An afternoon spent not long ago in the town of Birgunj gave opportunity for reflection on how entrepreneurship can be stimulated. Situated on the plains close to the Indian border, Birgunj is one of Nepal’s business hubs, with a thriving flow of cross-border trade that stimulates many associated industries. We first visited a shoe manufacturer, and then Birgunj Public College Institute of Management; both are working with our project Elam.
Scaling up shoe-making
In Hindu-majority India and Nepal, shoe-making has traditionally been considered a demeaning job; it was a craft plied by a specific caste of Dalits. Yet mass modern shoe-making uses far more synthetic than real leather, and is slowly becoming a less caste-specific, and more respected, occupation.
Moksud Alem Ansari spent 14 years working in Qatar in a factory embroidering cloth. As his name suggests, he is Muslim – a small but nevertheless significant minority community in Nepal (representing 4.8% of the population in the 2011 census). Moksud’s younger brother stayed at home in Birgunj and started a small shoe-making business. When Moksud returned from Qatar, he invested in his brother’s business and took over the manufacturing side of it, whilst his brother set up a shoe shop. Moksud then met Sunil Shah, an Enterprise Service Provider (ESP) trained in business development under Elam. Mr. Shah essentially works as an intermediate in the shoe and bag business, buying synthetic leather in bulk to supply his clients; supporting them in developing their business plans; and linking them to banks, insurance agencies and other financial services as well as to buyers. This is a win-win arrangement.
Moksud Alem Ansari, Birgunj, Nepal
What Moksud is now doing, at the instigation of Sunil Shah, is to give local women the opportunity to come to his workshop and learn the trade. This “BtoB”, Business to Business, idea under Elam is intended to further upscale production. Once the women have learned enough to be able to make the shoes themselves, they establish their own small workshop, employing other women and using materials supplied by Moksud, who buys back the shoes. This outsourcing serves to expand Moksud’s business and create local employment. For Moksud, a further advantage is that Nepalese women are generally very dependable workers; many of his current workers are Indian men who, being highly skilled, often shift from one employer to another and are thus not very reliable. So far, five women have been trained to the point that they can work independently; in a deliberate move against the caste-labelling of occupations, none of them are Dalit.
College students as entrepreneurs-in-the-making
Moksud always had the dream of self-employment, but in this he is relatively rare; most Nepalese consider a steady, well-paid job to be the ideal. This concept is being challenged in a module introduced last year to the BBS (Bachelor in Business Studies) course at Birgunj Public College Institute of Management which is affiliated to the Faculty of Management at Nepal’s oldest and largest university, Tribhuvan University. The Faculty recently revised its BBS curriculum and included a specific module on the way that the project Elam operates. Students are required to work in teams, come up with a business idea, assess its market potential and technical feasibility, and then “sell” it to an examiner. We were given a preview of two such ideas. One was the manufacture of biodegradable plastic bags; the other, waste recycling. Both ideas clearly required further research and technical refinement, but two things were clear. One was the enthusiasm of the students - young women and men in roughly even numbers – who said themselves that before the course, they had never thought of establishing a business of their own. The second was their awareness of environmental issues. Even if the two examples had been selected particularly to meet our approval, both responded to a clear present and future need.
Lessons in entrepreneurship?
What can be concluded from these visits? One is that whilst some people may be “natural” entrepreneurs, many more can learn entrepreneurial skills if given training and exposure. Another is that being an entrepreneur is best not approached as a lone initiative – strong skills in communication, and a desire to collaborate with others are important attributes in building a business. And this is what Elam seeks to support: learning, collaboration, and linking with many diverse actors.