, but laments the low turnout. “We are glad they showed up,” continues Dahal, “but we would’ve been rapturous to witness more.”

Dahal, suggests that the low number might be due to parental perceptions of costs versus/benefits of educating girls, lack of confidence and self-esteem, lack of female role models and career counseling, and advice. “If you love developing apps and games, you should join GDG. We train people, and give our seminars on coding. Google has created an incredible reason to unite by officially recognizing GDG Kathmandu and GDG Pokhara, which is a great thing for the local community and developers. Now, it’s our job to create opportunities here.”

The Startup Network
Painting Nepal Yellow
“With thousands of check-ins via social media every day, people like to talk about what, where and who they are eating with, how the food is, and if they want to recommend the place”, says Shrestha. Hence, Yellow aims to be a personalized location based restaurants search service. Along with nearby restaurants, Yellow provides information of nearby fresh discounts and events with intuitive navigation system and app-personalization according to the user’s food preference and moods. Users can get real-time notifications accordingly to their favorite eateries and receive reminders in calendars. “This free app can be a boon for food lovers, party people and people who to want to experiment, or share a quiet time somewhere,” says Shrestha, adding reasons enthusiastically. The app aims to generate revenue through business listings of restaurants and food-dining business, along with the offers, events and location based ads and services with urban Kathmanduites as their target demography and plans to expand their reach to other major cities in Nepal with their launch in mid-December.

“As an engineer, I draw a lot of inspiration from Gmail. It’s always fascinating to be able to creat, and innovate things that people find useful in their everyday lives,” says Shrestha who relishes the continuous cycle of finding a problem, inventing, innovating and solving, all using technology.

“Google, once a-startup, has been quite active lately in Nepal and has definitely left a definite impression. The payment gateway definitely needs to improve, but as two heads are better than one, Google and GDG can definitely create multiple opportunities. Moreover, Google has started to appreciate our work globally. Two years ago, rarely anyone talked about startups and being their own boss. Now, the seed of entrepreneurship has been sown.”

The Power in Threads
With 5 lakhs revenue till date, and a selling point of 400 t-shirts per month, Threadpaints has have gained a good name because of their product. “If a product is good, nothing can stop it to reach its global potential”, says Shrestha, who believes in the talent of Nepal and is optimistic about the upgrade of technology of Nepal

“Our strategy is to acquire the Kathmandu market first, and then reach out to other parts in Nepal, and then potentially South Asia,” continues Shrestha “There is no lack of skill and there is a genuine interest amongst the current generation. We just need more support from the older, alongside better laws and regulation from the government. People do not assume this as a valid profession or career path. For instance, during the women edition of Startup Weekend, we saw a less number of female turn-ups. I think women are not attracted to it due to social values. A lot of courage is required for this venture, but I’m hopeful that this mentality will change soon.” Threadpaints receives a lot of feedback through phone calls and claims Facebook their arsenal for publicity and sharing goodwill, and utilizing this asset, they are even planning a new project, Butta, where anyone can come up with a design for the shirts. The design will then undergo a voting process amongst the consumers.

“One of the challenges we faced was the transaction, not because of banks or international rules, but Nepalis were not ready to trust in digital transactions. There are a lot of good gateways that serves local needs perfectly, but through our survey, we found an utter lack of trust of handing over money to the internet, so we substituted to a payment on delivery method. The need of proper cyber laws is now.”

Shrestha, who loves working with apps such as “HTC Tasks” and “Catch”, states the government needs to provide better security for investors and entrepreneurs. “Sadly, there are rarely any investments, because I think there is a lack of really good projects that immediately catches the eye. Moreover, the idea must also inspire the investor. S/he can also act as a mentor” continues Shrestha, “Anyone can have an idea. It just requires some common sense. If you’ve thought of an idea, someone somewhere has already thought of one. But the main difference is who acts, first and there are a lot of risks involved. People pool all their financial resources and they can come to the street easily. The government needs to encourage risk-taking.”

Party with Mother Earth
With co-founders, Roshan Karki, Dhruva Prajapati, and Anju Kumar Mahat, Ghimire discovered that there was an unavailability of suitable land for plantation, lack of knowledge of nurseries and their location, and a difficulty in taking care of planted trees, “Starting Birthday Forest only seemed logical.” he says.

After winning in the “Social Development Category”, at Pivot Nepal 2013, Ghimire, a GDG member and an Android App Development trainer, invested considerable time and lakhs of his own money in marketing his product and services to bringing sufficient customers throughout the year for generating sustainable revenue. Popular among an urban age group of 15-40, Birthday Forest is a non-profit company that aims to make planting trees at the click of a button or with a phone call, and started their services in the vacant lands of Gaukhureshwor Community Forest (Dhulikhel), Sathikhel Women Community Forest, and Pharping and Dollu Community Forest. For Rs. 980, Forest also provides the GPS location of the planted trees, a photo update of the tree every six months for the duration of 3 years, and a guarantee that the tree will be replaced if it dies. Through customer feedback, they are working to plant trees in urban areas rather than community forests, and are visiting government offices to plant trees on the banks of rivers and the side of roads of Kathmandu.

