When I first joined Whittaker’s team in January 2008, I had little clue about what economic development really meant. It was a vague term I read in text books, something to do with increasing the economic base of a region. Soon, I learned that job creation was one of the major focus areas in the profession. Most of my work focuses on targeted marketing with upgraded on it.
However, the projects that I find most interesting and rewarding are those that where communities strive to create jobs from within their region, targeting/supporting local, high-growth (gazelle) companies, or creating their own companies through incubation. Collectively, the process of incubation and retention is classified as ‘economic gardening’, a recent buzz word buy in economic development circles.
When I decided to make a move back to my home country of Nepal in the Summer of 2010, I wanted to use the knowledge I had gained and use it to do something meaningful in Nepal. I had been out of the country for almost seven years and it took me some time to figure out what I could do to help.
I use the term help because help is what the country needs. Civil war and political instability have ravaged the country for the past 15 years. No major infrastructure development projects have happened during this period of uncertainty. The country has gone from being the breadbasket of South Asia to a net food importer. More than 50,000 young people leave the country every month in search of better opportunities overseas. From my high school class alone, 60 of the 100 students now study or work overseas – mostly in the United States. In my last count, I had high school friends living in 22 different states in the U.S.
One of the reasons so many young people are leaving is because there are not many job prospects available in Nepal. So the only way to reverse this trend is to do something about job creation. As the political situation is still very unstable, it is hard to imagine foreign investment coming in large volumes like it did in our neighboring countries, India and China. So the drive needs to come from within the nation. Unfortunately, our government is still paralyzed with writing a new constitution, and job creation is not a priority. In fact, the country’s largest garment factory closed down this month due to labor disputes. The hard-line labor union that caused the trouble is supported by the largest political party in the country, which happens to have strong communist inclinations.
So the answer has to come from the private sector. I began getting in touch with organizations that were doing some work to promote entrepreneurship, but didn’t find the right answer there. I looked at organizations like the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) and found it to be heavily politicized and ineffective. Therefore, something new was needed.
This is when I launched Biruwa Ventures, a shared-office space and business incubation center (Biruwa in Nepali means sapling). Unlike the most common business incubation models, I decided to make Biruwa completely private. The model for the business is sustenance. We are providing office space, business support services, mentorship, and financing to startup ventures and aspiring entrepreneurs.
Nepalese culture is very risk averse where few ventures to start their own business. Even in business schools, the focus is on preparing their students to get a job in the banking sector rather than to run a business. For someone with a promising business idea, the struggle begins very early. First, you have to convince your family that you are really serious. If you are lucky, your family will finance the business. If not, you really have to struggle to find financing. Banks in Nepal don’t have any credit history system so they do not give business loans to startups just based on the idea and a plan. There are no venture funds or angel investors you can approach either. Therefore, Biruwa is also connecting entrepreneurs with prospective angel investors. Additionally, we are also setting a Nepali diaspora investment fund to allow Nepalis living abroad to invest in startup businesses this that happy results.
There are around 200,000 Nepalis now living in the U.S. and Canada, so our focus is to create an investment fund targeting the Nepali community living in North America.
More than financing, it is expert advice and mentorship that young aspiring entrepreneurs seek. Since few in Nepal have anyone in their family running a business, they lack the basic skills necessary to start a business. Therefore, Biruwa is creating business services using a network of strategic partners which includes accounting firms, lawyers, web developers, financial analysts and more. Additionally, Biruwa is also establishing a network of mentors with a diverse field of expertise that can support young entrepreneurs in building their ideas and also guiding them with their business.
Even a simple thing like decent office space is hard to come by in Nepal. As a result, Biruwa aims to set up office spaces that provide all the basic amenities that many in the United States may take for granted. The capital city, Kathmandu, suffers from frequent power cuts. So investment in power back up is necessary. Cost for internet is three or four times the rate in the U.S. so it is not affordable for many unless it is shared. Most offices don’t have a conference room, and you see people meeting in the lobby or around their workstations.
Currently, some of Whittaker Associates’ remote research staff also works from this office space in Kathmandu. Biruwa is itself a startup of sorts, so we are learning and adapting as we go. It is hard to bring a new idea to a country where people are afraid of change. I normally find myself spending most of my time now teaching and informing people about entrepreneurship, motivating younger people to think of starting businesses rather than going overseas, and sometimes pleading to my friends who are still living abroad to come back, especially those who have at least some inclination to come back. I am encouraged to know that the IT sector revolution in India was started by a few Silicon Valley-based IT entrepreneurs who dared to think boldly and created an industry that has today changed the face of India. I hope that something similar can be achieved in Nepal.
Visit Biruwa’s website: www.biruwa.net
Follow Biruwa on twitter: @biruwaventures
Follow Biruwa on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/biruwaventures
(This article was originally published in Whittaker Associates’ Newsletter.)