The people-driven (and funded) National Innovation Center

By Giulio Quaggiotto

In many cases one would not think that selling medals, rejecting repeat donations and being 90% funded by farmers, students and citizens would be the recipe for building an innovation space- but this is exactly what we found in Nepal.

Mahabir Pun is 64. But when you hear him talk about his work, it sounds like he lived at least a dozen different lives, all in one. After leaving his native Nepal to graduate in the US, he came back home motivated by the desire to help local communities. “I knew nothing about development back then, but I wanted to do something.” After getting involved in a tree plantation program and the building of a school, he initiated a number of income generating activities involving mostly rural communities — from a yak farm to a camping ground for tourists, from cheese production to paper and cloth making. As internet usage spread in other countries, Mahabir decided to bring the new technology to Nepal, with a focus on remote mountain villages. “Back in the days, I had to walk down to the closest town once a month to be able to check my email”, he says. He established the first long-range wireless connection in Nepal using modems (“everybody thought I was crazy”) and nowadays Nepal Wireless is a social enterprise servicing 150 villages and schools in remote areas throughout the country. When the political situation in the country improved and it became apparent that tourism could become a sustainable source of revenue, he initiated two community based eco-trekking programs, which entailed, among others, the setting up of a hydropower station.

This wide range of activities won him a number of international accolades and would have made most people rest on their laurels. But, and here is the kicker, this was not enough for Mahabir. He put all his medals and trophies up for auction on Facebook and made available his own land to finance his new project, a National Innovation Center for Nepal.

“It took me a long time, but I realized that all of this community work, important as it was, was just scratching the surface and was not enough to make Nepal an economically prosperous nation. We will never rebalance our huge trade deficit until and unless we build a culture of innovation and investing in innovation. That is the ultimate growth engine”. (He also does not spare a jab to the donor community:) “donors focus on building infrastructure, and that is very important. But building the infrastructure without enabling a new mindset is like delivering a new car without the engine”).

So once again, Mahabir decided to embark on a new adventure, fully aware of his learning curve, (“I have no experience creating an innovation center, so I am always looking for people who can teach me” he says, humbly), but also about the uniqueness of what he is proposing. “My center received no government or donor funding. I raised 800,000 USD, so far, and most of it comes from farmers, low and middle-income people, laborers, students, teachers. It is truly a people-driven National Innovation Center.”

What kind of support can Nepalese innovators expect from the Center? “Unlike accelerators or incubators we don’t set up upfront criteria in terms of age, type and length of the support required or amount of money available. Do the innovators need space? We’ll give them space. Do they need tools? We’ll give them tools. Do they need mentors or money? We’ll give it to them. We judge on the basis of the quality of the idea and the team behind it”.

Current projects being incubated at the Center include a drone for medical delivery, an incubator for rural clinics, a portable storage mechanism for extending the shelf-life of horticultural produce.

What about long term sustainability? “The Center is not a charity and I am determined for it to be self-sustained over time. This is why I don’t ask people for money upfront — I ask for expertise and mentoring first and foremost. If the plan is good, money will follow. I also tell people that I only accept one-off donations — I don’t want repeat donors. Eventually, the income from the Center will come from a number of investment propositions we are developing, including a new drink from ginger and Himalayan herbs, a software company, and a Himalayan water export business. Our biggest long term bet is the development of a 10 MW hydropower station that would generate sufficient income to support the Center. As Mahabir elaborates, “So far the government has not engaged — I hope they will change their mind”. A national innovation center financed by a hydropower station — Mahabir, once again, is set to break new ground.

As our Accelerator Labs begin their journey in identifying locally developed solutions, Mahabir’s story raises some important questions about the nature, motivation and location of grassroots innovation (often where public services or the private sector fail) and the best way to create a meaningful interface between institutions (be it donors and governments) and frontier innovators. Watch this space for updates and do get in touch if you have suggestions. @ricap_undp

Mahabir is open to new ideas and collaboration with individuals and institutions from around the world. If interested, you may contact him at mahabir@nicnepal.org.

In the Asia-Pacific region, we are interpreting the renewed mandate for innovation as an opportunity to reframe: follow us and contribute as we explore