Asheem Man Singh Basnyat is the Regional Director of Pathao and a pioneering entrepreneur and investor. His interest and enthusiasm in business led him to gain experience in various multinational start-ups. He graduated from Beijing International Studies University in Management. He also holds a MA degree from the Tribhuvan University. In an interview with Kathmandu Pati’s June Karkee and Rose Singh, he talks about the current pandemic, how it has affected Pathao as well as other thriving startups, and the challenges that lay ahead for Nepal’s business and e-commerce sector.
Has there been any kind of support that the government has given to start-ups like yours?
-No, there has not been any financial or any other form of support from the government’s side. However, they have been supporting us in terms of giving us a little bit of space to operate by which Pathao has been operating as a logistic support company. A lot of other startups have also been given the space to operate.
How has Pathao survived or thrived during this pandemic? What specific policies or actions have you taken to get through these times?
-The first thing that we did was cut all unwanted costs starting from the internet speed we had acquired earlier. We would not need that so we decreased that drastically. The most senior staff members have not been drawing their full salary as of now, however, this has not affected anyone who is not in the management committee. We decided to not draw our salaries so that we can extend our runway. Beside me and a few other people, everyone has been getting paid in full. We had a lot of plans for this year, including launching a few more verticals as well as operating in different cities. We had saved enough money to do that, but now we are being forced to use that money towards other urgent matters.
Since we’ve now gone into Lockdown 2.0, how is that going to affect your operations, sustainable financing, strategy for the company’s growth, etc.?
-We were operational for 40 to 45 days between the two lockdowns, where we did not spend any money on promotions, nor did we subsidize any rides, which allowed us to accumulate some money that we will be using for another couple of months. I believe that this lockdown will not last for more than a month because it is much stricter than the previous one. Any symptomatic or asymptomatic person will either cure themselves or be admitted to the hospital in a span of 30 days. As long as the valley’s borders are sealed, I believe we will be operational again in a month’s time.
More broadly, how is this going to affect early-stage startups in Nepal that require person-to-person interaction?
-It is always tough for startups, but what our company has been doing as a market leader is trying to help new startups survive. During the first lockdown, we were fortunate enough to bring these startups under one umbrella. We are now trying to register an association that would help them by creating some synergy.
Foodmandu, for example, has been helping some small startups, and other backward integration partners have been helping some of their members survive this crisis. A leading e-commerce company has started Sahayatri, where they are trying to help smaller startups as well as entrepreneurs gain access to the market. We are all trying to help one another during these uncertain times.
What safety measures and precautions has Pathao implemented, and will continue to, in order to reduce health and safety risks during and after the lockdown?
-Pathao was the first company to give out suits to their staff members during the first lockdown. We also provided insurance to them, following in Foodmandu’s steps. During the period between the two lockdowns, we distributed breathable protective suits to all the riders, and made it mandatory for them to purchase covid insurance, where we put in half of the premium amount, and gave them sanitizers that they could refill from the office and masks that they had to purchase themselves.
For taxis, we installed a plastic film between the driver’s seat and the passenger seats behind, for additional protection. We also provided the drivers with sanitizers and asked them to sanitize the vehicle as frequently as possible. In addition, we made it mandatory for them to purchase covid insurance, so that in case they got infected, they would have some money to get by for a few months. I do not believe that any other ride sharing or transportation companies in Nepal took the measures that we did.
What are some of the challenges you as a company faced even after maintaining a sound internal logistical system?
– The first challenge was misinformation. The first lockdown was not called for because at that time, although we had just a few cases all over Nepal, the entire country was shut down for five months, which has left negative impacts until now. The way the world was portraying the virus was that if one leaves their home, they are basically already infected.
So we were all afraid too. It was only later that we realized that if we took certain steps, the chances of us catching the virus would be minimal.We then took all these safety measures and we began to provide logistical support to other companies that needed their essentials to be delivered to their customers.
We also realised that there were a lot of companies that needed more resources than just delivering their products, so we lent our human resource expertise to them for guidance. That way, we were able to incubate a few companies and help them grow. When the vehicle ban was partially lifted, we thought our riders and customers both needed to be protected, so we began distributing protective gear and products.
We re-trained them on new protocols; what should be done and what should be avoided, and we were able to ensure that there would not be any contamination or transmission of the virus through our platform. Many people who were unemployed for the last four months received some money that they could survive with for another month or two. It was all about rediscovery and figuring out what was next.
What could the government have done to help you?
-Recognising that startups are important to the economy is the first thing that the government can do. There were tens of thousands of people who relied on Pathao to earn that little bit of money they needed, and I am sure there are many others who do the same through startup businesses. Unfortunately, the government has not yet fully understood just how important startups are. Once, I was attending a government meeting before the current lockdown to convey the message that delivering products on bikes is much safer than delivering in vans.
I was with a few other friends from the e-commerce cohort, when a gentleman responsible for looking over important decisions asked us what e-commerce is. That is the level of information that those who are responsible for lifting up the economy have. The government needs younger people in the steering committee, who can come up with a proper plan on how startups need to be nurtured.
What challenges do you think you will face in trying to regain the momentum you lost because of covid?
-We will not have momentum we had in late 2019 for at least another year or two. Instead, what we can do is evolve as a company and bring about changes to better suit a world post-covid, where food delivery will be a major service. Right now, we are prioritizing food delivery over everything else.
A lot of startups have lost faith in themselves right now, but they need to take some time and think about what they can do better or differently to survive. This phase will either make them break them. Many unicorn and decacorn startups have fallen into the traps of covid, not just the new ones either. If they do not evolve, they are bound to become extinct. That is what I would like to advise everyone– to adapt, evolve and survive.
June Karkee is a News-Editor and writer at Kathmandu Pati English, covering politics, peace, conflict, security, defense, and diplomacy issues. She holds a BA in Global Studies. Prior to joining Kathmandu Pati, she interned at The Kathmandu Post and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nepal. Her areas of interest include development studies, globalization and feminism, and the intersections between these. Find her on Linkedin as June Karkee.
Rose Singh is a sub-editor at Kathmandu Pati, covering politics, lifestyle and entertainment. She previously interned at The Kathmandu Post and is currently a law student at Kathmandu School of Law. She tweets @_rosesingh