The first steps on doing business in Nepal

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ June 4th, 2012. Updated on June 11th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » How to live overseas » Nepal.
Close up of wooden Buddha statue

Each answer to a question in doing business in Nepal answers to a question

Doing business in Nepal is easier said than done

Nepal is a fantastic country. It’s also mind-crushingly frustrating in many ways. Doing business in Nepal probably tops the list in both senses.

  One might think doing business in Nepal would be relatively easy. English is the language of choice for business. It has a multicultural society that’s open to many religions and beliefs. It’s sandwiched between two of Asia’s juggernaut economic powerhouses: India and China. It’s got a hard-working population who for the most part are honest.

Why then is Nepal floundering and making it so difficult for any one to do business? Or is there a secret to doing business here?

It’s taken me a long time but I’ve discovered a few answers.

A personal insight into doing business in Nepal

When I first came to Nepal in 2007 I will admit, rather childishly, that I wanted no one to know about this place. I hated the idea of today’s mass tourism trampling into this shangri-la of places. At least not until I had my chance of returning. So yes, as I wrote, a childish notion. That’s from a tourism perspective by the way.

The strange thing is in terms of doing business here there’s a similar shroud of secrecy over the place. One that I don’t mind revealing as even if you know how, it’s still an incredible undertaking. Doing business in Nepal requires one to have a key to unlock these secrets. Moreover, just like Pandora’s box, such things might very well be better off left secret.

When I returned to Nepal I had several goals, both personally and professionally. One of these goals was to find the key to this Pandora’s box I first stumbled on years ago. It took me six weeks initially to do this. However I’m adding an additional three months due to all the other little boxes that need to be opened just to get the first to work.

Yes, doing business in Nepal is a like opening a continuous chain of boxes.

Some will open to reveal a gem. Others will open with a note telling you where to find the next box. Other boxes again will open to reveal further boxes within which there will be no key.

The first key is to know who you are and where you fit into things.

Busy street in Kathmandu Nepal

Getting business done in Nepal is not a one way street

The White Elephant Effect

You’ll read more about the White Elephant in a future article. Sufficed to say it’s a term used under the breath for a colonial ”white” westerner doing business or working in Nepal. Ergo we live here therefore have extra cash, are affluent business types, possible accessible bank accounts, passports to new lands and people with resources that can get things done etc.

We are there to rule at the price of a heritage coin.

While not the understanding of all, nor spoken about openly, such a mentality is abundant.

As such the average non-Nepalese is at an immediate disadvantage due to these preconceptions and the misconception that if one is not Nepalese one must surely be here to spend money or influence in one way or another that deserves a significant portion of wealth to be handed over.

Move up above the tourist level and now we are talking bulk orders at inflated prices, set prices above the norm and brief interrogations on how much will be spent.

The “white elephants” are not alone either by the way. Many Nepalese face similar problems due to the caste system. If you are not of a certain pedigree, then you won’t even be allowed to do business in some areas.

Breaking the gatekeepers barrier

Gatekeepers are the people who you generally first meet in any business. The people whose job it is to siphon off time wasters, scam artists, unsure business dealers and general inquires from the decision makers. Unless you run into a relatively new gatekeeper you’ll need to tackle them well to get straight to the top person who will at the end of the day make any decision worth your while.

Dealing with the decision maker is the goal of anyone looking to make a good business contact.

In Nepal this is not too difficult. Aside from the typical developing country talk of  They are not in. They are out-of-town on business. They are visiting family. They are in a meeting.  

I write all that leaving out the copious days of Nepalese gatekeepers telling me there’s no credit to telephone them. The battery is dead. There’s no light (electricity). Or the quite common fact that the humble gatekeeper hasn’t been told a thing by their boss and is utterly clueless as to where they are.

In which case you will get the come back later line.

To those who have lived or worked overseas all of this may not be too unfamiliar as I too have heard this  ”developing country spiel” in many places around the world


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An unprepared business meeting and a clash of culture in Nepal

So there I am crashing through a gatekeeper with the pretense that I am ready to do business now. I’m lead up a series of dimly lit concrete steps bordered by plain unpainted concrete walls and heavily bolted doors. Then it’s into a little office packed with boxes, strewn with invoices with some random cramped furnishings. There’s a bearded man behind the desk. I walk forward and the gatekeepers stay behind saying nothing. No introduction, no nothing.

