John Paul

Interview with Thamel.com

WRI’s latest What Works case study, Thamel.com: Diaspora-enabled Development, is now available through the NextBillion.net Case Studies page. The report documents a Nepal-based marketing and development company that has tapped the resources of the diaspora to create new opportunities for Nepalese workers, generate cultural value, and help move local businesses in a new direction.

I recently spoke with Bal Joshi, founder of Thamel.com, and Bob Granger, his partner in Thamel International. They shared their thoughts about the company, where it’s heading, and the value it adds to Nepal and other countries looking to tap the resources of the diaspora to enable local economic growth.

1. In your opinion, what is the most innovative aspect of the Thamel.com model?

Bal: My father used to tell me in business, ?tel k hernu, tel ko dhara hernu!? Direct translation: ?identify the source of the oil, not just the end product!? In plain English, ?follow the money.?

The most innovative aspect of the Thamel.com model is embracing the contemporary global economic context and integrating it with technology to fulfill the most basic human need – the need to maintain socio-cultural relationships. In our part of the world, diaspora-initiated remittances are a major economic source that fuels the local economy. The Thamel.com model allows local stakeholders to tap that source with the help of technology tools available to serve the local market they are already familiar with.

Bob: The integration of digital media (photos and voice recording) as a part of the value proposition, and the clear link between user needs, the product offering and the cultural context.

2. The company has evolved quite a lot during the past few years, adding a number of new business divisions as it has grown. Are there any new products or services the company is considering providing in the future? What else is in store for Thamel.com as it grows?

Bal: Our approach is to understand the ever evolving needs of customers motivated by personal or purely financial responsibilities. Currently, we are dissecting the responsibilities of major ethnic groups and offering products that are tailored to those particular communities. As per our recent research, we have identified that we are primarily offering services to four major Aryan castes that make up the local population, but we realized that we are excluding the Mongolian population and other outcaste populations of Nepal. Thus our next target is to understand the excluded population and offer services accordingly.

For example, Buddhists send flowers and prayer flags to a monastery and offer prayers during a death ceremony. We don?t have that available yet, but now we are working with monasteries to provide these services to diaspora communities abroad that wish to participate in a local death ceremony. Our process is to continue to understand the way people in various socio/economic classes interact and offer the products that fit within their cultural context.

On the financial end, we are about to launch a service that will allow the diaspora community to finance luxury or household goods for their friends and families in Nepal. For example, we are about to work with a famous computer distributor to present a financial scheme where a diaspora member can send monthly installment payments for a computer that will be used by his/her family member in Nepal. We will be replicating the same model for housing, automobiles and other high-end products.

As the company continues to adapt and understand the virtual market, Thamel.com will continue to use that expertise to export local goods and services to non-diaspora markets. As we understand the export supply chain and technologies available, we will continue to help the vendors based in Nepal to find market opportunities abroad.

3. What are Thamel.com’s biggest challenges, both short-term and long-term?

Bal: Short term challenge = ?Access?

– Access to qualified human resources that understand business and technology.
– Access to infrastructure that enhances the business. For example, bandwidth issues, payment gateways, and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP in Nepal is illegal).
– Access to Diaspora communities that are residing in countries like Malaysia and the Middle East who do not have the capacity or the access to participate within the environment we have to offer.

Long-term challenge = ?Changing Environment?

As the global economy continues to change, the needs of the market will change. The questions we ponder are:

– How will our market change when we have strong political and local stability and the diaspora begins returning to Nepal?
– We know/understand the needs of the first generation immigrants, but how can we serve the second generation immigrants that might not have similar needs to connect to their homeland?
– What role future technologies will have in enhancing distant relationships? Will there be need to exchange physical gifts?
– What role global immigration laws will play and what if the entire family migrates?

4. A particularly unique aspect of your work is Thamel International, set up to disseminate Thamel.com’s lessons learned, and replicate its successes in other countries. What prompted you to set up this venture?

