Replacing polluting three-wheelers in Kathmandu with electric vehicles was a lesson in why money can’t buy you everything

Bikram Rai

Most discussions about development and entrepreneurship revolves around money, how much, where it will come from, and how cheaply it can be obtained.

If money alone could ensure development and prosperity, this country would have gone far already. Nepal isn’t poor, its resources are poorly managed.

Besides, if we were really short of money, the government could easily print more.

Many years ago, Kathmandu valley replaced its smoke belching diesel powered three wheelers by converting them into clean electric three-wheel public transport. Revisiting the process and the steps may help us better understand the true nature of change and how things actually happen.

First, the public has to be outraged enough to take action. There have to be protests about bad air that sting the eyes, and the toxins in the pollution. Second, there has to be a viable alternative technology along with people who know how to build and operate it. These knowledgeable people have to convene and take the lead, often by setting up a company or another legal entity. Then we have to do the math so that we know the costs, benefits and the level of support equired.

The next set of steps involves politics. There are votes to be won, then there are the bureaucrats who always seem to have a thousand reasons why something cannot be done, except when it involves a junket to a foreign country with attractive perks. They are often suspicious of the private sector, except when they have someone who needs a job there.

Then comes the really difficult task of selling the idea to the Super Ministry – the Ministry of Finance to waive taxes and for tax holidays for a few years so the investors can reduce their risk by recovering some of the cost. It was easier to do this in the Panchayat days as long as the inauguration of the venture was around the three days of celebration of the kings’ birthday. In a multi party democracy, who you tag along, who makes the introductions and who has several rain checks to cash can be very handy.

Next is the really difficult task of telling the public that the cost of the ride is going to go up because clean air costs more than polluted air. The print media and radio played a big part in the Safa Tempo introduction. If people sense that individuals are going to benefit more than the public, conspiracy theories will appear and rumours will replace information. Once the public is on your side, there is nothing in Nepal that succeeds like people power. Next, the most difficult part was to get the profitable route numbers for the electric vehicles.

So we had the entrepreneurs, the enterprise, the policies, the price, and the clients on board. The electric vehicles have done well so far, and during the Indian Blockade, people demanded more.

It is important to understand that the Indian Blockade is a good excuse to provide even more support to the electric three wheelers and expand the fleet across the country. With much cheaper hydropower coming on line, the NEA will do well to set up a differential tariff so that charging these vehicles at night will be affordable. Electric charging stations could very well be the next line of business for differently able Nepalis, and can contribute towards a more inclusive Nepal. Next time you pass a Safa Tempo remind yourself that Kathmandu achieved what most cities have failed to do.

Having money is well and good, but it is the other intangibles that are more important. Often, the conversation does not go beyond money and that is why we see so many failures, so many frustrated people who are cynical and give up. The electric three wheelers of Kathmandu can be a good case study that ought to be written up to be taught in business schools as a model for How To Get Things Done in Nepal – a crash course for those who think money can buy everything.

Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc.