After Amit Agrawal, this week’s edition of #TenQuestions features another Fintech maestro Prashish Rajbhandari, who’s worked at the heart of Silicon Valley and recently came back to Nepal to explore opportunities here.
Prashish is a blockchain researcher and developer, previously based in Silicon Valley. He is currently on a mission to dissect the fintech & blockchain market in Asia and to understand their potential. He has been involved in several organizations like Clip, Mozilla Foundation & Code for Nepal.
1. What is your professional background?
I’ve worn several working hats in my professional life. During the early stages of my career, I worked as a software engineer but was involved in design, development, testing, deployments, etc. The plan was to taste a bit of everything.
Eventually, I figured out that I liked to convert ideas into products. We would find the requirement for the business at the time, build a working prototype within a few days and then test it. Once we validated the use case, we would then refine and optimize the result. This was my day job at Clip, a fintech company based in California, US.
Outside of work, I like contributing back to the community. I’ve been part of Developers Nepal, Mozilla Foundation & Code for Nepal. My duties involved hosting events, organizing workshops, teaching, mentoring, etc.
My favorite project was mozdrive, where I drove around 41 US States in 25 days to raise awareness about the open web, digital privacy, and literacy.
2, If you had such a promising career in the US, why did you decide to come back to Nepal?
There were several factors for this decision. I had a fantastic time in the US, both personally and professionally. The Silicon Valley environment pushes you hard to think outside the box, take risks and work on “world-changing” ideas. In the last few years, I was lucky to meet few of my influencers in-person. The common theme among them was that they stood out from the crowd by doing things that were different.
I was in a similar position. Clip had grown from a few people inside a shared space to several hundred people across three cities. My role changed in the process, and I started to get extremely comfortable. It was time to move on to something different and more challenging. I had two options: either to find another job in the States or look somewhere else.
When I was in the States, I had been closely monitoring the Asian market, especially in the technology space. The pace of development in the last few years is astounding. Instead of observing it from the west, I wanted to take the leap of faith to be at the center of it.
I decided to come back because Nepal is home, it has a lot of opportunities to develop in the coming years and is a flying distance to major South Asian cities.
One area that I’m heavily focused on right now is the blockchain. This is a new breed of technology that can revolutionize a lot of industries. It was the right time to jump ship.
3. What are you working on these days?
These days, I’m dedicating most of my time to understand the local industries from agriculture, farming, education, manufacturing etc. Being a technologist, I saw the world through a technical lens and Silicon Valley further narrowed that vision. To work on issues that matter, you need to understand them from the ground level. This is why I’m always on the run to meet people and understand their business needs.
On the side, I’m actively reading a lot of books (especially history and biographies), following the worldwide trend on blockchain, writing code & publishing in infourminutes & Medium. I’ve also started learning Mandarin.
4. Why do you think the IT industry in Nepal hasn’t been able to grow?
The last several years were a disaster for development and innovation in Nepal. There are a few rising stars, but they were born out of forced necessity than being nurtured by the IT industry or the government. The biggest hindrance that I see right now is the current government policies to support technology companies and agencies.
We have also seen a mass exodus of technical talent from the country. I see an opportunity to fix that by having the right policies and infrastructure. International payment is still a huge issue right now. How can a startup in Nepal compete in the global market when there is no proper channel for payment? The government should be open and willing to adopt new technologies.
The world saw a rise of cryptocurrencies in the last year. Most countries understand how powerful the idea is to have a global, borderless payment, but Nepal banned it. Instead of understanding how they can help nurture the new technologies, the regulators’ first instinct is to stop innovation.
5. You mentioned blockchain a few times, what is blockchain? Is it the same as bitcoin?
Blockchain and bitcoin are two completely different technologies.
Bitcoin is a revolutionary system, which can be used to transfer electronic payments without a trusted third party. This means that any two people can participate in the global finance.
The concept of Bitcoin can be daunting for a lot of people, but imagine a world before the internet or the printing press when you had to go through a centralized authority to publish your information. The internet changed that. Cryptocurrencies do the same but for finance.
The blockchain is the underlying technology for bitcoin or other decentralized systems. It is a network of computers, which maintains a public ledger with append-only capability. Imagine that a notebook is distributed all around the world, they all have the same entries, and once an entry is written, it cannot be changed. It solves a fundamental problem of trust and serves as the foundation layer to move away from centralized systems like banks, social networks. Bitcoin was understandably the first application of the blockchain. Today, there are countless projects which are using the blockchain. Eg.
