NPSeries: If you build it, they will stay

By on 21 Feb 2018

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Mahabir Pun at the Nepal Wireless Relay Station at Khopra Ridge, Nepal.

Twenty years ago, Mahabir Pun had to make regular two-day treks on foot from his village in remote Nepal to the neighbouring one, just to check his email.

Now Mahabir is undertaking another trek — this time to connect thousands of members of the Nepalese community around the world, in a long-term project that could affect the very future of Nepal’s economy.

In the mid 1990s, Mahabir was a graduate educator on a mission to upgrade the local school in his village and to make education more widely available across rural Nepal. To this end, he embarked on many projects aimed at raising the necessary funding.

But to make these projects work, he had to make regular and even longer walks to other villages to get them involved and just to communicate with others. His village, Nangi is situated at the Himalayan foothills of western Nepal, and the nearest town of Pokhara, where he went to check his emails, was two days away.

This was something he had to do for six years and it was obviously an unworkable situation. The next step was to set up a local communication network — easier said than done in a huge area without the requisite technology and equipment. But this is what the intrepid Mr Pun eventually did.

In 2002, he founded the Nepal Wireless Networking Project, through which, despite many serious obstacles, and with the help of donated technology and volunteers from far and wide, he managed to connect 22 mountain villages by 2006 to a Wi-Fi network and the Internet.

Thanks to support through an ISIF Asia Award in 2012 and an ISIF Asia Grant in 2015, the number of villages today connected through Nepal Wireless has increased to about 200; all of them benefitting in terms of education, healthcare, e-commerce, money transfers and weather monitoring.

For his work, Mahabir, 62, was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2014 as a Global Connector, to add to his earlier honours including, in 2007, the Ramon Magsasay Award from the Philippines — widely known as the ‘Nobel Prize of Asia’ — as well as an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Nebraska, USA, from which he had earlier earned his Master’s degree in education.

Today, though, Mahabir’s project is an even bigger picture one — it is about ensuring the viability of the Nepalese economy, by tapping both the resources of the far-flung Nepalese community, as well as its ideas.

Why economies remain poor

In a nutshell, he is on a journey around the world to try to raise USD 5 million to build a 10MW hydro-power station, the revenues of which — expected to be about USD 2.5 to 3 million annually — will be used to fund the National Innovation Center (NIC), a hub for innovation in Nepal. The power will be sold to the government.

However, the real aim of the global fund-raising campaign, which started about a year ago, is to “build the platform to keep talented people in Nepal” by providing them with a working space or a lab, full financial support, and mentoring for innovation.

In very simple terms, Mahabir spelt out, “poor countries like Nepal are poor because … they’re not making use of their talented people.

“More than that, all these talented Nepalese people are leaving the country because there are no job opportunities for them,” he said.

“We are losing all these people in Nepal, because the Nepalese government does not have any programs or plans to keep our talented people. So that is why, over the 67 years of the modern history of Nepal, we have lost so many talented people.

“The most important asset of any country is its human capital. If talented people don’t stay in the country, then no economic development is possible.”

“The most important steps for any poor country — not only Nepal but any poor country — to take to become a developed country is to keep its talented people. One way to do that is to allow them to come up with ideas, and to nurture and develop these ideas.

“It’s their ideas that will make money,” he said. “It’s ideas that create the economy.”

He said that in the past fiscal year or so, Nepal imported USD 8.5 billion worth of goods and commodities from other economies. In that same time, Nepal’s exports amounted to USD 0.6 billion. In other words, he said, Nepal’s trade is 93% imports, 7% exports.

“That’s a USD 7.2 billion trade deficit. And this trade deficit is only partially covered by the remittance from overseas Nepalese — about USD 5.5 billion in the past year.”

It is a vicious circle that the NIC hopes to break. The Center, he said, is a private initiative to build a “people university” for Nepal.

The ideas the NIC are interested in supporting and developing will range from information technology to engineering, medicine, agriculture, tourism, and other fields.

“It is not only a platform to keep talented people,” said Mahabir, “but a way to nurture them; to nurture their ideas, their creativity and then commercialize their innovations”.

Mahabir, who was in Australia recently as part of his journey, said he was surprised to learn that there are 60,000 Nepalese in Australia alone.

“There are engineers, doctors and professors,” said Mahabir, who added that he is travelling around the world, cap in hand, to meet as many of these expatriates as he can.

The campaign, which started one year ago, involves seeing other Nepalese around the world, including in Europe, the US, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada and the Gulf economies.

It has so far visited the US, Mexico, Australia, the Philippines and South Korea, and has raised about USD 0.5 million.

Moreover, Mahabir has donated his land, worth about USD 280,000 to the NIC. And he has even put all the national and international medals he has received up for sale, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award and Internet Hall of Fame medals, with the funds going to the NIC.

Gathering talents and ideas

Money, however, is not all that he is after.

“I have been asking people to donate three things. The first thing is to contribute ideas. For example, how to build the NICs in different parts of the country; how to manage them; how to identify and nurture innovative people; and how to make it sustainable.”

The second thing he asks for is money, “I ask people to contribute just one time; I’m not going to ask for a second-time contribution.”

The reason for this, he said, is that the start-up funds raised will be invested to build the 10 MW power plant, which then sustains the NIC. And the hydro power will be just one source of income. “We will have to work hard on finding more sources,” he said.

“This program will go from generation to generation,” he said. “And for such a long-term program, we cannot rely on grants and donations from individuals.”

The third thing Mahabir asks of his fellow Nepalese is their time. To this end, he has enlisted a university research professor to create a database of Nepalese expats based wherever he is travelling to.

“And what I’m telling them is, in the future, in maybe two, three, five or 20 years, when we have talented people working on innovation, some research, and when we need the mentoring, we are going to ask them to donate some of their time.”

For now, the focus is to rely on Nepalese only. “What I’m saying to the Nepalese community is, ‘This is something we can do by ourselves. If we can do this by ourselves why do we have to ask other people?’”

Mahabir envisages no limits to the financial support the NIC will give,  though it will depend on the progress made.

“Whenever people come up with new ideas, whenever people come up with new ideas and creative innovative ideas and our selection committee sees merit in the idea, then we’ll fund it.

“And there are no limits set in that financial support. We will provide them as much money and mentoring as they need.

“As I keep telling the young people, all the engineers, all these young people in the colleges I go to: ‘Don’t worry about money. We’ll find money and you come up with ideas.’”

The NIC will provide full financial support and mentoring for prototype development, product development, and for getting legal rights for the innovators and inventors. Then it will connect them to investors and venture capitalists, who will commercialize the products and services.

But before that bridge is crossed, and before the hydropower plant is completed, the NIC is already harnessing and working on ideas back home.

The main one currently is ‘a medical drone project’, which involves university students working on drones to deliver small packets of medicine to remote areas.

“There are no hospitals or clinics in rural areas of Nepal,” said Mahabir. “So, using the wireless network that already exists, we are developing this autonomous drone that can deliver medicine to people who need it.

“People will be able to communicate with a central pharmacy whenever they need medicine, and the drone will deliver it.”

Another project involves, literally, chicken feed: an automatic feeder for poultry farms. At the moment, chicken feeding is all done manually, “so some boys came up with this idea to build automatic feeders”.

And there are more projects in the pipeline, such as the development of a lead acid battery maintenance system for electric vehicles, affordable incubators for rural clinics, and medical apps.

With Nepal’s wireless project of a decade ago, Mahabir has already delivered what many said could not be done. The odds are that the NIC will prove to be another success.

“We will make it happen at any cost,” Mahabir said.


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