Himalayan aspiration: Mobile startups take off from Nepal

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The annual conference of the Computer Association of Nepal kicked off with the theme  ‘Mobile Technology for a Smart Society’, and showcased a range of mobile innovations pioneered in this Himalayan country. The event drew together a range of IT professionals, industry captains, government officials, academics and entrepreneurs, and also included a six-day IT exhibition.

For its population of 27 million, Nepal has 83.4% teledensity – and mobiles account for 88% of this penetration; internet adoption in Nepal is at 27.9% — and 93% of this is via mobile, according to sources cited by government officials.

“Mobile media calls for multidisciplinary approaches to humanise and socialise technology,” urged Kant Jha, Minister, Science Technology and Environment, Nepal.

Models and frameworks

I was honoured to speak at the conference, and shared with the audience my  ‘8 Cs’  framework of mobiles in the knowledge society: connectivity, content, community, commerce, capacity, culture, cooperation, capital. In other words, the mobile ecosystem is best analysed via not just penetration statistics, but also the usefulness of local content, cohesion of online and offline communities, technology and design skills, industry cooperation, and investment models.

I had spoken over a dozen years ago at the 2001 edition of the CAN IT conference, and a lot has clearly changed since then, ranging from technology to cross-sectoral dialogue!

Many emerging economies are now being regarded as ‘mobile first’ or even ‘mobile only,’ depending on cross-media access for citizens. I also presented my model of ‘smart society’ as one which thinks locally and globally, harnesses traditional and new knowledge, and promotes prosperity as well as inclusion and empowerment.

Much attention these days focuses on the convergence of mobile and social media, which gives users a range of powers: awareness, influence, advocacy, authority, velocity, generosity, reach, and richness. However, not all societies are the same when it comes to embracing mobile media: they vary along the maturity curve of being phobic, neutral, aware, capable, centric, and transformed via mobile.

A range of awards and competitions focus on recognising such mobile excellence around the world: World Summit Awards Mobile, mBillionth Awards and YourStory’s MobileSparks.

South Asia Spotlight

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Examples of mobile innovation from other South Asian countries were also shared at the Nepal conference. Abdur Razzaque: head of the Samsung Innovation Lab in Bangladesh, showcased the ‘Find For Me’ smart mobile app which connects users to emergency service providers via mobiles and WiFi.

Triggers for creating the FindMe app were Bangaldesh’s Tajrin garment factory fire tragedy, the Nimtoli building collapse, and the alarming rise of rape incidents, explained Razzaque.

Other apps rolled out by the Bangladesh lab include Hajj Wizard (for pilgrims), Secret Treasure (exploratory learning for kids), Sohoj Sanchoy (personal finance management), Precision Agriculture (fertiliser/irrigation management for farmers), and Driver Distraction Management (for traffic safety).

“Mobiles represent opportunities unlocked,” explained Razzaque. The business impacts of mobiles arise from the confluence of “connect, collect, convert,” he described.

Policy and regulation

Mobile operators are a major ICT force in Nepal. “The mobile operator plays a key role in a country during and after natural disasters, by aggregating information and services,” said Reena Dongol, Deputy Manager, Nepal Telecom.

“Nepal has 6.2 million GPRS users, and USSD has been recently started. More marketing and consumer education are needed to promote 3G services and go beyond basic information and entertainment,” Dongol added.

She urged regulatory intervention to reduce conflict between VAS providers, and manage licensing, revenue sharing, copyright, privacy, and financial transactions.

The government of Nepal is also considering giving free wireless internet via WiMax to its citizens, said Rameswor Khanal, former advisor to the Prime Minister.

But policies and vigilance also need to be tightened up over mobile security, urged Praneeta Upadhyaya, research scholar at Tribhuvan University; she classified approaches to IT security threats into four kinds: prevention, detection, mitigation, and response.

Young blood: mobile startups in Nepal

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One of the highlights of the two-day conference and six-day exhibition was a showcase of mobile startups and entrepreneurs from Nepal.

Amit Agrawal, CEO of Janaki Tech, showcased a range of his company’s offerings, ranging from SMS alert services for companies (via SparrowSMS) to rich-media content.

Feature phones dominate the mobile market in Nepal, followed by Android and Apple smartphons. “Mobiles have even reached Mt. Everest’s base camps,” joked Agrawal.

