Founder, Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Shaasan
It all started for Pratik Kunwar, Founder of Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Shaasan, at a very young age while being raised in Dhangadhi. The defining moments go back to the civil war when his family were compelled to move to over 50 districts. He was only nine years old when he was shifted to Kathmandu for studies and later went on to pursue his education at the University of Nottingham. Kunwar came back from the UK during the earthquake and that became a determining factor for what he is doing right now.
Kunwar is involved in the fields of civic engagement, governance, and economic empowerment across Asia, including Timor-Leste and Nepal. For his commitment to development, he was selected as a Daayitwa National Public Service Fellow in 2018, a WEF Global Shaper in 2018, and UN SDSN Youth Local Pathways Fellow in 2019. Kunwar was also named a ‘National Changemaker’ by Accountability Lab in 2020. Recently, he won the Global Shapers Community’s 10-Year Challenge and was appointed to serve on the Impact Council of WEF’s Global Shapers Community for 2022-23. In this role, he is responsible for strengthening the impact of 13,500 Global Shapers across 450+ hubs across the world.
Shaasan, a project initiated by Kunwar, was also selected by the United Nations SDSN as one of 50 ‘game-changing’ projects globally. For his work through Shaasan, he was selected in 2021 for the Yunus & Youth Fellowship, the inaugural Feedback Labs Accelerator Fellowship, and won national and international support from numerous international organisations and agencies.
In this edition of Business 360, we caught up with Pratik Kunwar to learn his views on entrepreneurship and innovation and what good governance actually entails.
Why was Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation established?
It all started when I was growing up; I saw the lack of entrepreneurship and economic opportunities in the country. As I started to observe the world more and how it functions, why some countries were more prosperous than others, I understood that prosperity comes essentially from creating more jobs. Every day, there are thousands of Nepalis going abroad for employment and some coming back dead; that is our reality. There is a strong desire among our people to improve the condition of their lives. There is also the necessity for people to do anything they can to ensure financial stability for themselves and their family, but is leaving the country the only choice we have.
For me entrepreneurship and innovation are really at the heart of what we do. Most people think a ‘centre’ is where things happen, so it is a deliberate choice of word because to centre something means to put it in the heart and for us that is entrepreneurship. It is not about just livelihoods and job creation or startups. For me it is the entrepreneurial spirit which essentially means either you can wait for things to happen to you or you can adapt to the changes taking place. Similarly, innovation is ‘are you going to accept the score you received or are you going to improve upon that through your passion, talent and intelligence’.
So how do you promote entrepreneurship and innovation?
The entirety of our focus is on something called ‘wicked problems’. We have problems like the virus and we administer vaccines, so that is a direct solution. The wicked problems are like governance where there are so many moving parts where the parts themselves are evolving, the interactions between the parts are also evolving, and to find a solution to that you have to understand the whole problem as a part of the system. One has to understand how the different parts interact with each other under what conditions and does that context match with the context of Nepal.
We essentially identified seven such wicked problems and currently we are working on three. The fist is civic engagement and governance, which basically means how do we ensure how our citizens interact with each other and how are they accountable to each other. How are the representatives accountable to them? The other is entrepreneurship itself, the issue of livelihood. This now is a very wicked problem because we have economic factors, social factors and also political factors at play. The third, which is very nascent, is access to finance. Some say it is a part of entrepreneurship itself but it is a totally different mechanism. The push for this started when I was a Daayitwa National Public Service Fellow.
What do you feel is the major obstacle to developing entrepreneurship in Nepal?
Keeping in mind the fact that there are multiple moving parts what is necessary therefore is an understanding of where we are with those parts. For example, the process of getting loans is very crucial for any entrepreneur of any size. Do we have any data on the success of a particular entrepreneur or the success of a particular bank with the interest they charge? Another example is how successful have the government sponsored opportunities been? So, if I have to boil it down, it is the sheer lack of evidence. There is hardly any data for anything. Recently, a friend was involved in preparing the Industry Standards Report, because there is no data literally on anything either from the government or private sector on how effective certain industries are and what is the perception of industries among the employees, among other things. There has been some progress in that direction but in small pockets. In a nutshell, the problem I would say is lack of data.
What are your thoughts on youth entrepreneurship?
