18 Aug 2017
7 min read
Not an 'activist' by definition, Sumana Shrestha is a citizen who's not afraid to use her voice. Her initiatives like Carpool Kathmandu and Medication for Nepal (MFN) have not only helped bring the local communities together, but have also helped build a culture where people voice their opinions and help each other out. MFN has even garnered praise from Barack Obama.
Shrestha, an MBA graduate from the MIT Sloan School of Management, dropped everything in the US to return to Nepal after the devastating 2015 earthquakes, and she has been active with various initiatives, one of them being Rebuild Kasthamandap.
In this interview with VMAG's Alok Thapa, Shrestha explains how she has been able to involve herself with so many ventures and how she tackles life--one problem, one day at a time.
Tell us something about yourself.
I grew up in a family of four kids. I was the youngest, and we were a pretty loud bunch. After completing my A level from Budhanilkantha School, I went to the US for my undergraduate studies, and I made sure I saved every penny so that I could buy a plane ticket home every year. After my bachelor's, I worked in Wall Street, structuring financial and fixed-income products. Then, I completed my MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. I started working, leading a fairly comfortable life, and planning for a backpacking trip to Europe. And then Nepal was hit by the devastating 2015 earthquakes. Everything changed after that; you could say it was one of the turning points of my life.
What made the financial analyst from Boston put all her plans on hold and return to Nepal?
My grandmother had been gravely ill, and every time I would come back to Nepal, I would see her getting more and more frail with age and illness. There came a point in life when I just asked myself why I was working in the US, away from my family, especially my grandmother. The 2015 earthquake was another factor that made me take the step. During the earthquake, we couldn't find my grandmother for nearly eight hours; we didn't know where she was. That sequence of events acted as a catalyst for me to move back to Nepal. Looking back, that was one of the best decisions I've ever made. My grandmother now has Alzheimer's, and I am grateful for the time I get to spend with her now.
Your initiative, Carpool Kathmandu, on Facebook, was huge during the fuel crisis. How is it still relevant?
During the fuel crisis I had blisters on my feet due to excessive walking, and I really wanted to hitch a ride, but there apparently was no such culture or platform here. See, every time I had an idea in Nepal, I always assumed that it already existed and that I would just use it. But when I asked my friends about carpooling, their unanimous answer was no. That set things into motion, and I started Carpool Kathmandu on Facebook. Within 15 days, 25,000 people had joined the group, where they could ask for and offer rides using the hashtags #ASK and #OFFER, as well as share their experiences. Today, Carpool Kathmandu has over 120,000 members. In a place like ours where the ever-increasing number of vehicles on narrow roads often leads to deadlocks, carpooling is still very relevant, and I think the government should get into the game and orchestrate it.
What have you learned from Medication for Nepal (MFN)?
Most of my initiatives stemmed from my own needs and struggles. During the blockade, I was going around searching for diabetes medicine for my mother and grandmother, and I couldn't find any. So I started MFN to connect people who need medication with those who were flying into Nepal and were willing to carry medicine; that's how I was able to get medicine for my parents. We also worked with the Department of Drug Administration to coordinate and create a database to help ease the supply of medications. We were able to provide more than 9.5 tonnes of life-saving drugs to 15 districts in Nepal. Right now we are heavily involved in Teach for Nepal's network to educate people about various health issues or the government's provisions for health rights (that many are unaware of) and including them in the Nepali curriculum. Currently, I'm looking for exit strategies so that I can close down MFN. I'm of the belief that INGOs and NGOs exist for a very specific purpose, for a certain time, and that they shouldn't run forever.
You're also very vocal about the restoration work in Kathmandu. What's happening on that front?
There's still so much to do. If you go to the Kathmandu Durbar Square, you'll see that it was built over so many centuries, which means that people from various periods have contributed to the heritage that stands as our identity today. And the 2015 earthquake, as devastating as it was, gave us an opportunity to give back to our community, and that is what I'm fighting for. I first protested against the way that Rani Pokhari was being rebuilt because they were building it using concrete while keeping us in the dark. I have also been involved with Kasthamandap's restoration as a member of a team of locals who have taken it upon themselves to rebuild the historical pavilion the right way; it's been a challenging, yet very enlightening, experience. I feel that the government should sort out their priorities and keep in mind that heritage doesn't belong to them; it belongs to the people, just like the government belongs to the people.
Tell us about the app you're working on.
When foreigners visit the many temples and chowks that dot Kathmandu Valley, they are blown away by how far back in history our stories go, the emotions they conjure, and how strongly we feel about our heritage. That's exactly what I'm trying to do with my app: let people appreciate Nepal, a mystical place that is absolutely breathtaking. The app does a few things--it gives an audio tour of Nepal, starting from Kathmandu, from a first-person perspective. It gives a local listing of jatras for people to participate in; actually, even local participation is declining, and I hope to change that. The app tries to bring people with similar travel interests together. We are naming it 'Bhuntu--travel like a local!'
Would you call yourself an activist?
No, I'm not a social activist. I am just passionate about things that I feel are important. It's just that, coming from a country like Nepal, it seems that we don't have any other option but to be an activist. And I also think everybody should have a political voice; you don't have to hold the banner of a political party, but you should have an opinion because politics is what determines the kind of society we live in, the kind of government structure we are going to have. I would actually like to label myself as an aspiring entrepreneur.
Tell us about the entrepreneur side of you.
There are so many problems in Nepal, and if you can help solve them and create value for other people while at the same time charging them for creating that value, you are an entrepreneur. For about a year, I have been trying to develop this skirt made of water- and dust-resistant fabric that basically helps me protect my dress when I'm riding my bike. We ladies don't have many options--it's either pants or those ponchos that can lead to nasty accidents. So I came up with this skirt that protects me from rain, dust and pollution. After many trials and much feedback, I have decided to start this line of protective wear for ladies and have named it Urban Rain.
What is going to keep Sumana Shrestha busy?
I'll be working on my app, Bhuntu. Hopefully we'll hold a soft launch in a couple of months. Of course, it will have to go through multiple iterations before we roll it out; since it deals with disseminating information about our heritage and culture, I have to make sure it has accreditation from concerned channels. I'll be taking my clothing line, Urban Rain, more seriously, and market it aggressively. And I will revolt strongly against the government if it decides to build heritage structures on tender, using substandard material, using people who don't have any idea about these structures. As for doing what I can to help the people around me, I will continue doing that for the rest of my life.