IVRS can be excellent for Nepal – especially agricultural information for illiterate farmers, but there have been challenges in implementation, observed Agrawal.

“We provide SMS services for the labour ministry and home ministry, such as checking passport information,” said Agrawal. He also gave a demo of other apps developed in Nepal like Swiper, which displays ads during idle time.

Amit’s Janaki Tech has received support from Startup Chile, and the company’s Picovico video-making service was also selected for The Morpheus Ventures, a startup accelerator based in India.

Three entrepreneurs in Kathmandu, alumni of the Nepal College of IT – Asghar Ali, Subash Sharma and Biswas Dhakal – have teamed up to launch a series of inter-locked startups over the last few years: F1 Soft (mobile banking), F1 Pay (eSewa payment gateway), Shirantech (mobile app development), Dharmatech (enterprise software), Shiran Media (digital marketing), and Cash&Ad (ad featured when a mobile call is received).

They have also evolved a unique “One Entrepreneur Per Year” model whereby promising employees are groomed and mentored across functional roles to head new startups incubated within; this helped reduce attrition and create the next wave of startup leaders, said Dhakal.

The winners of the Pivot Nepal 2013 startups competition were nLocate (in the category Utilities and Entertainment), eSewa (for Business and Financial Services) and Birthday Forest (for Social Development), according to Prawesh Shrestha, project engineer at Young Innovations.

Mobile Monday (www.MobileMonday.net), the global network of mobile startups, also established a chapter in Kathmandu in June 2013. In the m-health sector, Health at Home (www.healthathome.com.np) provides in-house and remote healthcare services for senior citizens.

Another established entrepreneur in the music space is Sachida Rauniyar, founder of world music label SAC Music. His company promotes the music of local artistes such as Kutumba, Trikaal and Ani internationally via digital sales on the iTunes store. Annual festivals such as the Kathmandu Jazz Festival are becoming prominent hubs for the creative community as well.

Mobile payments and financial inclusion

Nepal-3Sanjay Bahadur Shah, founder of Hello Paisa, explained how financial inclusion powered by mobile payment helps attain key economic and social goals for Nepal. “A successful mobile financial services ecosystem needs effective regulation, distribution networks, and consumer education,” said Shah.

But he cautioned that over-stringent “know your customer” due diligence regulations in Nepal can become “kill your customer!”

As a case study, he cited the Afghanistan Police Force, which pays salaries via operator Roshan Mobile – leading to 10% savings due to elimination of ‘ghost’ middlemen who used to pocket salary money. Mobile payment has also been used for gathering relief funds after disasters in Nepal, and payment of healthcare workers.

“Mobile financial services can help create more security and prosperity in Nepal. The journey has just begun,” said Shah.

Himal Karmacharya , CEO, Leap Frog, said there are very real opportunities for Nepal to leapfrog via mobile technology. 17.4 per cent of global Web traffic comes from mobile devices; m-commerce sales have doubled in a year, accounting for a quarter of total online sales, he said.

“Mobiles are bringing about a confluence of location, payment and content,” Karmacharya explained. Amazon reportedly generates $5 billion a year in m-commerce sales, thanks to its features such as mobile affiliate network and price check services via barcode scan on smartphones.

The eSewa online payment gateway is used for bill payments, ticket purchases, college fees, and receiving foreign remittances. It includes 70 banks, 10 remittance companies, 1,000 merchants, 2.5 million banked customers, 200,000 unbanked customers, and five thousand cash agents, said Subhash Sapkota, CEO of F1 Pay.

Platforms like MACHNet enable foreign remittances from Nepali overseas workers; remittances reportedly are the second highest component of the Nepali economy, and foreign workers also buy mobile phones for their family back home to make voice calls.

The company’s motto is “Let the physical value be in the bank, let the monetary value be in the mobile phone,” said Sapkota.

The conference ended with an outstanding panel by Nepal’s political parties (ranging from the Congress party to Maoists!) on how mobiles could transform Nepali society.

In sum, despite political and economic challenges, an increasing proportion of youth in Nepal has caught the entrepreneurial drive, which bodes well for this Himalayan country!

Madanmohan Rao

Madanmohan Rao

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