I introduce myself to the nameless man who barely looks up from his checking of aged papers that are scattered on his desk. It’s past lunch time, I’m hungry and losing patience. So I cut to the chase and tell the man what I want. He does that Nepalese head wobble. The really minute one that tells you “Okay I’m listening, but I’m such a busy person shuffling through really old bits of paper I might not care.”

I mention money and the man looks up and gives me a positive side head wobble that tells me I’ve finally broken through to him.

Sadly, I also know I’ve just lost. I’m the one that mentioned money first. It’s like business suicide in Nepal to do this. I might as well go to a tourist shop and not barter.

Sure enough we don’t get much further as his prices are even higher than that of his gatekeeper. I leave. In a huff. Not at him but at my own frustration at still not getting how to break through this minefield of Nepalese business practice.

When to quit trying to do business in Nepal

So after many weeks of trying one method or another. Listening to tourists, non-related local business people, UN workers and expats. After going in passively, aggressively, humbly and on missions of mercy I always ended up back at square one. All those Pandora’s boxes held answers but none actually led anywhere.

I’d been lead up the garden path on many occasions. I’ve met with, agreed with, shook hands on and moved forward with so many deals that at the very last moment literally go up in a puff of smoke.

And behind that smoke? No matter the effort. Always a smiling Nepalese face as if nothing had happened at all.

Meanwhile I’m hammering my head against a wall thinking “No wonder your country is in such a mess.”

Busy road in Kathmandu

Finding the right person to help you in Nepal as a foreigner or even a local is key

So I set myself a deadline. If I can’t get this to work by a certain date. Then it’s a wasted effort. That’s a really unusual thing for me to do. Concede to not accomplishing something that is.

But there’s only so much you can invest in a task before the investment (not just financial) is outweighed by the cost of setting it up.

It was literally on the last day of this quest that I stumbled onto the master-key to all the Pandora’s boxes. Well, not the key to all the boxes. But the key to the box that held the map on where to get things done.

I met my own gatekeeper who held a key chain of these “Nepalese business” keys.

The first step to doing business in Nepal is finding the right key

In business contacts are always a part of your invaluable arsenal of getting things done. In Nepal contacts are sometimes worth more than your original business plan. Find your own gatekeeper and you’ve got access to the inside edge, more contacts, resources and answers.

As a “foreigner” in Nepal having such a gatekeeper is invaluable in removing the White Elephant from the equation. They provide you with contacts to decision makers, whom they will know through their own gatekeeper contacts. They will be your face in dealing with the initial problems of business in Nepal.

No one knows who you are, this is key. For now they are only dealing with the local man.

The astute local man who knows your plan. The astute local man who understands your plan. It is through this local gatekeeper that you no longer waste your effort chasing after the “big men”. You now only deal with the people who want to do business.

You have leveled the playing field. Your gatekeeper breaks through the cultural, linguistic, and umpteen other local walls that previously slowed you down.

Now with your own gatekeeper you have crossed the first step of doing business in Nepal.

Coming Soon:

The Sadhus of Nepal

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21 Great responses to The first steps on doing business in Nepal

  1. Sounds like a very bureaucratic system. I’m glad you found your own gatekeeper– but I’m very curious about your business opportunity. What are you up to? :)

    • Selling momo’s on the side of the road :) – joke. I’ll be putting more into upcoming newsletter.

      • yanet says:

        Hello Dave. i just read ur article and all my hopes went away hehehe. well im married to a Nepali and we are thinking on living there, so i have to find a way to make a business works. But he is into medical area, i have to think and develop my own business since he will be busy too. Do you have any contact number or email? mine one is (edited out email address)
        Thanks , i would appreciate if i can talk to you. Regards Yanet

        • Hello Yanet,

          It’s pretty much up to everyone to make their own way Yanet. Everyday I hear and get asked by people “how to make money here”. Certainly if you have an idea and would like to run it by me you are welcome to email via the address you have with this comment reply. But as far as supplying ideas etc I’m of little use to you!

          By the way inserting email addresses into comments here will result in having them edited out due to spamming. So please don’t publish your email address in comments.

  2. Furio says:

    As your last post, also this one remember me a lot of China, especially this sentence:

    “They provide you with contacts to decision makers, whom they will know through their own gatekeeper contacts.”

