KATHMANDU, Sept 2: Dr Sanjay Kumar’s personal “light bulb moment” was a bit more literal than those of other young Nepalese entrepreneurs and inventors.
“I remember looking around at Nepal’s complete darkness and comparing it to China’s good lighting system,” he said of the origin of his business idea.
While on placement in China three years ago, the medical doctor found himself amazed by the country’s use of LED systems to light up its huge metropolises.
Compared to existing bulbs used widely across Nepal, said Kumar, LED is 90 per cent more energy efficient and doesn’t contain the harmful poison, Mercury.
Enter into the equation the Opalite: a LED bulb that the entrepreneur has been manufacturing and selling to Nepalese shopkeepers for the last three months.
At just 28-years-old, Kumar is part of a new generation of progressive Nepalese that thinks outside the box to create new local business opportunities and growth.
Yet entrepreneurship here is still very much in its infancy, especially when compared to the US, where even companies like Facebook and YouTube all began as college projects.
Surath Giri, a research associate for Samriddhi, an NGO that works with young entrepreneurs, said there are many barriers for emerging ventures.
“Nepal is doing very poorly with economic freedoms and its public policy for businesses,” he said, adding that “non-competitive practice” was also rife.
Giri said labor laws are another problem, with many businessmen choosing to hire just nine staffers: the magic number, as employees can legally start a union once they number 10.
For Kumar, the major business hurdle so far has been funding. “It’s very troublesome to ask for money,” he said. “We don’t know how to do it.”
His LED business, Opal Nepal, is currently funded by his full-time salary and those of two other business partners, one also a doctor and the other an engineer.
Many entrepreneurs find the process of funding and capital especially daunting, with the majority of financial institutions apprehensive of investing in young, high-risk start-ups.
This is changing, with institutions like Himalayan Bank and Mega Bank beginning to target small-to-medium enterprises; however, some existing capital is usually required.
But Ujwal Thapa, co-founder of Entrepreneurs for Nepal, said lack of funding shouldn’t be a reason for not launching a good business idea. “I think a lack of funds is an excuse given by a lot of people,” he said, adding that social and political instability were also no reasons to put off launching a business.
He said that young entrepreneurs need to be imaginative in their funding, looking first at self-investment, and then towards those closest to the business.
“In Nepal we have a strong family network. Entrepreneurs need to convince their loved ones to invest,” he said.
Of course, convincing parents to invest their life savings is never easy, especially with the concept of entrepreneur still so new to Nepal.
“We need more of a culture of appreciating entrepreneurs. It is slowly happening in Nepal,” said Thapa.
Speaking at a Last Thursday event this week, famed Nepalese entrepreneur, Mahabir Pun, said a successful entrepreneur “finds way to do things even if there is no funding”.
“They don’t hesitate to do things even if it is risky for their lives or even if it is illegal,” he said of his notorious gung-ho ways.
Persistence, “learning by doing”, and working in tandem with local communities for grassroots business ideas were also important, said Pun.
The benefits for Nepalese society are innumerable: growth, diversity, social activism, and escape from poverty and marginalization are just some of the advantages.
Companies across Nepal are starting to take notice of these benefits, like Surya Nepal Asha and The Seed Initiative, both now seeking entrants in upcoming social entrepreneur competitions.
For Opal Nepal’s co-founder, the benefits aren’t either competitive or financial – turning a profit takes longer than just three months – but they are both social and spiritual.
“I like it that I can educate people about why we are in darkness,” said Sanjay Kumar, adding that it was rewarding to help Nepalese society save both electricity and money.
Ever the entrepreneur, Kumar is now launching into a second production: “e-cigarette” nicotine inhalers designed to help Nepalese quit smoking.