Nepal is a landlocked country wedged between India and China in the Himalayas, with gigantic mountains, incredible natural beauty, and irreplaceable World Heritage sites. The country is multicultural, multilingual, multiethnic—rich in diversity, and endlessly interesting.
This year I experienced some of Nepal’s breathtaking views, culture, as well as some of the challenges that her people face on a daily basis. In Kathmandu, where more than three million people are squeezed into a small valley, vehicles zoom past you, merchants wail and yell to get your attention, and the aroma of incense mingles with the stench of cow dung. Even if you are lucky enough to avoid each of these, I guarantee that you will be harassed by dozens of monkeys who attack you for food or try to take a selfie on your iPhone!
Despite globalization, Nepal has preserved its ancestral cultures. This is not only reflected in the country’s ethnic and religious diversity but also reverberates in the country’s economic growth. Travelling throughout the country, I’ve had the chance to experience the problems of an inadequate transportation system, an aging and incomplete infrastructure, and a lack of resources for economic development.
When one digs deeper into the root cause of the problems, it seems to me that the economy lacks the entrepreneurial dynamism to innovate as a result of arcane and obsolete regulatory requirements to launch a business. I’ve seen this before. I’ve spent most of my life in India, and the problems are similar.
Entrepreneurship unlocks the potential to growth—but in a country like Nepal, an entrepreneur needs to be creative to cope with government regulations and tailor products to deal with cultural biases.
This is really the story of Sixit Bhatta, an entrepreneur whose creativity and vision are now providing freedom of mobility to thousands in Nepal. He’s an amazing person, and the way he’s solving the problems of public transportation is changing the lives of people in Nepal. But it hasn’t been easy.
Bhatta is an engineer by profession, and Tootle, the company he founded, is Nepal’s first ridesharing app for two-wheelers.
But right now, his company’s services aren’t legal.
Within the Kathmandu valley itself, there are over 3.2 million two-wheelers, and Bhatta realized that there was an opportunity to start a business that combined the growing market for rideshares with a readily available resource. But as a ridesharing service operated by privately owned vehicles, Tootle is technically illegal under the country’s 1993 Motor Vehicles and Transport Management Act. The Act does not allow citizens to register new businesses in a nontraditional industry. So Bhatta had to register Tootle as an information technology company—even though its major focus is in transportation.
Nepal’s arcane laws and regulatory barriers make it difficult for aspiring entrepreneurs like Bhatta, who are using innovative tools to create jobs and opportunities, to do business.
Nepal’s arcane laws and regulatory barriers make it difficult for aspiring entrepreneurs like Bhatta, who are using innovative tools to create jobs and opportunities, to do business. Earlier this year, traffic officers used the service to hail rides—and then fined the drivers for illegal activity. The public was furious. So Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli instructed the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport to back off. Bhatta was able to get Tootle back online, but its status remains somewhat ambiguous.
Bhatta has been fighting the system to legally register his business in Nepal, but the problems he is experiencing are deeper than that. The country’s decade-long civil war was followed by another decade-long transition period that pushed many Nepali youth out of the country in search of better jobs. Nepal still relies heavily on cash transactions, and making an online payment is still not an established mode of transaction to pay for a shared ride via Tootle. Perfecting the cashless transaction through the Tootle app has been a nightmare for Sixit’s team.
Entrepreneurship is one side of the coin for economic development, and advocating for sound policies that will lead to this social change is the other side. Samriddhi Foundation, a non-partisan think tank in Nepal and an Atlas Network partner, has been a strong ally of entrepreneurs like Bhatta for years. Samriddhi, which means “prosperity” in Sanskrit, has spent years sowing the seeds for the removal of outdated laws that affect entrepreneurs through their research and advocacy work in Nepal.
According to Robin Sitoula, executive director of Samriddhi Foundation, there is a taboo against using the word prosperity that extends to the ideas of entrepreneurship or free-markets in Nepal. The idea of entrepreneurship is considered a foreign concept, and people feel that it drives crony capitalism instead of innovation. The notion that it will create prosperity does not connect well with the traditional mindset of Nepalese.
“People and even political forces are intolerant about it,” Sitoula says. Still, as he looks back at the country’s rich history, he points out that Nepal has always been a very entrepreneurial country. “But as the new political system starts stepping up and institutions start formalizing, our industrious entrepreneurial countrymen are denied the right or denied the possibility to actually engage in entrepreneurship and are sidelined,” he says. “The government, or our policy, does not enable these people to be able to be proud and call themselves entrepreneurs, it’s very, very difficult to enter the market.”
Sitoula and the team at Samriddhi introduced me to Tootle, and I hopped on the back of a motorbike and took off across the impossibly crowded streets of Kathmandu. All these years I spent playing Mario Kart on my Nintendo, imagining what it would be like to avoid blue shells in real life was finally becoming a reality. Thankfully, we did not hit any shells—just bugs that constantly kept bombarding my Tootle driver and me. It was a wild ride!
We stopped outside the doors of a massage parlor. The owner of the parlor is blind and has been using Tootle services every day to commute to his work. I was absolutely astonished to see that the entire parlor was run and operated by people with visual disabilities, all of whom rely heavily on Tootle as a safe mode of transport in Kathmandu. Talking to the owner while he gave me an intense shoulder massage, I started wondering about the unintended consequences of Bhatta’s work.
Tootle is providing freedom of mobility to people in the Kathmandu valley, but for people who are marginalized, like women and people with disabilities, access to personalized transportation is life-changing.
Tootle is providing freedom of mobility to people in the Kathmandu valley, but for people who are marginalized, like women and people with disabilities, access to personalized transportation is life-changing. It’s certainly the case for my masseuse, Chiran. He doesn’t have to be dependent on others. He doesn’t have to worry that he’ll be victimized on public transportation. He can now move around more easily despite the city’s terrible public transportation infrastructure. He’s paying less for his daily commute, and he’s spared from harassment by taxi drivers. My masseuse and his staff feel safe in a way they never have before, and his vigorous confidence certainly made a difference for my shoulders.
Another benefit is that Tootle is providing employment to anyone with a valid driver’s license. Only 22 percent of women in Nepal are employed outside the home, but Tootle has encouraged females to make the most of this economic opportunity. For female drivers like Bhim Maya, being on call on the Tootle app enables her to make a few Nepalese rupees by driving people around on her motorbike. She no longer has to depend completely on her husband and can build a little security for herself. Thanks to Tootle, women are branching out as entrepreneurs instead of being homemakers with no other options.
Bhatta is hopeful that the laws to start and register a business in Nepal will allow for innovations like Tootle, and Sitoula agrees that change is absolutely necessary for Nepal to grow. Samriddhi’s efforts to reduce administrative hassles and remove regulatory barriers can help uplift the business environment for entrepreneurs and drive Nepal towards prosperity. “One entrepreneur doesn’t solve all the problems,” Sitoula told me. “But if we allow, or if we enable an environment to create a million entrepreneurs, a million problems will be solved.”
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