- Ethereum, which serves as a global computer.
- uPort, Civic, Hyperledger Indy, which stores identity in the blockchain.
- Filecoin, which stores data in a decentralized network.
6. Do you see any use cases for blockchain technology in Nepal?
There is a reason why all major banks, corporations are jumping to understand the blockchain. Mark Zuckerburg, the founder of Facebook, wouldn’t dedicate 2018 to understand blockchain and cryptocurrencies if it was just hot air. It has the potential to make businesses efficient, and to revolutionize few industries. For that, you need to embrace the technology and work alongside it.
China, Philippines, Singapore, India, South Korea, Dubai are all racing to become the blockchain hub of the world. Nepal should be and can be in the race because the technology is so early.
Few areas that have huge potential in Nepal are finance, remittance, supply chain management, identity & government process. The bank settlement, which currently takes a few days, can be done in a few minutes. To get anything done in the government, it takes few days to weeks. The blockchain can help streamline the process. You have to understand that the blockchain is just one part of the whole system.
7. What kind of policies should the government bring out to support the development of the IT sector?
First and foremost, the government should embrace new technologies and support the current industry.
China & South East Asia leapfrogged landlines directly to mobile phones because the government saw the potential and wrote policies to support the vision. Today, countries like Dubai, Singapore are racing to make the first smart cities.
They have put in place policies for the same. For instance, the Singapore government pays 70-80% of the salary of individuals who want to transition from a non-technical to a technical role.
I see technology being the difference between an industry and an efficiently-run industry. Nepal has to identify its strengths and do its homework. Policies to efficiently start and run a business, take part in the global market, support local industries, provide proper benefits for employees and stop brain drain should be the number one priority of the government.
8. Which is your favorite Nepalese startup and why?
There are few startups that I regularly mention to my friend abroad. I think my favorite is Tootle.
Tootle solves a major transportation problem in Kathmandu. Public transportation is in a dire condition; we only use it because we have no other option. I hate the taxis because there is no standard pricing model and they deny rides just because they can. Tootle has the potential to disrupt this market completely.
The yellow cabs in New York City acted the same as the taxis today: no respect for passengers, scamming them for the price. Uber came in and swept the market because they provided what the yellow cabs didn’t. I see something similar happening in Nepal in future, and I have high hopes on Tootle to lead the charge.
Fixing transportation is a must for Nepal at the moment.
9. What does your experience working at Clip tell you about the possibilities of Fintech in Nepal?
I see a huge potential in the Fintech in Nepal. Proper fintech opens the door for the unbanked, and that by itself is a great service to the nation. We know how banks are so slow to adopt new technologies. Companies like Clip in Mexico, Square in the US, PayTM in India, etc have shown that startups can disrupt at a huge scale.
Mexico is a cash-based economy, just like Nepal. At Clip, we worked to empower the merchants to accept cards. We continuously worked with the government to bring Clip in every corner of the country, and we were wildly successful at it. We saw that people are ready to move to a cashless system, but the lack of infrastructure, training, and awareness were the biggest hindrances.
It is not only about the technology, but also a cultural factor. I think Nepal, first needs to set up their core fintech infrastructure and then aggressively bring the people online, financially. The potential is endless.
10. What do you think BBA and MBA students in Nepal should learn about blockchain or Fintech to make themselves ready for a world run by cryptocurrencies?
Blockchain & cryptocurrencies are very early. It is at a stage when the internet was in 1992 (it took 10 years for the web and internet to become mainstream).
The first thing that you need to do today is read and learn about them.
Don’t be intimidated because it sounds technical. The blockchain is being actively studied by economists, politicians, historians, regulators, business executives because it opens the door for a lot of possibilities across various domains.
For Nepal to be at the forefront of this new technology boom, we need people from all domains to be involved. The internet made it possible for global information exchange, fintech & blockchain will make it possible for people to exchange value globally at a different level. Let’s prepare ourselves!
King’s College would like to thank Prashish for sharing his wonderful experience and wish him a successful journey ahead. He can be contacted through his email namaste[at]prashish[dot]xyz