During one of my researches, the findings was that Nepalis have always been entrepreneurial since recorded history. One example could be Asan – the way in which there were interactions with people coming from Tibet and the way you had to negotiate and sell things to people who had no idea about certain things. The entrepreneurial spirit has always been there. The reason why we are now focusing on youth entrepreneurs is due to the sheer numbers. Since they are the demographic majority, any interest group or political group that wants to win their favour has to look into their interests. Coming from a youth it may sound very contradictory or contrary but there is nothing in the youth that makes them special by virtue of their age. Entrepreneurship is for everybody because it is a state of mind. It is never that the entrepreneurial spirit comes into you when you are 16 and leaves you when you are 30 or 40. You can find plenty of examples of people who have done incredible things when they were not so young. And data actually suggests that if you have a PhD you can succeed as an entrepreneur and not if you are a dropout. Yes, Bill Gates was a dropout but it was from Harvard. He wasn’t from a Nepali government school. There is a difference there. That’s my take on youth entrepreneurship.
That being said, it’s also a fact that they are a tremendous number, and it is an economic necessity that we focus on them. There might be nothing special by the virtue of their nature but the fact that they form the majority, it makes the best sense to focus on them. They are also more amenable to opportunities and everything is aligned for them basically. Policies are aligned for them, global movements like anything from climate change to sustainable living, to urban living, everything centres around the youth. Because again across the world the youths form the majority and this is likely to be so until 2030-2035 after which even Nepal will see its short window of opportunity which I call the short window of demographic opportunity decline. And after that I very much doubt anybody will be talking about youth entrepreneurship per se. They will be talking about entrepreneurship in general. So, this is a 25-year fad which will die out soon.
Startups are gaining ground in the business jargon of Nepal but what actually can be called a startup?
It is very important to know what exactly is a startup because a lot of economic incentives these days are tied to that word. Now would you call Foodmandu a startup or Tootle for that matter? Who defines that? They are still very new compared to other existing alternatives we have. For instance, compared to Nepal Yatayat, Tootle is very young, very small. But is it a startup? Isn’t it already started? So, definitions really matter in the legal sense here. And especially so if you are going to tie loan incentives or subsidies around the word startup, we have to be very clear what it means. Internationally, there are certain categories of startups, like there is pre-funding and then there is the growth stage. So, if you define it by stage then I think that makes more sense. I need to look into whether our government actually has a definition of what a startup is but now it looks like it is for a business in between two years of revenue and expenses. So, if you need more funding from say Business Oxygen or Dolma Impact Fund, there have to be bare necessities laid out.
What do you mean by empowerment; is it just livelihoods or are there other things involved?
Empowerment is something we talk about a lot currently, especially in the development sector. It basically comes down to the word itself, to become more powerful. Now in what sense do you become more powerful? Do you give power or do you take power? We have seen examples of both in our country. If you look at it the people have taken power and Gyanendra Shah has ceded power, depending on which side you are looking from, which political spectrum you are from. I would like to categorise it as individual power and institutional power. Talking about individual power we could take an example of economic power, which means are you able to afford what you need or can you also pursue what you want. Are you able to send your child to a good school or buy them a new mobile phone, it is small things like these. Then there is social power. Are you disfavoured from getting a job because you are a woman? Do you need to state your caste when you talk to your landlord?
Then there is the civic power, which is the political power. If you are walking down the road and you see a pothole, what do you think? If you are from the development sector you will probably think ‘do I have the political mobility, the prerequisite civic education to hold my elected representatives accountable for this public service delivery problem’. Very few people think like that. We usually think in very simple terms like the pothole has been there for a really long time and who is responsible for that.
Now the problem is even when you look at the op-eds of various publications where people, especially from the development sector, who are the representatives, speak about empowering people, they use a lot of jargons. And these jargons make things that are quite easy to understand very difficult to grasp. This creates a bubble around the people who can understand those jargons and the common people are left out of the conversation. This is true as much in English as much as it is in Nepali. Forget about Maithili and Bhojpuri which we have discarded for generations historically. Where is their power? Why is their representation not there? So, there is always individual power and institutional power and the latter actually guarantees the individual power. The way in which we negotiate power is what determines what we call empowerment itself and it is always changing.
What can be done to increase accountability among political leadership?
