15 Jul 2016
10 min read
1396 words
VMAG talks to serial entrepreneur Suman Shakya, who started Smart Pani after struggling with water-shortage issues at his new home

What ventures have you been involved in? Have they been successful?

All my ventures have their own selling points. When I started in 2000, it was the first ecommerce chain designed for distribution. But even now, 16 years later, you’ll see that distribution in Nepal is still a problem. We were the first direct-marketing company. I’ve worked on several initiatives, including the free newspaper Metro Paper. We’ve also tinkered with a lot of new ideas like ringtones and sms-pushing. It has all been a learning experience, and I’m fairly happy with what we were able to achieve. People say that I’m not a hardcore businessman because I always make it a point to include the social wellbeing component in the equation. I try to find social solutions and see if we can make the project sustainable by commercialising it and taking it forward. My next venture is Smart Urja, an alternative energy solutions provider that will produce electricity and biogas from biomass and livestock waste.

What is the trick to keep going despite your ventures’ not always succeeding?

Cycling between various projects is quite challenging, but see, if I work with a good team, half of my problem is already solved. I need to work with a team that loves taking on challenges; it’s never always about making money or just trying to find a solution. The composition of the team is very important. What I have learned from my successes as well as failures is that you shouldn’t do things on your own. You need a team that can come together and complement your strengths, as well as compensate for your weaknesses.

You need a team that can come together and complement your strengths And compensate for your weaknesses
Why rainwater harvesting?

I was exposed to water-scarcity problems during my school days in Kalimpong, and later in Kathmandu I was buying at least two tankers of water a month to meet my household needs. Years later, when I was building my own house, I started exploring various options regarding electricity and water, including rainwater harvesting. I came across various NGO and INGO people who were involved in rainwater harvesting, but they all refrained from helping me, as they were exclusively busy with their projects. By chance, I met Tyler McMahon, who along with his three technicians, installed a rainwater-harvesting system in my house. The rainwater is collected from the roof, goes through various filtration processes and then straight to my tap. The excess water is used for recharging the well, which sustains us through the dry months. Initially, I was fairly skeptical myself about whether the volume collected could help me over a long period of time. But that was in 2011, and for the past five-and-a-half years, I have not bought water. I have thus saved money, which means I actually paid off my system.

So you could say your own challenges led to a business venture?

Definitely. My struggle with installing a simple system at my house was the genesis of Smart Pani. We realised that this was a good idea and that maybe we should explore it more. Like I said earlier, it also helped that I had a team to take this vision into next phase. Tyler, a Fulbright scholar, has been working on water issues for long time in Nepal, and his technical expertise and business perspective have been a lot of help. Initially, when I started out it was more with the motive to help people; later I realised we could turn scarcity into opportunity. In 2013, we were recognised with the Surya Nepal Asha Social Entrepreneurship Award. Smart Pani is now a separate company, and hopefully we will be able to continue the good work.

What’s the main hurdle to getting people open to rainwater harvesting?

Because more people are migrating to Kathmandu, the resources here are dwindling, and everybody just opts for a more convenient way out—they would rather buy water than resolve the problem on their own. So the number one hurdle is the people’s perceptions of rainwater. Forget drinkability, I have come across individuals (even engineers) who doubt whether rainwater can be used for household needs. I guess, people have no respect for water mainly because we always had an abundance of water, and we had other water-resource substitutes like wells, ponds, water tankers etc.

Can you break down the water problems we are facing in Kathmandu?

We need to understand that rainwater is good. It must be harvested in some form or the other. If you’re able to use it, that’s definitely beneficial for you, but if you’re not able to utilise it, don’t waste it—let it seep into the ground and recharge the groundwater. In Kathmandu it’s not just the dhunge dharas that are drying up; a number of ancient wells are also under threat. That is definitely alarming as the underground water table is receding. People are just using groundwater, but are not recharging it; this is called double negative and is no less than a social crime. Here’s a simple equation: 1 ana—31.79 sq m—can yield 40,000 litres of rainwater. So whether you use rainwater for yourself or let it recharge the groundwater, it’s a win-win situation. The correct information regarding the matter has not been disseminated, and as a private entity, we can only do so much.

So why go with Smart Pani, or any other rainwater harvesting system?

We say that the cost of our system is cheaper than an iPhone. People are ready to shell out money for a piece of gadget but not for a household system that can be useful for the next 10 years. If you opt for rainwater harvesting, you are doing a lot of social good and also saving tons of money. One tanker of water costs Rs 2,500, and if you consume two tankers a month, then imagine the amount you are saving every year. People do talk about the Melamchi solution. Melamchi is undoubtedly a good thing for Kathmandu, and even when we start piping in water from there, there’ll still be a shortage of water. Because the demands have increased over the years, and let’s face it Melamchi is already 20 years late. We often hesitate to implement ideas into action. We Nepalis try to find solutions to problems only when they reach a critical stage. If you want change to happen, you have to be the change.