Bal: We talk about globalization constantly, and one of the important aspects of globalization over thousands of years is migration. Finally, migration and its economic impact are getting much deserved attention. Thamel International’s effort is to bring more focus onto the economic capacity of diaspora communities in today’s globalized world that can be used to spark socio-economical changes in much needed parts of the globe.

One of the new mantras of corporate marketing is ?Fortune at the base of the pyramid.? Going back to my father’s quote earlier, Thamel International’s effort is to make a link between multi-national corporations (MNCs) and remittances that can create new market opportunities for all the stakeholders involved. Imagine one day when Toyota Motors Credit Corporation finances a Toyota Camry in Nepal based on the credit history of a person residing in the US. Is that possible?

Thus our interest is to help local stakeholders think outside of the box and tap into the diaspora-initiated remittance pipe and help MNCs create a BOP market development strategy.

Bob: Although TDC is a for-profit, private sector business, there is a deep sense of social responsibility imbedded in Bal, Rajesh and the TDC team. TDC is more than a business venture, it is a way to help the economy and people of Nepal.

The vision of enlightened economic development – based on responsible, grassroots entrepreneurship that benefit the diaspora and their homeland – is a core value of Thamel International. Bal lives that mission. Dan Koch and I learned the power of that mission as Peace Corps volunteers in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone and as business professionals with progressive organizations like Silver Plume Imports and Hewlett Packard. Our focus at Thamel International model is on knowledge-transfer. We look for win-win-win situations where businesses get to grow by serving new customers (diaspora), customers get their needs met, and we get rewarded for our contribution. (BTW, check out our new website at www.thamelintl.com)

How have your efforts been received? Have there been any unexpected challenges?

Bob: The Thamel Model has been widely acknowledged and supported. The challenge is finding the right people — with resources — to put it into practice. This simply requires awareness creation, networking and collaboration.

5. Based on your experiences, what are the most important things to keep in mind when setting up a business that targets a diaspora?

Bal: Setting up a business for a diaspora is not much different than setting up any other business. It’s about offering unique value propositions at a price that fulfills the end-user’s need, and creating economic benefits for all the stakeholders. In a diaspora driven business, the only thing that differs is the customer’s expectation of service delivery; the customers are mainly residing in developed countries so their expectations are quite high in terms of customer service. Therefore, the local stakeholders need to understand their expectations and not leave any holes in the service delivery. The key is offering an excellent buying experience more than anything else.

Bob: The most important attribute of the Thamel business model is customer and stakeholder trust. You have to demonstrate excellent customer support and satisfaction. Marketing in diaspora communities is based on word-of-mouth. When trust is lost, the business is lost.

6. Do you have any anecdotes from your experience with Thamel.com that you think are worth sharing?

Bal: Two incidents come to the top of my head. The first involves goat selling. When Thamel.com first started selling goats, we would call the recipients to inform them of the goats the senders had bought and paid for abroad, and all they would need to do is come to the goat bazaar for a pick up. Most of the recipients would think of it as a bad joke, they would bad mouth our telephone operators and hand up the phone. It would take 2 or 3 more attempts to convince the recipients. In some cases, when the telephone operator informed the customer of a goat arriving from the US, UK or Australia, recipients lined up outside the customs office at the airport to collect their goats from abroad.

The second occurred last July when a lady called around 3 am Nepal time in our US office requesting to deliver a teddy bear to her mom at a hospital in Katmandu. She expected the delivery to be made ASAP. That is not our usual delivery hour but she explained the situation: her mom was on the death bed and was hanging on her last breath. Our representative in the US called and woke up the delivery person in charge in Nepal and asked him to deliver the bear to the hospital. By 4:30 am the teddy bear was delivered.

The sender’s sister explained to the dying mom about her elder daughter’s gift from the US. She hugged the teddy bear and after 30 minutes she went into a deep sleep and never woke up again. I think the teddy bear brought the presence of her favorite daughter abroad. After feeling her presence, she let go of her breath.

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