Having observed politics quite closely and partially through my own experiences having worked with members of parliament and ward representatives, politicians are ultimately a reflection of the citizens. As humans it is very easy and convenient to point fingers whenever there is any problem because if we point at somebody it means the problem is theirs, we are not a part of it. Now what we need to realise is politicians don’t simply materialise out of nowhere; they come from us, they are us. Yes, there are a few politicians who prioritise private profit over public prosperity. The second aspect is if indeed politicians are a reflection of us, even then it is not a good reflection because I mentioned earlier about the marginalised sections. Where is their reflection? Where is their representation? So, there is also the issue of inclusion and representation. And unless our leaders reflect the actual breadth and diversity of the people we will never have accountability in the true sense. The third is incentives. Is it that politicians are evil by nature or is the system incentivised in such a way that they become corrupt and take bribes once in power? And the other is our tendency to pedestalise individuals over institutions. Part of that is human nature and even since the ancient times of Mahabharata and Ramayana we have always pedestalised individuals and never focused on the institutions themselves. Now that needs to change.
There are institutional and individual ways of increasing accountability. The institutional approach is top to down. One example would be to make it mandatory for any person who wants to be a minister to make their statement of earnings public before they apply and right before their term ends. However, this is effective for only those at the top. Then there is the individual process, which is bottom-up. That is where we focus on at CEI and it is a very citizen centric approach. At the local level there are many representatives but there are more citizens. If you could manage to balance a bottom-up approach where citizens who are in direct contact with the local representatives can hold them accountable through technology, through civic awareness, among other avenues then that too helps a lot. Both approaches are necessary. In the middle we have the members of parliament both at the federal and provincial levels but it is difficult to get statements from all regarding their earnings, assets and liabilities. So, if we focus on bottom-up approach then they will have double pressure – from the top and the bottom. And I think this is the most robust way in which we can nurture accountability under the current system.
Shaasan has been chosen as the 50 game-changing projects globally by the United Nations. What does this initiative do?
Shaasan was a result of my own experiences as a child during the civil war when we had to move back from Dhangadhi to Kathmandu. Even in Kathmandu there were so many riots and protests and that was the first time I saw the power of civic engagement, what normal citizens can do when they are united and educated on a subject. At the moment it might seem like a dream that we lived under 240 years of autocracy like it was nothing. It was an accepted thing. And during that movement it were the young people who were very active. This is the distinction between the economic value and political value of young people. Politically, young people have tremendous value intrinsically because they have the energy and the drive and also due to the fact they do not have that much knowledge and experience which makes them do a lot of things which older people would not be able to do. They can take certain risks which older people might not.
Also, after the earthquake I witnessed the solidarity of people in the face of immense chaos and deaths. That really gave me hope that there really is something that can be done. At the same time, I also saw people had access to technology like never before. Everybody has a mobile, everybody knows how to use Facebook or at least TikTok and know how to interact with that. The third is we have never been more politically enfranchised, never in the history of Nepal. So, with those three cross-cutting winds I would say I realised we could reimagine what it means to be a citizen, what a citizen can do, and how they can interact in civic life. This manifested into a project under CEI where we focus on three things. The first is the citizen where we empower citizens by building their capacity to hold leaders accountable. We educate them on civic domains like how to vote and what are their constitutional rights. The other aspect is countering disinformation which is a modern threat.
We also look into the representative side and help build their capacity. We have always talked about how do we make them accountable and how do we enforce things on them but we have never talked about how we can help them. It’s a utopian thought that the best of us would be our leaders, that they will not need any help and know exactly what to do. But that is not the case. More representatives than less would definitely need help. If any of their constituents is having a problem, then how do they effectively listen to that person and get their complaints listed in a systemic way and how do they resolve that? How do they make the process transparent and communicate their learnings in various mediums? If a person is an MP how do they make better policy, how do they speak in parliament? These are aspects people don’t really consider. But if we are going to have a governance fit for the current times, we have to consider all these issues which we never did before.
And finally, there is the technology side which connects the representatives and common citizens. We are building an application, which is going to be Nepal’s first civic platform. For instance, you may see a pothole. Under normal circumstances you would want to get that solved but don’t know whom to contact, you wouldn’t know who is responsible for it. Even if you could find that you wouldn’t know when it will be resolved by and whether the road was repaired properly. Did they contract somebody and was that process transparent? Was the contractor on the blacklist? People don’t think of these things; they just think about calling somebody but now who is that somebody. That is a very important question. If a wire is dangling and I get an electric shock, do I sue the government? If something happens who takes responsibility for that? There is a whole world of things around that. Imagine if you had to just take your phone and take a photo, the phone knows where you are because you have the location feature and by virtue of that we know which ward you are in. We know who is the ward chairperson responsible for that area and with artificial intelligence we can recognise it is a pothole and that is the jurisdiction of the department of roads. Now after you send your complaint it goes to various places. If it was trash it also goes to Khalisisi, which is a private company because they are also interested in it. They also want to know. It involves various sectors and once your message is delivered you will receive a notification that your issue has been forwarded to the concerned person, and now it is pending. So, you also know it is pending, they also know it is pending. The sooner they resolve it the better their score gets. And everybody has a score. And that’s the second pioneering thing we are doing I would say, Nepal’s public score card system. If the ward chairperson resolves it in record time in a very transparent manner, then we give them four out of five stars. So, this will be done for all representatives and when it comes to election time and when people are thinking why we should be voting for them, that is the evidence. As I said earlier that it was evidence that was missing so that is the main crux.
