A group of young engineers-turned-entrepreneurs, having successfully mechanized the otherwise tedious traditional ways of processing Himalayan nettle or Allo, are testament to the power of emerging technologies in tackling real-world development problems
In April 2016, UNDP’s Regional Office in Bangkok was inviting concept notes from individuals, companies, universities and engineering firms, among other entities in Nepal, to vie for the Innovation Challenge Fund for the Mechanization of Himalayan Nettle (Allo) through UNDP’s flagship Micro-Enterprise Development Programme (MEDEP). Teams were being called upon to come up with technological solutions to ease and improve the otherwise tedious traditional nettle-processing procedure, so as to benefit of thousands of micro-entrepreneurs around the country who rely on Allo for their livelihoods.
Based on intensive discussions and brainstorming among participants—under MEDEP’s continued guidance—two teams of engineers were contracted to prototype their proposed ideas for extracting Allo fiber from the dried bark of the plant. While the first team, from the Pulchowk Institute of Engineering, were declared the winners, another team from Kathmandu University, ranked second; they were subsequently provided USD $12,000 and USD $3,000 respectively to develop their machines.
In time, the two teams would amalgamate into one and work together to design and realize a set of four machines—comprising a roller, a beater, a hackle and advanced charkha or spinning wheel—that would take nettle bark and stems and turn them into threads, rendering the task of Allo processing far easier and more efficient.
The machines were first tested in Salija in rural Parbat, and based on the feedback from excited entrepreneurs, modifications made under MEDEP’s mentorship. The second sets were then built and tested in Libang in Rolpa, where, once again, entrepreneurs greatly appreciated the technology for its simplicity and the potential it held in terms of boosting productivity.
Once the Government of Nepal was appraised and oriented by MEDEP on the working of the machines, and discussions held on the prospects of setting up processing centers and technology transfer, among other issues, the then-Minister of Industry, Nabindra Raj Joshi himself visited the pilot site in Parbat for a closer look. This visit convinced the Ministry to invest in purchasing sets of the machines to be installed in 11 districts within the next three months.
In 2017, 80 machines—two sets of four machines each—were deployed to numerous rural sites across the country by companies that had been formed by the engineering team from Pulchowk Campus to design and market the products. This was seen as providing impetus for the setting up of over 30 cottage and small scale industries in Nepal. And with each new version—four versions have so far been rolled out in the market—the functionalities of the processing sets have been consistently improved.
Eyes now open to the possibilities inherent in harnessing engineering solutions to address various challenges waylaying Nepal on its path to development, including poverty and unemployment, the young engineers-turned-entrepreneurs then went on to establish Mantra Incorporated. The company aimed to bridge the expertise of Nepali innovators looking to develop and bring their ideas to life with those on the ground who would be most benefitted by these emerging technologies.
Over the last year, the company has been eagerly adding to its repertoire a range of potential products and services: layouts of ginger and cardamom processing plants; prototypes of machines to produce earthquake-resilient double-mould interlocking bricks; decorative brick-making machines for reconstruction of cultural sites; technologies for banana-fiber production and paper production; and solar panel cleaning modules, among others.