Imagine a scenario in which all land ownership records are on a nationally networked computer database. And just picture all applications for passports being processed online. Now think of the IT park being built in Banepa, and the government IT policy that will, in principle, result in thousands more computer professionals in Nepal, growing by over 2,000 every year.
For most of us, the former seems fantastic-the government owns these records and seems unwilling to make them more systematic and accessible-and the latter, pointless. Nepal lacks an IT success story that people on the ground can relate to, which is perhaps why people outside the industry can't understand the hoopla surrounding the government's new IT policy and the repeated pleas from the sector to please implement it, fast.
But a little-known fact about Information Technology in Nepal is that it had enthusiasts-even in government-as long as two decades ago. But it was the private sector pioneers who have managed to make the industry a viable one. Today, though the government has a ministry to oversee IT and is even planning an IT park in Banepa, the industry remains driven largely by the private sector. In fact, many IT professionals feel they were better off without the additional baggage of under-performing bureaucracy that they are now saddled with.
The first computation machine arrived in Nepal during the 1971 census, a second generation IBM-1401 that used tape drives for storage and punch cards for data entry. After the census was done with, the government realised the gargantuan machine needed a permanent home and thus was born the National Computer Centre, whose mandate was to provide data processing services to government agencies.
Another census, another new machine, this one a British-made ICL 2950. It was state-of-the-art back then: one megabyte of RAM and a 640 MB hard drive in addition to 800 gigabytes of storage drives, which came in four units. People who know their computers are probably smirking at the admittedly limited capabilities of the ICL. But it did what it was supposed to do in its day, and helped the NCC stay in business for another decade or so.
"That was the pace at which the industry was developing at the time," says Suresh Regmi, an electrical engineer, who was one of about 12 engineering graduates who joined the NCC in 1982. Regmi now runs his own software house Professional Computer Services, which has written and administered some large national programs-VAT collection by Inland Revenue Office, maintaining electoral rolls and administering election results at the Election Commission and software for share market record keeping.
At about the time Regmi was learning the basics of COBOL on the ICL, Sanjib Rajbhandari (CHK) of Mercantile Communications had purchased his first computer, an Apple-II plus. Rajbhandari took some programming classes at a local training centre, which as he tells it today, did not even have one machine to actually work on-in those days, TV screens served as monitors and cassette tapes were used to record programs.
In 1983 Sanjib started a computer division as part of his family's office automation business. "For me computers were a hobby that turned into a business," says Rajbhandari. "In those early years we were a handful of people groping in the dark, not knowing too well what we were getting into." Today Mercantile is the largest Internet Service Provider in Nepal and also the largest employer in the country's IT sector. Its software division alone employs 100 engineers and many of its former employees now work with industry giants such as Microsoft and Cisco Systems. In the meantime, Rajbhandari has decided to play up Nepal's own strengths in service industries, and is moving into high-value software and IT-assisted service exports, such as its new call centre in Thamel.
As the computing business grew, so did the general public's appetite for new gadgets. About a decade ago, everyone started assembling PCs-this was, after all, a time when you did not need authorised distributors of branded names to sell you machines that worked, even a high-school graduate in the neighbourhood could cannibalise old machines to build new ones had become fair game.
At about this time, an initially-disinterested electronics engineer arrived on the IT scene. Bijaya Krishna Shrestha, who had been selling power back-ups and storage systems, took over the leadership of the Computer Association of Nepal (CAN) in 1995. His job was lobbying to put IT on the national agenda-CAN was alrady talking about having 100,000 Nepalis using email and the Internet by 2000, at a time when government was shutting down the NCC and there was no ministry or department to carry the torch. Says Shrestha, "That goal has become reality today." At CAN Shrestha spent a good deal of time running between government departments either pushing policy or doing background policy work for the government, which had no institution that could take charge of the fledgling industry. "CAN became the IT NGO, doing all the promotion and lobbying needed," says Shrestha.
Ironically, Shrestha's own firm, Beltronix, does not have a major computer division or any related businesses even today, despite the four years he spent marketing IT in Nepal. "I was busy at CAN all the time, my own businesses suffered, and I could not start the same IT businesses I was promoting," he says. Even though he personally missed the boom he was in part responsible for, Shrestha remains a passionate believer in the potential of IT in Nepal. He has moved on to different new businesses-from SAFA Tempos to banking-after his stint with CAN. And yet he remains convinced about the importance of the computing industry. "One job in IT is worth 10 in traditional businesses," says Shrestha. "With one computer you can add value from Rs 5,000-Rs 15,000 per person, with little or no investment."
Nepal's IT and IT-related industry already has over 500 companies-from small neighbourhood computer assembly operations to larger companies that employ over 500 people. There are over 100 training institutes, from the small, one-classroom set-ups to those providing internationally recognised courses. Nepal has more than 10 companies that specialise only in software development, not to mention the freelance workers who sit at home and write application software for clients around the world.
The industry is ready and raring to go. What it needs, say professionals, is the all-important push that only government can provide. "We need to create work. If we cannot get business from abroad, nothing should stop the government from creating it right here," says Regmi. "Such jobs not only provide employment opportunities for fresh graduates, they will also help make government more efficient."
Nepali engineers are already producing world-class software solutions used by banks, share market managers and some government offices. Mercantile has recently introduced banking software that uses biometrics for fingerprint authentication, and the next step is moving into authenticating retinas. Others are specialising in airline booking applications, carpet design tools and web-based search engines, or designing software for use in income tax administration.
Many of these individuals and institutions have earned certification from large computer companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, Novel and Cisco, others are top-rated by university run standards like Carnegie-Mellon's CMM-Regmi's PSC rates a perfect five on this scale. Industry insiders say there are more capable individuals and firms that could be certified according to international standards, if the process weren't so expensive.
On average about 2,000 Information Technology graduates enter the job market every year, some find jobs locally, others head abroad. "If we don't create work, we'll have high-level trained graduates heading abroad soon," adds Regmi. "If nothing, the government can help market the industry abroad, because individual companies are just too small to think about penetrating the markets that we actually have the potential to serve."