Despite its image of pure, unpolluted mountain air, the air quality in Nepal is one of the worst in the world, particularly in the country’s capital city, Kathmandu. Here the incidence of smog is five times greater than it was in Paris when it decided to ban cars in 2014 and 15 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s standard. Indeed, on Friday 28th May, 2021 it became the most polluted city in the world and, as Dr Andrew Lodge observed in 2014, the problem has become so acute that many of Kathmandu’s 1.74 million residents “are left wondering at what point will their city become unliveable?”.
The burning of fossil fuel, particularly petrol and diesel fuel by the 900,000 + vehicles registered in the Kathmandu Valley, is blamed for such conditions, especially as many of the vehicles are old and inefficient. In part because some 100 people a day die from air pollution and in part because of the unaffordable cost of new, imported vehicles, there is a growing cycling culture. This despite the bicycle being perceived as an inferior mode of transport, not least as the majority of the bicycles, which are imported from China and India, are not ideal for the terrain, though they are cheap and affordable.
To expedite the trend there have been calls (Dhakal, 2020) for Nepal to create dedicated cycling tracks and a subsidy to encourage the purchase of new, more appropriate cycles, such as the Portal Bikes (www.portalbikes.org) new age cargo bikes. These are innovative cycles that “are sturdy, adaptive, customisable – and can grind your corn”. They are the invention of Caleb Spears who moved to Nepal in 2013 from his home in the USA. As he was determined to launch a social enterprise, he and his wife initially spent their time in rural Nepal assessing the needs of the local people. One day, after helping a local farmer shell corn by hand, Caleb was inspired to add a power take off drive to the back of a bicycle and use it to drive a corn sheller machine, which it did – as well as a saw or a washing machine even!
Caleb had identified his niche in the market. He would produce bicycles suitable for use in Nepal. This meant that they would have to be sturdy, capable of carrying loads of up to 300lbs, given the traditional cycling culture, and have several gears, given the terrain. Also, they would need to be able to power small machines such as the corn sheller. So, he embarked on developing and testing a prototype, which he had just done when the devastating earthquake occurred in April 2015. The cycle project was put on hold as Caleb turned his attention to producing first temporary shelters for the homeless then more permanent “flat pack” prefabricated structures that could be assembled in a day. Eventually, in September 2017, Portal Bikes was launched manufacturing hand-made bicycles that could be customised to the needs of the owner, including the possibility of adding a battery to convert to power assisted cycling if required. Apart from customer acceptability, price was a major problem so it was decided to import the parts and assemble the cycles rather than hand manufacture them as previously. Even so, the price remained high compared with competitor products and according to Daniel Pradham, Head of Operations, Portal Bikes “subsidised prices for entrepreneurs from [the] low income bracket to empower them, because at the end of the day that is our motto”. Longer term, the plan is to export the cycles to Europe and North America, enabling the Nepalese purchase price to be further cross subsidised. Already a store has been opened in the USA (http://portalbikes.org/store).
Despite all of the difficulties and setbacks, the enterprise provides employment for 26 people and its profit and loss account also records the firm’s “humanitarian impact”, based on its mission. This is “to transform lives and communities by creating pathways out of poverty”. It does this by encouraging people to cycle, thereby not only contributing to the reduction in the use of fossil fuels and the resultant chronic pollution of the atmosphere, but enabling them to turn their bicycles into businesses. Thus Portal Bikes addresses SDGs 13 (Climate Action), 15 (Life on Land) and 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), as well as SDGs 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), 12 ( Responsible Consumption and Production), while at the same time contributing to SDGs 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 3 (Good Health and Well-being), 1(No Poverty) and 2 (Zero Hunger). Rather than being an ecopreneur, a social entrepreneur, an economic entrepreneur or a humane entrepreneur, Caleb is very much a harmonious entrepreneur. As such he has created a venture with a Triple bottom line of Profit, People and Planet that is helping address the sustainability challenge both locally in Nepal and internationally.
Dhakal, M., (2020), Provide Subsidy to Encourage Cycling. The Rising Nepal. 19th October.
Gurung, S., (2019), Portal Bikes is here to give new meaning to bicycles. The Kathmandu Post. August 12.
Lodge, A. (2014), Has Air Pollution made Kathmandu Unliveable? The Guardian. 21st March.
Noel, C., (2018), Coming to the US: This Nepali Bike carries 300 Pounds of Cargo. Gear Junkie. 25 June.
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