    Chinese people even have a special word for these “contacts”, 关系 (guanxi), which I would translate as “relationship”, and believe (with reason) that this is the only thing that matters to do business in China.

    Good luck with your business ; )

  3. Michael says:

    Bravo for your persistence. In countries like Nepal or any third world country for that matter, it pays if you’ve been there long enough to work out the local mentality/ies and ways of doing things. Not only will your patience grow longer (because you really have no choice) but you’ll also eventually find the short cuts.

    • Nepal is a strange place. The short cuts seem to be the way the locals work. To find a short cut here is like finding the normal way of doing things. I’m not sure the energy is there to hob nob with the real short cut makers!

  4. …Or your gatekeeper can image-build you and turn you into a mafia boss. Word gets around fast. (big grin)

    On a serious note, success to your new endeavor.

    • Me? The Mafia? Really :) There’s all sorts of Mafiosa style things going on in Nepal. I’ll have to find out if they have a word or term for it too!

      • Then I shall wait for your next article, my dear friend.

        Have several foreigner friends who tried to make it here
        as well, and a few are surviving pretty well, minus the red tape (though slow system frustrates). Establishing genuine friendship and connection helps a lot. Locals can sense when you’re in it just for the profit or genuinely care about the place.

        Should your business thrive there and find you settling finally after the long quest, then who would think Nepal is the ultimate place for a well known travel blogger to call “home” indeed? Nobody would have guessed if you were to run a contest. I even thought my country was one of your finalists. :-D

        Your gatekeeper must really cherish your friendship. Most locals (the good, sincere guys) extend trust that way, and money/income only comes as a bonus. If I were you, I’d adopt him already. :-)

  5. Mark says:

    In a world of generic travel blogs it’s truly great to read yours.

    I’ve always wondered what it would be like to try and run a business in another country. This little insight reveals a lot that I would never have thought of. Keep it up. This is better than anything I’ve read in a long time.

  6. BB Travels says:

    You are the first person I’ve met that’s enterprising enough to go from writing about their travels to making a business abroad.

    Did you set out to do this? How successful is this business venture? And I guess the million dollar question is what is this business?

    • Wow, that’s a lot of questions. Most of which are answered in my seasonal newsletter which is due out in a few weeks.

      If one hopes to live overseas then I would suggest a job is fairly important.

      As I mentioned, this article is simply about the first steps in doing business in Nepal. It’s not about “my business”. If I were to continue on I might as well lay out the whole business idea in detail and then watch as someone with far greater resources comes along and takes it all away.

      There will however be more articles on this subject matter!!

  7. Laura says:

    Good luck with your business- looking forward to hearing more about it. I have come across my own set of issues trying to do business in Kenya. But I guess that’s all part of the adventure ;)

  8. This sounds almost exactly like me trying to break back into the film, commercial and tv industry… but starting over in Hawaii. pppbt. Slight differences apply with ‘white elephants’ and gatekeepers, but they’re all there in some facet. The frustrating bs. Good luck on your business!

  9. While reading this post, I had in my mind running why on earth you wanted to breakthrough Nepal doing business, rather than just tourism and quick jaunt then come home. As I was towards the end, I am convinced and congratulates you for the perseverance and yes, your gatekeeper will forever link you to more opportunities in the future.

    Be that as it may, I wish you well in your endeavors! I wished I will meet you on the road wherever it may be.

    I am planning to be in India and Nepal for next year and prays hard my feet leads me to your doors and learn for you about how amazing Nepal as a country is.

    Cheers :)

  10. Salman ali says:

    Hiya mate, I loved this article of yours. Totally agree with everything you’ve written.
    Very true about finding the right guy to make things easy.
    I know how hard it is to make things done and I understand it gets really frustrating when the men behind those desks won’t do their job unless they get extra cash. It is stupid and very selfish of them.
    I’m Nepalese and even we local face this problem everyday, not only to open a business but also to make any legal documents, for example, making a passport is a nightmare.
    But I totally understand that it’s more worse if you are Caucasian or any other tourist cause all those people behind desks are using their power in the wrong way and have sold their soul already. And I fact they are proud of it, I I fact happen to know some of them who tell their story of corruption in pride I front of their children. It is a disgrace.
    I am sorry in behalf of my fellow Nepalese and I agree with your sentence,”no wonder why your country in this stage”.
    Cheers, salman

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