Dr Upendra Mahato: the business mogul

4 min read
17 Nov 2017
4 min read
1678 words
Dr Mahato talks about his journey from a small rural settlement in Nepal to Russia, his NRN movement, and his ambition of triggering an economic revolution in the country

Dr Upendra Mahato, the business mogul who's listed as one of the richest Nepalis in the world, believes that one doesn't necessarily need to be wealthy to give back to society. He himself has contributed more to the development of the country than have most of his contemporaries. Dr Mahato wears many hats. He is the president of the Russia-Nepal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in Russia, and the Honorary Consul General of Nepal in the Republic of Belarus. He  is also past president of the Non-Resident Nepalese Association, International Coordination Council (NRNA, ICC).

In this Inspire interview with VMAG's Monica Puri, Dr Mahato talks about his journey from a small rural settlement in Nepal to Russia, his NRN movement, and his ambition of triggering an economic revolution in the country. Excerpts: 

What did you learn as a child that you think helped shape you as a man?
I was born in 1963 to a family of farmers. But I have always considered myself fortunate in that, despite my family's financial situation, I received an education. My family was always supportive of my drive to learn. My mother and my grandmother always pushed me to study harder--even though they never received an education. My grandmother would wake me up at four in the morning every day to make me study, and to make sure that I didn't veer off track. In Nepal, I believe, there is this inferiority complex--especially among children who come from lower economic classes--that we are not good enough. And from a young age, I wanted to break free of that mindset. I wanted to be in a better place in life.
Tell us how you ended up in Russia. And how did you start your enterprise?
I wanted to become an engineer. My interest in hydropower projects had been piqued then; I was particularly interested in the Karnali Hydropower Project (which, sadly, is still in the planning phase). After completing high school, I came to Kathmandu in search of new opportunities to learn. I applied to different scholarship programmes in India and Russia (then the Soviet Union). I received scholarships to both countries, and I decided to go to Moscow, Russia.

While I was studying in Russia, I started trading in electronic goods and jeans to support myself and to bring some money back home. The new economic reforms in Russia back then permitted traders to bring in goods from other countries and sell them in the country through internal channels, so that is what we basically did. When I completed my PhD, my friends suggested that we set up our own company, rather than merely work as traders. I had nothing better waiting for me back home, so I took up on the offer. While we set up the company, and I also got done with my DSc degree in soil mechanics. Fortunately for me, because of what my studies entailed, I had established good relations with the country's geological and mining departments, and I found out about crude-oil deals. The open-market policy in Russia allowed private companies to get into the oil business. My company was one of the first foreign-national-run companies that was permitted by the then Russian government to operate in Russia.

How did you go from a rising entrepreneur to starting an NRN movement?
Throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to work with various individuals from across the world. But whenever I made an overseas trip, I used to face humiliation because of my Nepali passport. That made me feel like it didn't matter how rich or successful a person was; that the respect a person earned was ultimately tied to a person's roots. I wanted to change the perception people had towards Nepalis; I wanted to make sure people treated Nepal with the respect it deserves. That was how and why I started the NRN movement in 2003--to uplift the economic status of the country with the contribution of Nepalis residing abroad.

What do you think we can, as a nation, do to generate employment opportunities and alleviate poverty in the country? 
The government can probably create job opportunities for 30 to 40 per cent of the population. The remaining 60 per cent will be left without jobs, unless the government provides them with self-employment opportunities, which requires them to have at least one skill and be able to invest a certain amount of capital. This initiative should be made by both the government and the NRN community--in order to help produce more entrepreneurs in the country. If Nepal is to be economically stable, the majority of the population should at least belong to the middle-class. The authorities should be focusing on increasing the living standards of small- and middle-scale business owners, and most importantly, developing cordial relations with them.

What gaps do you see in the way the Nepali market operates at the moment? And what potential do you see?
There are many sectors that the country can seriously grow. One of them is hydropower. We tend to think that lack of investment is what is hindering the completion of hydropower projects here. But that isn't the main problem; the main problem is, we don't have a market to sell the generated power. Lack of technological innovations in the country limits our market to only the demand from India as it stands today. The government should figure out how they can create a win-win situation for both countries, by, for example, finding other sectors that can use our electricity. 

The service industry--which includes tourism, health, education and agriculture--is another equally important sector. These are sectors in which we don't have to rely on outside parties. If we develop our own robust infrastructure for tourism, the sector will no doubt flourish on its own. Instead of wasting resources on only inviting new tourists to travel to our country, we should focus more on how we can provide better services to tourists who already want to come to Nepal. And it's a shame how Nepalis are spending money on health services abroad. Nepal could be a health destination itself. We have some really good doctors with great professional records and a lot of expertise. And of course, we all know the huge amounts of money that fly out of the economy in the name of education. Why don't we invest all that money in productive sectors here?  
What policy changes do you think we need in order to succeed economically?
I don't think there are any problems with the economic policies of our country. Our weakness lies in the improper implementation of those policies. Instead of focusing on just coming up with new policies, I'd instead urge the concerned authorities to properly execute the existing ones. 

Do you have any political ambitions?
Yes, I do have political ambitions, but they have more to do with economic reforms of the country than politics. I want to work towards bringing about an economic revolution in the country. For this, you don't necessarily have to be a part of any political party or institution. This is the age when economics influences politics, and if the country doesn't work towards capitalising on its economic potential, it will fall behind.
How important do you think philanthropy is?
I believe we are forever indebted--indebted to our parents, teachers and society at large. And the only way to repay those debts is by giving back to society. If I haven't done anything philanthropic, then it doesn't matter how respected I am in society. We always have our own little ways of contributing, and until we've contributed in our way, using whatever skills or resources we may possess, our life has no meaning.

What, in your opinion, is the key to success?
I believe no job is small or big. During my company's initial days, I managed everything alone. Doing so gave me the confidence to take on all sorts of roles and challenges. It also taught me to stay humble, foster good relationships with my staff and instill in them a sense of ownership over the work they were doing.

I also always advise people to have a good knowledge about a sector before getting into that line of work. My theory is simple: test a particular field for three years; if it works, stick to it, or else move on to some other idea. It would be much wiser for many businesses to find new ideas to work with, rather than waste their resources on a lost cause.