COVER STORY In mid 2009, when Tashi Wangchuk, a civil servant turned environmental entrepreneur, was dreaming of make electric cars in Bhutan, most people, including his family members and cronies looked at him with derision.
But that didn’t dissuade him in the least.
His family members and friends’ derision turned into astonishment, when they learnt of Tashi’s steadfast and unyielding focus and determination to stick to his dream, and on his own visited numerous car companies from Tesla Motors in Silicon Valley, California to Nissan Motors in Japan, and car companies in China and India.
“While at Yale university, undergoing forestry and environment studies for my master’s, I took additional classes in the school of business management, where a lot of focus was on green businesses, such as green engineering and chemistry,” Tashi Wangchuk said, adding it taught him much about running and innovating green businesses that were profitable, but sustainable at the same time.
“That’s when my dream of having electric cars on Bhutanese roads dawned on me,” he said, adding the country was a quintessence of low pollution, and high emphasis on environmental preservation and conservation.
It was just that the growing number of cars on Bhutanese road, which meant increase in fuel consumption and growing emission, did not sit well with the image it had projected the world over and its priorities.
Cost-sharing Facility Business Development Services
Department of Cottage and Small Industries started implementing the Cost-sharing Facility project funded by ADB to provide business development service to existing micro, small and medium enterprises.
That gave birth, over time, to what is Thunder Motors today. It turned initial catcalls to a feeling of surprise, combined with admiration.
Tashi, with financial support of Nu 30M from Bhutan National Bank, began assembling electric cars with parts brought from Germany, Japan, the United States and China.
By the end of 2011, several models of the electric car had hit the capital city’s road.
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To date only one candidate is still being considered for potential funding from the three initially shortlisted.
Entrepreneurial ventures supported by Loden for 2012
Resembling any zippy station wagons on the road, the electric cars are fitted with either the regular gel battery, which gives a mileage of 160km, or the lithium battery, which charges faster, and gives a mileage of about 250km.
“Before going commercial, I tested the cars 32 times, and it only takes about Nu 5 worth of power to drive 45km from Thimphu to Paro,” Tashi Wangchuk said.
True to his words, a total of 16 electric cars, worth about Nu 600,000 each, were sold so far at subsidised rates. Future plans are to export to India, Bangladesh and Nepal, and assemble the cars.
But for the electric wheels to roll, a specific kind of battery is required ,and that is where Karma Jigme Thinley from Paro enters the scene.
He manufactures automobile batteries in his factory at Ramitey about 20km from Phuentsholing.
Started in 2005, he built the business on his father’s idea, with the battery assembly machine he imported from Taiwan.
“Over the last five years, we’ve produced 59,000 batteries with only 5 percent rejection, common in all factories,” Karma Jigme said.
Daring to be different
It takes guts to see beyond the civil service security blanket and go into business
The idea of a secure salaried job is more welcoming than the idea of setting up a business on one’s own.
This is a general trend entrepreneurship program coordinators and trainers have noticed.
“Generally, we’re a risk-averse society,” chief operating officer with Thimphu TechPark, Tshering Cigay Dorji said. “Most graduates would rather go into a salaried job, and their first choice would hardly ever be starting out as an entrepreneur.”
Most times, it is only when a family has an established business, do children follow in the footsteps.
“Of course, we have a small domestic market, but the new generation of entrepreneurs should target outside markets,” he said, adding that ideas had to move from retail businesses to something more innovative and new.
Experts, who’ve visited the country, he said, have suggested that Bhutan should concentrate on products that have intellectual property value. “It has no physical boundaries, and is intangible, but of high value,” he said.
Similarly, Thuji Yonten, associate director of DHI said BEGIN has had few trainees only, especially in comparison to the population. “The mindset and belief that landing a job in the civil service or the corporate sector is secure’s still strong,” he said. “There’s a need for a shift towards a conviction that, as an entrepreneur, one contributes to the nation equally or more, especially in terms of creating job opportunities, and contributing to the government treasury.”
