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. From 2012 -2018 everything and nothing has changed when doing business in Nepal. Let’s take a closer look.
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.
The White Elephant Effect
You’ll read more about the White Elephant in another 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. In 2018 the worlds gears have moved and while such terms are no longer “politically correct” they are more relevant than ever.
As such the average non-Nepali is at an immediate disadvantage due to these preconceptions and the misconception that if one is not Nepali 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 Nepali 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. Though post 2015 earthquake and the new generation of Nepali are pushing this one aside.
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 Nepali 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
The word “tomorrow” in Nepal brings a whole new meaning to getting things done. Then when tomorrow does come and nothing happens “Ke Garne” are the dreaded words many a foreigner hears in Nepal. Quite literally “what to do”.
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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 Nepali 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 Nepali 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 Nepali 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.”
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 “Nepali business” keys.
Doing business in Nepal is set up in the favor of the Nepali
Ever met someone who’s “moved to Nepal” to work? Everything is sunshine and rainbows. Until … One day they’ll need a business visa. That’s frightfully expensive and fraught with all sorts of legal mumbo jumbo. You’ll literally have to hire a lawyer.
Unless you really trust that Nepali NGO promising to do everything for you … and then find out nothing has been done or it’s all been done wrong.
Aside from that when you do get that crispy cheque in your hand! And you don’t have a bank account and can’t get one without being registered. You’re stuck again.
You go back and ask for cash. What a headache. Back to the bank to send it on to your own bank account outside of Nepal. Nope, not allowed. Off to western union. Nope, not allowed. Yes, welcome to Nepal where you can’t legally send money outside of the country. You can only send money into Nepal!
Technically Nepal central bank can send money outside of the country. However, it takes …. weeks if not months plus a lot of paperwork.
You see, Nepal is set up to make a few people very rich. These people are not the average foreigner trying to work or do business there. The only way that works is if you are buying Nepali products. This, is relatively easy. And of all business enterprises foreigners can do the easiest.
The other option is to simply keep your money in Nepal. Before you even think of it, Nepali customs specifically look out for large international currencies in peoples luggage leaving the country.
There are some enterprising Chinese who are engaged in the highly illegal but very easy transfer money out Nepal electronically using Chinese systems option. Neat eh? The catch, well you need a Chinese bank account. And, it’s illegal.
Alternatives? Yes. Legal ones? Nope.
Nepal is purposefully set up to keep foreign money flowing into the country while not letting money leave the country.
There’s a reason for all those big houses and SUVs in this “developing” financially wrought country.
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.
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