“International success stories have definitely inspired many and it has been surprisingly possible due to the tremendous problems we have in Nepal,” says Ghimire, “It seems entrepreneurs are keen on solving those problems and not just blaming the government by finding innovative solutions and then building business models on top of it. Startups are collaborating with each other for mutual benefits too. Payment gateway startups like eSewa and Machnet have become a backbone for e-commerce startups. One startup becoming a linchpin for another is the greatest opportunity that I see for all startups.”

Ghimire aims for Birthday Forest to be the largest plantation company of the country and initiate services in other South Asian countries as well through the help of local companies in other countries. He says, “All of this has been possible through GDG meet-ups, and collaborations with other startups like Help Me Help You which have provided crucially important advice.”
How Help Me Help You Is Helping Everyone:

Since June, HMHY, a startup initiated by Sapkota, Ashish Rai and Dhruva Adhikari, have united with a singular vision of facilitating startups, extending the network of early stage entrepreneurs and creatine an open and collaborative entrepreneurial ecosystem. In short, HMHY is a startup for startups.

HMHY used to be a simple two to three person, mostly serendipitous, meet-up. Today, it is inclusive of various startup founders discussing the various hustles of a startup. They look after volunteering in conferences, seek new mentors and advice from veterans, and facilitate on getting things done by providing sound advice around design, distribution, and startup metrics to highly accelerate the process of product development and exposure. “The entrepreneurial advice typically comes from people who’ve been there before or are right there with you fighting in the trenches”, says Rai.
Such a network of startup founders and early stage entrepreneurs can definitely fill the gap, even in small ways, and can act as accelerators and incubators in the near future. “It all happened because startups have gained a lot of traction as they saw a lot of web and mobile opportunities, especially e-commerce, by applying unique changes to the venture models and being inspired by local startups that are closer to home (India, Singapore and Indonesia) which have gone wildly successful and raised millions of dollars in funding.”

HMHY is also stressing a lot on the future of women. “As it is, there is less number of female enrollments in studies after the 10th grade. There are also less female success stories in entrepreneurships, lesser female role models, and a lack of female presenters that might encourage female would-be founders to assimilate courage and believe that it can be done. Everyone considers startups to be a boys’ thing and there is a lack of “geekiness” among women. There should be no hesitation, and more anti-harassment policies should be enforced,” says Sapkota. Through such sentiments; HMHY aims this vision of growth not just toward startups, but for Nepal as a whole.

Popping the startup bubble:
Lost In Transaction:
Developers agree that Google’s Play Store is not yet fully pragmatic for Nepal as they can’t submit the registration fee ($25) for their apps, and can’t generate revenues from registered apps. Users also can’t buy paid apps due to banking issues. “However Nepali banks have been providing fairly good service in the local market, “says Pant. Dahal adds, “Online payment is a nightmare in Nepal. At least our debit cards and bank account should be able to initiate cross-bank transactions both online and offline. For this all commercial banks should unite to provide a more centralized banking experience.” Developers are not able to publish paid apps or integrate in-app payment and can’t attract international customers. The regulators like NRB hasn’t promulgated laws to oversee connections with the international banks. Nepali banks need to work much more closely with payment gateways like eSewa.

Investment + Mentorship  = Zero
Even the Karate Kid needed a mentor. “In Nepal, even if it’s a million dollar idea, there is a lack of mentors, investors, incubators, accelerators and funding.” says Bhattara.. There seems to be zero awareness among would-be investors, and the public’s trust is not fully with startups and digital payments. With the fear of failing, amidst a lack of public trust in digital payments, very few investors are enthused with fewer mentors to guide startups

A dead ecosystem:
“Most of my clients are from outside Nepal. Working independently is difficult for games alone. You’d either have to have the knowledge of both coding and designing or hire a graphic designer or buy the game graphics.” says Bhattarai. With no concrete ecosystem, interested investors or mentors have no idea where to go to share their knowledge.

Women, Woeful:
“Women face additional problems from a lack of family support, financial insecurity, and an inability to balance personal and professional livee, as they have to manage their family along with their job,” says Dahal adding, “But a more pressing matter can be seen in the lack of national female role models and motivating factors. Founding a startup is frowned upon as it is, and a woman starting one can be rarely seen as society rarely encourages and backs such risk-taking behavior. ”

There seems to be a drought of laws and regulations that protects investor, or accelerators and incubators from bankruptcy, or encourages startup founders with funds, accelerators or incubators.  The problem lies not in technology but can be seen in financial policy which restricts the flow of money, nationally and internationally.

