Start-up NepalExtending the internet services simply means increasing economic opportunities
During a recent state visit to India, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli officially met with his Indian counterpart at Hyderabad House in Delhi, observed the post-earthquake reconstruction works in Bhuj, and visited the Industrial Park in Mumbai. It seems the visit was aimed to improve the bilateral ties, end power crisis, learn best practices of post earthquake reconstruction, and invite foreign investment for the seven new industrial estates that are being planned by the government. However, he should have visited the Silicon Valley style Indian entrepreneurial hubs in Bengaluru and Hyderabad.
Two ends of the world
In reality, at the better end of the innovation spectrum is Silicon Valley in the US and at the other end is Kathmandu Valley where the entrepreneurial and innovative prowess is still absent. While it would be incorrect to single out a particular reason for this undesirable reality, a close examination reveals a failure at the policy level. To be honest, things will only change when the Nepali political leadership can at least locate Silicon Valley on the world map, if not emulate it in Kathmandu.
Among the many ways to tackle this policy deficit, the one that I think would be extremely effective in the Nepali context was proposed by Sir Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, at the ‘Every Second Counts Forum’. Speaking at the Forum, Lee shared a radical idea of only electing politicians who can code. “We need more people in parliament who can code, not because we need them to spend their time coding, but because they have got to understand how powerful a weapon it is,” he said. I do not think he was literally talking about electing politicians who can actually write software programs, but about the ones blessed with an intuitive understanding necessary to shape policies and plans in the technological landscape that is changing at a breakneck pace.
Progress in Nepal
Interestingly, even though Nepal’s digital transformation has been moving at a snail’s pace, it seems the government was serious about the digital transformation from as early as 2000. The National Information Technology Center (NITC) was established in 2002. Since then, many government agencies have had a digital agenda and a few have already implemented digital services. In reality, these sporadic e-governance instances were pioneered by the visionary bureaucrats “who can code” in Lee’s lingo, but without much support from the political leadership.
The concept of ‘e-Nepal,’ a holistic e-governance transformation was conceptualised by Mahesh Singh Kathayat, former Deputy Inspector General and Head of Computer Department of Nepal Police, after he took NITC’s executive directorship in 2004. During that time, he requested the government to assist NITC to develop an e-government strategic plan and a government data centre, because the nation was going through a digital transformation at a mind boggling rate.
The comprehensive ‘e-Government Master Plan Consulting Report’ being developed in collaboration with the South Korean Government’s National IT Industry Promotion Agency was completed after Subarna Shakya, Professor of Electronics and Computer Engineering at Tribhuvan University’s Institute of Engineering (IOE) took NITC’s executive directorship in 2007. The Government Integrated Data Centre became operational and the ICT Development Project materialised during his tenure. He also contributed to establishing the high tech ICT Centre at IOE.
Manish Pokharel who is currently Associate professor and Head of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Kathmandu University has been pushing the government to bring forward policies, plans, and programmes needed to develop a sound startup ecosystem in the country. His argument is that Stanford University’s synergistic relationship with its entrepreneurial ecosystem is the main reason behind the Silicon Valley’s success. In fact, Pokharel is right on the mark, because research shows that technology hubs cannot exist without first rate universities. This means, the government has to take a lead and foster a healthy and productive synergy with academia and the industry so as to develop a strong entrepreneurial culture complemented by a technology venture capital ecosystem to create Zuckerberg kinds of our own.
Compared to Nepal, India has been relatively lucky when it comes to digital-savvy leadership. Among many, the Andra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandra Babu Naidu truly stands tall among his fellow chief ministers. Early on, he decided to use the internet for governance as well as for the service of the common man making him one of the most digital friendly leaders of that time. For instance, eighteen years ago, he convinced Bill Gates to open Microsoft’s development centre in Hyderabad after which Google, Oracle, Dell, IBM, and Facebook also followed suit. Just last year, under the leadership of minister K Taraka Rama Rao, the Government of Telangana and the Indian Institute of Technology signed a Memorandum Of Understanding to set up India’s biggest incubation centre (T-Hub) in Hyderabad.
India currently ranks third among global startup ecosystems with more than 4,200 new-age companies. Nepal, on the other hand, has failed on this front and I can only think of one reason for this disadvantageous outcome. I do not know if policy makers are aware of the Silicon Valley’s turbo charged entrepreneurial culture. The continued inaction by the government in the digital innovation front will only make things worse in the coming days. Therefore, it is time to shift political priorities and nominate digital-savvy ministers with a capacity to imitate Naidu and Rao. In short, we need ministers with a vision to create synergy with Kathmandu University and Institute of Engineering to come up with start-up friendly policies, plans, and programmes necessary for a thriving startup ecosystem.
However, if we look at the country’s current state of e-governance and the digital economy, it is apparent that the recommendations from the experts were not taken seriously. The only way to prosper in the new digital age is to nominate ministers “who can code”. But first, the status quo that does not favour youth and digital friendly political leadership has to be disrupted.
Shah is the co-author of ‘Strategic IT Planning for Public Organisations: A Toolkit’ published by the UN in 2009