In Kathmandu, Nepal, youth-led enterprises are developing social and economic resilience to sustain their business activities during the pandemic and leading the way in responding to the crisis through innovative measures. Krishna Bahadur Khadka and Rubina Adhikari report.
This is the tenth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.
Nepal is experiencing a bulging youth population: 40.8 percent of the population belong to the age group of 16-40. This has led to a rise in the number of youth-led enterprises in the country in recent years. Despite various challenges, young entrepreneurs are displaying exceptional capabilities through initiatives that are both socially and environmentally favourable.
Since the onset of COVID-19, such enterprises have been struggling to carry on business as usual. However, through the use of technology and by introducing innovative strategies, the virus-induced challenges are being gradually overcome.
Blue Waste to Value (BW2V) is a youth-based start-up working to create value from waste by advocating for environmentally-friendly waste management practices. The organisation trains its staff members to meticulously collect and segregate solid waste from residential areas, offices, hotels and so on. They are working to reduce the amount of waste that is sent to landfills, promote recycling waste and create green jobs for the youth. Upon collection, it charges a fee to its clients, which is used to develop in-house capacities.
BW2V’s operations were disrupted due to the lockdown measures in Nepal. “As soon as the nation-wide lockdown was declared, some of our biggest clients cancelled their contracts. However, because we had access to previous savings, we could manage to support our staff,” says Nabin Bikash Maharjan, CEO of BW2V.
Funds were also used to facilitate zoom calls and daily mobile phone recharges, which enabled ongoing communication among most staff members. Considering the importance of proper waste management to prevent the spread of the virus, BW2V decided to continue their work. To ensure safety of staff members, use of masks, Personal Protective Equipments (PPE), gloves and hand-sanitisers have been made compulsory.
“We have developed a new strategy while working during COVID-19. We store the collected waste for 72 hours before segregation and disposal. By doing this, we lower the risk of infection from the virus that may arise from the waste. Thankfully, despite daily collection, none of our staff members have been infected,” Nabin Bikash adds.
The pandemic has led to a parallel virtual world. Organisations had to adapt to an online environment to continue operational activities. Mind Risers Consortium is another youth-led business venture that moved its operations online. Since its inception in 2019, Mind Risers Consortium has been bridging the gap between skilled graduates and employers through provision of training facilities and career counseling for fresh graduates, which private colleges often fail to provide. In the current climate, Mind Risers is offering both free and discounted fees for online training courses to graduates.
Social media has played a major role in promoting these courses – and increased participation in them. “From this experience, we can say that Nepal is finally digitising, although it took a pandemic to realise the importance of digitisation. We have been forced to go online, but organisations that had a strong online presence prior to the pandemic have been able to sustain their businesses successfully,” says Prashanna Chudal Sharma, founder of Mind Risers Consortium.
Almost Heaven Permaculture Training and Development Pvt. Ltd. is yet another youth-led initiative that promotes living harmoniously with the natural ecosystem through the concept of “permanent agriculture”. Zachary Barton, founder of Almost Heaven, supports local farmers to adapt to climate change through permaculture training facilities. During the lockdown, farmers are growing their own crops using the permacultural techniques to ensure self-reliance and food security.
In spite of fewer training courses taking place currently, Zachary is utilising this downtime to build a more pragmatic and efficient business model for the future. The organisation offers multiple services – it is a training, research and development centre. During the lockdown, Zachary is brainstorming on ideas to enhance existing resources to offer more diverse services. “Hopefully after this pandemic, many Nepalese youth will be encouraged to return to the countryside and work in the agricultural sector,” Zachary adds.
Notwithstanding increased youth participation in the business sector, such initiatives are often difficult to sustain. The workforce in the aforementioned organisations are mostly young as well. They face various obstacles in terms of lack of exposure, and unsuitable interventions and policies to support them. The pandemic has further exacerbated these obstacles.
Workers have left the capital to migrate back to their hometowns during the lockdown leading to staff shortages. Furthermore, working online can be challenging for many, due to poor communication infrastructure and expensive internet packages. BW2V is facing difficulties working as a team, as many workers who work as waste-pickers often do not understand how to use smartphones and attend online meetings.
Despite rising challenges, young entrepreneurs are working hard to sustain their businesses to the best of their abilities. Health safety and financial security of employees are given the highest priority. They are advocating for tax relief programmes from the government to continue their operations, as they believe that the government and the private sector should work together to avoid the post-pandemic deficits and ensure sustainable prosperity in the future.
The lockdown measures during COVID-19 can be highlighted as an opportunity to innovate and improve current business practices for long-term sustainability and develop resilience for the future. Youth-led start-ups in Nepal have risen sharply only in the recent past. Young people will be further encouraged to invest in start-up ventures if provisions to support their initiatives are introduced by the government. Contributions from the youth under both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances have been crucial for the economy, and have pushed an important question into the public domain: how to build a collaborative system that will harness the skills of the youth and sustain their participation in the business sector in the future?
This question presents challenges as well as opportunities for the state and the public sphere. Challenges lie in addressing institutional barriers, lack of support for innovation and entrepreneurial interventions for the youth. Nevertheless, this may also be an opportune time for the government and stakeholders to ensure youth inclusion in planning and development processes to implement better informed policies.
About the Interviewers
Krishna Bahadur Khadka is the Chairperson at the Youth for Environment Education and Development Foundation (YFEED Foundation). He is currently pursuing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and is also an activist advocating for youth inclusion for social change.
Rubina Adhikari is an undergraduate student for Bachelor of Science in Forestry. She is also currently involved in YFEED Foundation as Programme Associate. Rubina is an advocate for climate change and disaster risk reduction.
About the Interviewees
Nabin Bikash Maharjan is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Blue Waste to Value Pvt. Ltd (BW2V).
Sajal Pradhan is the co-founder and Managing Director of Best Paani Pvt. Ltd.
Prashanna Chudal Sharma is the founder of Mind Risers Consortium.
Zachary Barton is the founder of Almost Heaven Permaculture Training and Development Pvt. Ltd.
All these young entrepreneurs are actively working to combat the public health crisis by supporting their employees and building social and economic resilience through their micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and firmly believe that empowering youth through the provision of resources and technology will lead to a better future.