There was also, Thuji Yonten said, a need for aspiring entrepreneurs to understand that there is no free money. “They have to work extremely hard to sharpen skills, keep building on their positive attributes, and take entrepreneurship as a first choice and not as the last resort,” he said. “True entrepreneurship can only come from consistently pursuing one’s dreams despite failures and taking it up as a challenge.”
Loden Foundation’s executive director Dorji Tashi said it was inspiring to see young people come up with creative business ideas.
“But entrepreneurship culture, on the whole, is very nascent and that is a clear indication of requiring more attention from the government, private organisation and non-governmental organisations,” Dorji said. “Promoting entrepreneurial culture in the country would be possible only through supporting young entrepreneurs and, for that, they should have easy access to information and, more crucially, the capital funds on a favourable terms and conditions.”
Battery containers, Karma said, are all bought from Polyworld in Malaysia.
Electric cars are a homonym for zero emission, but what about the batteries that they run on, once they have outlived their warranty period.
Safe disposal of used batteries has always been a big concern for the country, and that was when Karma Jigme started the Bhutan Battery to address this problem.
Bhutan Battery lobbied actively about buying used batteries, recycling those that could be, and safely disposing the rest at sites the National Environment Commission identified at the industrial estate in Rametay.
“People say Bhutanese market is small to start new businesses, but get a little innovative, there’s a good market in India,” he said.
Unlike Thunder Motors and Bhutan Battery, which required huge startup capital and time, some businesses boast of earning more than a million ngultrums in just a month or two of their starting.
Mawongpa Water Solutions’s Sonam Dorji is one such entrepreneur.
Every monsoon, with rain comes soil and debris into the many water sources that Thimphu residents depend on for drinking and washing purposes.
Soil and other tiny debris flow into the water tanks and out the taps of many homes.
That is when Mawongpa Water Solution, based in Thimphu, comes in.
They clean all types of water storage tanks from concrete, plastic, poly to galvanised iron water tanks, charging between Nu 500 and Nu 1,000 depending on the sizes of the tanks.
“It really improves poor water quality that’s smelly, bad tasting, tainted, or discoloured, which has health risks,” Sonam said.
Observed at work in the heart of the capital at Hotel Taj-Tashi, two Mawongpa men with specialised cleaning equipment scrub the interior walls of an empty water tank.
They then vacuum the base of the tank, removing what little debris infests the tank with wet and dry vacuum cleaners.
“Inside the water tanks, we’ve seen all imaginable things from dirt, soil, leaves, worms and dead birds,” a Mawongpa cleaner said.
But Sonam’s income comes mainly from sale of filters imported from India that are fixed to water tanks after they are cleaned as good as a spanking new.
Filters of different types, with prices ranging from Nu 100,000 to Nu 500,000, Sonam said, collected solid debris inside the filter bags, while others offered excellent chemical resistance with high dirt holding capacity.
“I was very worried when I started my business with initial investment of Nu 600,000,” he said. “The business has been smooth so far, but besides the business, it gratifies me to be contributing to the society by ensuring clean and safe water supply.”
Another in the cleaning business is Mops and Condoms, owned by Sunny Tobgay.
It is the word “Condom” that drives people’s curiosity in the beginning, before they get to learn that it is a cleaning service provider.
“With the hectic lifestyle today, not many have time to keep their houses clean,” he said. “But everyone hates the feeling of entering into a messy home on returning from office.”
Paying its employees more than Nu 6,000 a month, besides a few weeks of training, Mops and Condoms spruces up every corner of a house, from living rooms to stores to kitchen, and where people spend most parts of their time, in bedrooms and toilets.
Local entrepreneurs said it entailed hard work, a little start-up capital, long hours, and heroic levels of courage and self-reliance.
“Being a successful entrepreneur in Bhutan, idea shouldn’t necessarily be new, but it should be something that only you can do,” Thunder Motor’s Tashi said. “My business plan was unique in Bhutan, despite being common among electric-car service providers around the globe.”
By Passang Norbu