The other area this app will help in is we will also get data on all the potholes in Kathmandu and later the country. And you will see a trend that there are more potholes on highways because there are buses and we know that some roads can handle a certain weight only. So that will show there are heavier vehicles passing through illegally. Who is responsible for that? You can track everything. This app will save time and everybody will be aware of all the problems. That app will be where both representatives and citizens come together and I believe technology will lead us forward.
When we speak about protecting and promoting digital civic space, what does it actually entail?
We focus more of our efforts on digital civic space because again young people are the majority of the digital users and they are also most vulnerable to any digital threats that there are. This includes misinformation, disinformation and some of it is deliberate and some of it is government sponsored, it could be any government in any country. Every time there is an election, the possibility of misinformation increases. So tomorrow if the elections are a week from now and somebody tells you that this politician was caught taking a bribe from somebody or was caught having beer with someone, let’s say a business person, it is all over the news. And then if you are a normal citizen and if everyone is retweeting and sharing and everybody is commenting on it there must be some truth to it. It may not be completely false. May be that MP was having a beer but may be it was with his brother, it was with a friend. So just a small twist of the truth can turn the tables very easily and when it comes to important things like elections that makes it all the more important that at least we focus on that. And I have not seen a concerted effort to really push forward in that direction, or at least I have not seen any successful examples of that. The way we have been lucky in that regard is we started about a year ago during the first lockdown. During that time we saw there was increased disinformation in the medical sector regarding Covid. And we tried to trace it back. Let’s say if there is misinformation regarding vaccines and how Covid spreads you can tackle that but that’s tackling the symptoms. But what is the root cause? And we started asking that question and we found that most people didn’t even know their constitutional rights. And the fundamental constitutional right is what blossoms into right to information, into your ability to ask the health ministry for any specific records of vaccines, your ability to ask the MPs what were the procurement guidelines for getting the vaccines and there was a whole scandal going on last year. And we decided to focus on that and that is what caught people’s eye. We started on Facebook and we realised people don’t use FB for that purpose. They use a more visual medium and we went into Instagram. Over a year we went from 100 followers to 12,600 right now. We have reached around 150,000 users per month and by any standard of measurement we are currently the most prominent source of civic information and anti-disinformation in the country digitally. And we focus on fundamental rights of citizens, we ensure that citizens are engaged in that discourse itself. So, we have something called Civic Talks where we bring in people from different sectors to give tit bits of insight; one idea and 30 seconds. And people are interested in that because they start to learn about more issues themselves. How will you protect yourself against disinformation if you don’t even know what the facts are? It’s about uncovering layer by layer.
Of all the recognitions that you have received which is close to your heart and why?
It would be this initiative called Global Shapers, a global community of young changemakers. And we have a hub here in Kathmandu with incredibly talented people. I was never into community groups like the Rotary types but I guess I found my crowd at Global Shapers. I found people who were as passionate about issues they care about as I was passionate about entrepreneurship and innovation. The Global Shapers Community started in 2011 and the Kathmandu Hub in 2012. It is one of the oldest hubs in the world. They have done some phenomenal work over the years including building a school during the earthquake and two health posts. But there was no impact to show for it. It was nowhere in the media. There wasn’t a report that was properly made. And this also ties back to the evidence I was talking about earlier. They had done it but where is the data, where is the evidence for it. So, I started an Impact Community in 2019 and I got the data and eventually the community itself realised that this is not a problem in just one hub. Many people had done phenomenal work but the impact measurement was not there. So, they started this thing called Impact Officer. The leader of the hub or the curator at the time chose me to be the first Impact Officer and so I went about the process of measuring everything we had ever done, 20 projects done over the past decade. It was incredibly hard work but eventually we were able to win the 10-year anniversary challenge among the entire Global Shapers Community. We were one of the five hubs that won among the 435 hubs. And then they have this Impact Council which oversees the impact of the community and I am one among 10 there. I think my being elected to serve is thus the closest to my heart.