No idea in a shining armor:
“Developers and founders should not complain about banking issues and focus their energy around negativity. We need an idea that’s global in demand, and the government will listen. Everyone will automatically listen.” Adhikari articulates, “Why do you think Google or Apple or Facebook is not at each other’s throats to buy some company from Nepal?”

The sloth known as the internet:
Startups based in e-commerce suffer the most from slow internet. “Moreover, the internet is not slow. High speed is just very costly”, continues Sapkota, “We have been paying almost 10times more than what the Japanese pays per byte. The ISPs should be responsible. There is a collective lost here from all the slow uploading, downloading, deploying, researching, and sharing difficulties.”

The Team:
Most founders, and even employees, think they will be millionaires in seconds, but this business sees a lot of turnovers, as the job does not consist of benefit packages. Most founders run the company from their own pocket money, or their primary salaries. It’s hard to retain good developers and commit them long-term. Moreover, members should focus on a particular topic, stick to it and not falter.

Regional confusion:
Nepal has Development Regions, aanchal, jilla, nagarpalika, gaun, panchayat, tole and so on which hinders package delivery and mapping systems. This creates a lot of waste and loss, productively and financially.

A Step Forward
(A Chance to) get the edge:
Google gains an edge from other search engines by their mapping work in Nepal as no other company seems to be doing it. Other companies should learn from Google. This can spike tourism with better maps, and Google’s image globally.

The promise of App Jhola:
Sapkota’s new venture “App Jhola” is a Nepali App Store curating only apps made by Nepali developers. This can promote local competitions by featuring it in the Editor’s Choice or Recommended Sections.

The Government must heed the call:  With the new election, this is the right time for the government to adopt proper economic policies which clearly supports the IT industry and trains Nepali youth for entrepreneurship. The government can help by bringing reforms in the current educational model. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are top advocates of how everyone should learn to code a computer. There should be an increase in digital literacy and financial education for students in early schoolings. The government should also collaborate with IT communities for conducting various educational programs, and more app competitions like Startup Weekend, and Pivot Nepal. The winner can receive various technical and financial suppors to launch their startup. “If a software startup product is better and promising, government can encourage them by usine their products throughout government offices,” advises Bhattarai, while Dahal adds, “Investing in other national problems like loadshedding, low internet, and bad roads can work charms, while stabalising the country politically  can encourage foreign investors.”  The government should take a leaf out of the Chilean, Norwegian and Danishtgovernment. who back and funds incubator programs to build a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem ,” adds Rai.

How banks can profit themselves:
Banks should unite to provide centralized banking experiences and provide better investments, accelerators and incubators programs. If banks provids loans to the student after graduation at zerotinteres, after seeing their business’s viability, it can maks a bigddifference toward uplifting the startup ecosystem. Likewise, banks can work hand-in-hand with eSewa and Paybill for the benefit of both, promotionally and financially, and getean edge over other banks.

Information, intertwined:
“Mobile ecosystem has grown very rapidly and GDG has always encouraged and supported use and promotion of freesplatforms like Android. With mobile technologys we can develop world class mobile applications in every sector, from healthcare an, data collection t, entertainment an, information rightc. This is a huge and highly paid market,” says Sapkota.

The power of Language:
It’s free to help Google translate Nepali into English, and vice-versa, with just your Gmail and this can open doors for many other opportunities. Sapkota is in talks with a prestigious and successful international mobile company to produce cheaper phones with pre-installed Nepali apps for rural areas.dThis could open gates for plenty of new startups.

Lost packages:
As e-commerce is one of the leading sectors for startups, regional addressing systems needs to be implemented immediately. This will reduce cost of delivery of items and goods that startups sell online.

For The Wonder Women of Nepal:
“There should be a provision and priority of scholarship for education of the girl child, and vocational and technological programs linked directly with employment,” says Dahal.  Girls needs to be taught not to fear risks, and not to think of math or science as subjects only boys can excel at.

And the award goes to…:
Awards may seem petty and superficial, but recent functions like the Surya Nepal Asha Social Entrepreneurship Award are facilitating and encouraging people. Hackathons, industry trade shows, conferences, and networking events inspire developers. The winners of the upcoming Startup Weekend even get to visit Google HQ and get professional training. Such incentives definitely push this ecosystem with encouragement and optimism.

The face of a Leader:
The government should invest in social leaders rather than political leaders for bringing innovations from thetgrassroots level. Only successful social leaders can motivate people to do things in a better way

A shining product:
After all is said and done, the product or services should have a uniqueness factor. Startups should be flexible enough to test MVP regularly and should have a feedback loop for re-iterating its product/services to meet customer needs and make ths startup successful.

The answer is in the team:
For a good startup, a continuous and cordial communication between the users and developers is crucial. A team with various skill set can also prove to be beneficial. Each team member should believe in the core idea and be ready to cacrifice everything for the startup. A great team can do wonders to develop a raw idea into a successful entrepreneurial venture.

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