Recently one of Nepal’s leading media house decided to cut its print magazine production opting to go only for the online edition. Likewise, various magazines that once were best sellers, are not even in existence today. This shows the struggle in successfully running a magazine in Nepal. But there is one exception that begun its journey with a weekly newspaper page and has become one of the bestselling magazines of Nepal. Rajan Lamsal, founder of 'Living with ICT' company and editor of monthly IT based magazine named ‘Living with ICT’ shared his journey along with thoughts on the current ICT scenario of Nepal and the role of youth in the innovation in Nepal.
How did 'Living with ICT' start?
When me and my friends were in Biratnagar studying IT Engineering, we had an informal group. At that time there was no IT awareness in Biratnagar, so we formed that group to make people understand IT. The group started functioning and emerged as ‘East IT Community.’ We organized some programs like ‘free hand open source software training’ before the establishment of' Living with ICT'. It was just a brand name at that time. We also organized several awareness campaigns in various colleges of Biratnagar.
But as students, we couldn’t reach all colleges due to economic factors. Looking for an easier way to get our message out, we decided to pursue media and began streaming a weekly radio magazine on current IT issues, reports, news, quizes etc. The response was good, especially from students. Then we approached 'Biratpath', a daily newspaper and started publishing contents on a weekly basis. It used to be published on Sunday and because of our content the paper sold well on those days. This gave us the name and recognition we needed to attract the attention of other IT companies. Experiencing all of this and seeing good potential in the growth of the IT sector in Nepal, we decided to start an IT magazine and here we are today.
What were the initial hardships you experienced? How did you cope with those?
After we completed our Bachelor studies, we had to move Kathmandu or abroad for further study. Some of us went abroad and some started their jobs. Our magazine was not fully sustainable yet, so I was confused what to do as I was leading the magazine at that time. However, I knew I had it in me to move forward with it, so I came to Kathmandu and continued the magazine from here.
In Nepal, it is a common trait that many IT students while studying, start some startups but fail to continue. Their further study and opportunities both come as a barrier. You have faced a similar situation. How did you overcome this challenge?
You have asked the right question. Yes, this is the current problem of Nepali youths. They have ideas, but no patience to work in a team. More often than not, their vision differs. It could be due to family reasons or due to our social structure that we search for immediate results. However, things take time and therefore we have to cope with challenges and move on with it.
Talking about our case, when we started we didn’t initially see our future in it. It was just an initiative we started to do something purposeful during our student time and provide others with what we didn’t receive at the beginning. There was no business model. This happens to every startup. In this transition from initiative to business, some people see potential and some may not. Some appear with a pre-existing plan, but the plan never materializes. Others search for immediate outcomes. It happens.
Another thing is that we lack a business culture in Nepal and that affected our group too. In my case, I had no intention of going abroad therefore maybe I searched for opportunities here and dared to gamble with whatever I had. Based on my experience, I would encourage young people to try once here in Nepal before moving abroad, because brain drain will not make our country successful.
But people go abroad and learn new things such as new technologies. If we see it from this angle, is going abroad not also beneficial?
If people return from abroad that is better, but in our context that possibility is quite low. After learning new technologies, knowledge, and exposure abroad, if someone comes back it is a huge achievement. My friends are also abroad since the last 5 years, but none of them has returned yet. Had they returned, I would have loved to listen their new ideas and do business with them. But unfortunately, that is not happening. I am not saying no one has returned, but the number is quite low.
'Living with ICT' is not only a business. but it is also giving a platform for those who want to be updated on developments in the IT sector. You have already shared your long journey. How different is it being an IT developerto becoming an IT entrepreneur? How difficult is it to create space here? Or is it the same thing?
It is slightly different. I did my bachelors in IT and could have easily survived by programming, coding or doing a job somewhere. But through that, I could have earned something only for myself. Financially I would be satisfied, but that was not the thing I wanted. I wanted to do something, begin something on my own that could contribute to society. That benefits me and the society I live in. I was interested in media at that time and used to write articles in the national dailies as well. At that time very, little effort was made on writing about IT related issues in the media. I knew the market was open and there was potential. That’s why we started our small effort from Biratnagar, but running that nationwide and establishing it as a business was obviously a challenge. Many tried this with big investments, but nobody could achieve notable success. Many tried publishing IT magazines, but closed soon after. So that was a kind of challenge to begin with, but I was hopeful that if I would be able to survive in the long run it would be a huge contribution to the field. Now I am active in the IT field, not as a hardcore programmer myself but as a person who is giving space to programmers.
