In Kathmandu, Nepal, more than 3 million people are squeezed into a small valley between mountain ranges. Moving around is a challenge because of unreliable mass transit, expensive taxis, and roads with 3.2 million two-wheel vehicles zooming by.
All those scooters clog the roads, but also present an opportunity.
Sixit Bhatta is an engineer who saw potential for those scooters to form a ridesharing service. He formed Tootle, and his app gave his neighbors a new transportation choice and income source.
Too bad Nepal’s regulations were not ready for a ridesharing app or scooter owners becoming entrepreneurs. Sixit discovered arcane legal barriers that have prevented Tootle from becoming a recognized business.
Still, riders need the service, and Tootle is bringing them together with Nepalese who are finding scooters can expand their traditional roles.
Connecting riders with rides
The owner of a local massage parlor is blind and has been using Tootle services every day to commute to work. The entire parlor is operated by people with visual disabilities, all of whom rely heavily on Tootle as a safe way to get around in Kathmandu.
Chiran, a masseur at the parlor, said blindness made him a target on public transit. Now he worries less, moves more freely, and saves rupees on his daily commute.
Only 22 percent of women in Nepal are employed outside the home, but Tootle has opened up job opportunities and financial independence for them. Bhim Maya Sunuwar rises at 5:30 each morning, does chores, helps her children study, feeds the family, and gets everyone out the door. By 9 a.m. she becomes a driver for Tootle.
“Before Tootle, I relied completely on my husband for my expenses,” Bhim Maya said. “But now, with Tootle, every day I get a satisfying feeling for having worked all day and earned something.”
Hurdles to innovation
Although Sixit’s rideshare startup is successful and popular, it is technically illegal in Nepal. The country’s legal code has not kept up with a growing, dynamic economy. It is limiting many entrepreneurs.
These same barriers are limiting opportunities for Kathmandu’s visually impaired community. When Sixit reviewed his ridership data, something curious stuck out to him. He noticed some trips going nearly an hour outside of the city. After a pause, the driver and passenger would both return on the same ride.
Sixit learned one customer was also visually impaired. He had spent his entire life in Kathmandu. Prior to discovering Tootle’s service, he had no practical or affordable way he could take a trip outside the city to simply breathe clean air – even for just 15 minutes.
For that man, and many others like him, Tootle has brought about the freedom and opportunity to breathe clean air for the first time. Encountering the liberating power of Tootle’s services and its impact has humbled Sixit.
Despite the impact his innovative service has had, barriers to doing business threaten Tootle.
Nepal’s laws don’t allow citizens to register businesses in nontraditional industries. These barriers make it difficult for aspiring entrepreneurs such as Sixit to innovate, create opportunities, and solve problems.
Last year, traffic officers would use Tootle to hail rides, and then fine the drivers for illegal activity. Many were furious. It led to a public outcry. Luckily, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli instructed the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport to back off.
Sixit was able to get Tootle back online, but Tootle’s legal status remains ambiguous.
Besides legal problems, there is a taboo surrounding entrepreneurship in Nepal, said Robin Sitoula, executive director of the Samriddhi Foundation. The Kathmandu-based non-profit advocates for entrepreneurs such as Sixit.
The notion that entrepreneurship creates prosperity often does not connect well with the traditional mindset of many. Yet Nepal’s history shows it has always been a very entrepreneurial country, Sitoula remarked.
“One entrepreneur doesn’t solve all the problems,” Sitoula said. “But if we allow or create an environment that creates millions of entrepreneurs, millions of our problems will be solved.”
Samriddhi’s mission is to reduce barriers so Sixit and others can work and travel with dignity. With the help of Samriddhi, Sixit said he hopes the business laws and registration requirements will one day foster innovations such as Tootle. Entrepreneurship can move people out of poverty, but it needs some old ways to be left behind.
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