If there is one sector of the economy that is truly booming in Nepal today, it is the housing industry.
Construction can't keep up with demand fuelled by remittance and urbanisation. Needless to say, most of this growth is haphazard and malignant.
Yet, there was one group of engineers and investors who felt there was a need for a paradigm shift: provide quality housing at affordable prices while at the same time steer city's living spaces towards planned growth and create jobs. Om Rajbhandhary and his friends got together in 2001 to start Comfort Housing with this vision and launched a 76-unit development in Sitapaila.
"A developer is a contractor, consultant and client all rolled into one," replies Rajbhandhary when asked to describe his job. As the CEO of Comfort Housing, he has to deal with everyone. The biggest challenge was to overcome the Nepali tradition of building one's own house.
"We don't want to live in a house made by others because we don't trust builders," says Rajbhandhary. But Comfort has managed to build trust. People took well to the idea of living together because it reminded them of their ancestral bahals and choks in the old city. And because of the hassles of finding cement, steel rods, getting the water and electricity supply, builders realised it was much more convenient to let someone else worry about all that.
After Sitapaila, Rajbhandhary launched the even more ambitious Comfort Housing estates in Budhanilkantha, Sitapaila and Dharan. Rajbhandhary says he'd be challenged by developing more housing areas outside Kathmandu to ease the pressure on the capital, but most clients want to buy in Kathmandu.
Comfort Housing recently ventured into a vertical living project with The Comfort Housing Tower II at Lazimpat. It was so successful that the company is building three more apartment complexes in Bijeswori, Panipokhari and Sitapaila. It was inevitable; as Kathmandu runs out of space, there is nowhere to go but up.
We ask Rajbhandhary the secret behind the success of his projects besides having the right idea at the right time. "It is the trust from our customers about our product," he replies with conviction. "Most Nepalis save their entire lives to build a house in Kathmandu, which is why they are so attached to the property. I am lucky that people trust me to build their homes for them."
Unlike many developers who take short cuts to make a fast buck, Rajbhandhary says he owes his success entirely to customer satisfaction. What he hopes is that other developers also take his approach of customer-first, because if they are satisfied, it also helps the community and the nation.
As he surveys the Kathmandu skyline with us from a vantage point in the city, Rajbhandhary is proud to point out his projects and how they are inducing other developers to follow the model.
"One of the areas with huge untapped potential is budget housing because that's where most customers are," says Rajbhandhary, "there's urgent need for new entrepreneurs and investors."
Living in the complex he built in Sitapalia, Rajbhandhary has observed changes in the sociological aspects of Nepali family life. He says those who were not into sports are getting into it, and many are fitter and healthier. Children and adults who could not swim have learnt to, the community gets together during festivals and celebrations.
"There is a new sense of community, and I feel proud to be a part of that revival," says Rajbhandhary. He says there is enough profit in the housing business and plenty of land still left in Kathmandu for planned development.
The government benefits from housing business because it gets revenue during land procurement, and ownership transfer. Seventy-five percent of construction materials are locally made which pumps the money into the domestic economy through employment and taxes. A project worth Rs 400 million takes three years to build and the downstream benefits are spread out over time as well.
Rajbhandhary's only gripe is that for all its potential and contribution to the economy, the government hasn't yet given the housing industry the importance it deserves; for example allowing foreign investment in construction and housing.
"Nepalis won't have to go abroad in search of work, the construction boom will provide enough employment here at home," says Rajbhandhary. For that to happen, the government has to treat housing as a national priority, he adds, which is not possible unless the political leadership understands its importance.