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A look at the tech ecosystem in Bhutan, land of the thunder dragon

Jubin Mehta
13th Jul 2015
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The very thought of Bhutan evokes a picture of monks, monasteries and the mountains. However, in the past couple of decades, the winds of change have ushered in an era of globalization into the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Way back in 1980, about ninety-five per cent of Bhutan was rural, but now that number hovers at around sixty per cent (source). The change is centred round the development in Thimphu, where it is a common sight to see the streets filled with people carrying cell phones that have been flooded the market from neighbouring giant India.

Phuntsholing, a border town in Bhutan, is the gateway to lines of trucks coming in from West Bengal, in India. The trucks bring in all kinds of commodities into Bhutan; both the traditional and the modern.

A nation with a population of only 7,65,000 (source) - it is a speck in the grander economic scheme of things. However, Bhutan is a great example of how a country is trying to maintain a balance between its traditions and modernization. A constitutional monarchy, Bhutan is adapting to the global developments, and has opened its arms to technology as well.

An effort in this direction, the first IT Park, Thimphu Tech Park was built in Babesa, a suburb of Thimphu, in 2012. During my visit to Bhutan for a month, Dr. Cigay, the CEO of Bhutan Innovation and Technology Centre (BITC), gave us some insights into the workings of the tech ecosystem in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. “With the TechPark in place, we have achieved a modest success in attracting few IT/ITES companies from both wthin and outside Bhutan. Although the initial expectations of the people could not be met, we have managed to pick up steam and we’re confident of the future but a lot of work remains to be done,” he says.

bitc
Team BITC

Dr. Cigay has studied in Australia and Japan and has been with companies abroad. He could have carried on doing just that, but an urge to return to Bhutan brought him in contact with the Tech Park. Starting out as the COO, Dr. Cigay, has been instrumental in giving form and substance to the Tech Park. Presently, he is the CEO and is ably supported by Sonam Choden and a team of 14 that takes care of the Tech Park. ScanCafe is one of the biggest tenants of the Tech Park and employs more than 200 Bhutanese youngsters. ScanCafe is a US based company which is into photo scanning, restoration, video editing, etc. The company plans to scale operations and grow to more than 500 people soon.

Entrance to the ScanCafe Bhutan office
Entrance to the ScanCafe Bhutan office

Thimphu Tech Park’s aim is to get more such companies into Bhutan and boost employment. They have a serious problem on their hands – their students go abroad - a lot of them to India - and come back to Bhutan, only to find no suitable employment. “We have around 10,000 English speaking graduates looking for jobs. Foreign companies would find it profitable to locate here” says Dr Cigay. The Tech Park also hosts Bangladesh based SouthTech, and Switzerland based Selise, which are mainly into web technology and software development. “Most of our clients are from the western countries,” says one of the young Bhutanese techies working for Selise. SouthTech, Bhutan, has built software for Banking and Microfinance, Human Resource, Restaurants, etc. and is also pushing to get a payment gateway in Bhutan. The scenario is promising but the development is rather slow.

Team Selise
Team Selise, Bhutan

As of now, there is no real e-commerce, except for airline tickets. Shop.bt and Hotel.bt are the closest we could find when looking for e-commerce sites. However, there are few very popular Facebook groups like B-Bay, Best Buy and Sell in Bhutan with memberships close to 50,000 that are used to advertise items for sale. Credit cards are available from banks but are not commonly used by the locals. The local banks have internet and sms banking facilities, but don’t support web transactions through a payment gateway.

Then there are a bunch of development companies like NGN Technologies, iTechnologies, Yangkhor IT Solutions, eDruk, Athang etc., all of which have the Bhutan Government as their main clients. Finding private clients will only pick up over time. As of now, Tours and Travel companies are probably the largest set of businesses that have an online presence, and have the ability to pay the IT companies as well. Tourism is a big chunk of the income for Bhutan but it is highly regulated. Citizens of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives don’t need a visa to enter but tourists from any other country are required to pay a daily tariff of up to USD 250 a day which includes a minimum of 3 star accommodation, all meals, a licensed Bhutanese tour guide for the extent of your stay, all internal transport (excluding internal flights), Camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours. (See www.tourism.gov.bt ) This move is mainly to preserve the pristine environment and keep its culture and traditions intact.

“A lot of youngsters do go abroad to study and are exposed to the developments in those countries,” says Dr. Cigay. This has given an interesting flavour to Thimphu. The capital city is filled with beautiful Dzongs and Chortens that hold on to tradition, but it also has a bustling night life with pubs remaining open till 2 am (on weekends). The youngsters are active on Facebook and Instagram, and in the future we will see more of this happening.

Thimphu Clock Tower
Thimphu Clock Tower
traffic junction
The only traffic junction in Thimphu, Bhutan
Tashichho Dzong
Tashichho Dzong, the central administrative building in Thimphu
Thimphu in the night time
Thimphu in the night time (from the big Buddha Statue)

As far as the local entrepreneurial scene goes, a lot remains to be done. Building businesses does not come naturally to the locals and a lot of effort needs to go in to change this. Thunder Motors, one of the successes of the Tech Park is a great example of a local entrepreneur rising up to the occasion and building an electric car company. Though the Founder, Tashi Wangchuk, has had an up and down journey, he is fighting hard to make his company viable. “By end of 2017, my hope and dream is that the product will go global and form a part of the Nissan production-vehicles stable. My hope is that the Nissan ‘Powered by Thunder’ low cost EV will be available for sale in several developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America,” he wrote in Kuensel, a local newspaper.

When it comes to pure-play technology companies, NGN Technologies is possibly the largest company - it employs close to a hundred people. The Systems Integrator has a presence in Thimphu, Gelaphu, and Phuntsholing, and is an emerging story in the nascent tech ecosystem in Bhutan.

Taking a bird’s eye view, as an outsider, it is still hard to imagine the penetration of technology in a country like Bhutan. But growing urbanization, need for employment, and looking beyond the pristine mountains surrounding the country, it seems like the time has arrived for Bhutan to integrate technology into their culture and pave a cautious but new highway for the nation.

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