What are the proud moments you remember in this journey?
At the beginning, many people praised me. At that time, I won some awards like the ‘Youth Initiative Award' and later the ‘Social Development Award’. Coming to Kathmandu was tricky, because my team members were leaving and I had to struggle alone here. I had no contacts and no network. Kathmandu is a place, where there is a lot of competition and especially for those coming from outside the Valley it is more challenging. But when we keep going, challenges get relatively easier over time. Along with healthy competition, some people want to pull you back. but you have to walk strong. My inspiration was the saying that ‘if I want to stand tall, I have to struggle with my foundation’. Now it’s been 5 years already and we are regularly publishing our monthly magazines and organize other IT activities as well. We have been to various places of Nepal to run awareness programs. Now I have 12 employees. Our regular subscribers write us back and praise us for our contents. These are the moments I am proud of.
How many copies do you publish?
Monthly our 5000 copies go to print. Apart from that, we have online subscriptions as well. Probably we are the first magazine in Nepal, which provides an online copy of a magazine available for payment. Since the last two years, we have been using an online payment gateway and this is working really fine. From abroad people can download from PayPal, and even within Nepal, they can do it by using services like eSewa and read us from their screen. We distribute hard copies in 65 districts of Nepal through our subscriptions. But readership can’t be numbered according to the subscription list, because many of them are colleges, libraries, and offices, where many people may read a single edition.
In the context of the world where various newspapers and magazines are going for online mediums, why do you think 'Living with ICT' will sustain through hard copy?
I agree that due to the advancement of technology, media are being digitalized. The online market has grown, but despite that print media has value in the market. It is maybe hard for the daily newspapers, because of the short-term value of hard news but magazines are different. They are more focused on analysis, research and articles, which have long-term value. Hence. magazines are important for further study and knowledge acquisition. I think magazines will survive for this reason and so will 'Living with ICT.'. This challenge in a way is maintaining the quality. Those who can provide quality contents, they can sustain in the print media well. However, as we work in the IT field, we appreciate the digital revolution.
In the meantime, you have been organizing the ICT Award. Why is that? Why do you think such awards are important?
We have been working on IT media and have been running our magazine and other activities. During that time we reached out to various colleges and tried to promote early startups through media. We covered their profiles as well though our magazine. Then we realized that though we are covering them, they are not getting national attention. If we can recognize them through a national award, more innovative ideas would flourish and encourage youths to stay in Nepal and do something. This is how we came up with the ICT Award, which till date has been awarded to two innovative startups. It also worked as an eye-opener to the government to invest more in the IT sector and encourage start-ups
The two editions of the ICT award went really well. We awarded two startups, Sasto Deal (https://www.sastodeal.com/) and Kullabs (https://www.kullabs.com/),in the first edition and they are working really fine. In the second edition, there was participation of many companies that met our criteria of innovation, impact, sustainability etc. We even included an award category called ‘Diaspora Award’ to include innovative startups of youths who are working abroad, but which are interested to contribute Nepal’s IT sector and an award category ‘Innovative Product’ to recognize the innovative tools developed by Nepali companies. This is paying off really well.
Now Nepal is changing from a central to federal system. How do you see the future of startups from outside Kathmandu? What should be done to make them sustain in their own place so that they don’t have to come to Kathmandu like you did?
The federal system is yet to be implemented properly. I would say it may not have an immediate effect on the IT sector. In the new system, the budget now goes to the local level and if distributed wisely, it can create a huge impact on every sector including IT. I hope the time will come when the students from the local level will be leading innovative startups and solving local level problems. But still, Kathmandu has emerged as one of the biggest metropolitan cities of Nepal. It is already the home to many successful IT businesses. So, we can’t deny the presence of it.
You may have observed in the ICT award process there are various startups that struggle to keep going. Many of them are the outcome of sudden interest. Many of them are closed after some time. What do you think what they are lacking and what should they do to keep going?
Firstly, our IT market is quite open. Many things are yet to happen here, hence it has a huge potential. If properly done with effective vision, planning, and execution, IT businesses will sustain and be successful. We often blame our political environment and weak government support. Of course, there are problems. Despite that, if we maintain continuity, hard work and patience, success comes. Take the example of some of the successfully running IT businesses. It is true that the success ratio of startups is very poor worldwide, but it could be poorer in Nepal. But there are various businesses in Nepal, which were simple startups a few years back such as eSewa. As government services are being digitized, the future is bright. So, come with a clear plan and execute with patience! It works!