Text by Ujeena Rana
Asgar Ali is a patient man. The interview was punctuated with phone calls. Even from his succinct replies, it was evident that the topics of the calls gravitated towards pressing matters; but when he got off the phone, his voice did not hint at urgency. The phone calls did not sour his mood. He did not sweat on the issues discussed on the phone when he was back on the interview, and even if he housed them at the back of his mind, he camouflaged his emotions well.
Ali is primarily a coder but he has proved his mettle in management by being awarded with the title of Young CEO of the Year in 2018. He does not seek validation, but awards matter even to CEOs. “In essence, the success of e-Sewa is a team effort. It is just that I happen to be at the forefront of it. Being the front face of the team, I was at the receiving end of the recognition,” he reflects on his achievement. “More than anything, the award and exposure brought me in contact with youth who are motivated by the success story of a home-grown tech company,” shares Ali. He elaborates, “While the award might not benefit me personally, it does state the ‘we can grow a brand in Nepal’ message to young entrepreneurs harboring big dreams. We have been able to establish eSewa as a brand. Nepal has only a handful of successful stories of startups turning into big brands. The youth are motivated by local success stories such as ours.”
The company is part of F1 Soft International, a software company. Biswas Dhakal, Subash Sharma and Asgar Ali had formed F1 Soft when they were engineering students. “Biswas takes care of the overall business,” he states. Biswas Dhakal makes frequent visits throughout the interview. Ali makes no bone about the fact that it is under Dhakal’s leadership that F1Soft and e-Sewa are marching ahead. The founders at eSewa have thrown their weight behind Dhakal, recognising him as the unopposed leader. “Ego intervenes when it is about personal benefits and achievements, but if it is for the good of the company, then everyone supports the decision. Sacrificing our conscience at the altar of personal gain is not the case with e-Sewa,” comments Ali. He makes running a company, and in their case, two companies, sound easy. But that is what the best of companies are based on: teamwork. The company’s wellbeing is above the individual’s wellbeing, and it is practiced seamlessly at eSewa, it appears.
Chance or Choice
Both his father and grandfather were involved in the textile business. “However, my father did not want me to get into business but do something different and for which education was paramount,” he shares. He was sent to a boarding school. “As a child, I could not fathom why my father wanted to send me away,” he reflects and adds “but it had to be done because he didn’t want me to undergo the same struggles as him.” The family, which originally hails from Argakhachi, later shifted to Dang and then to Butwal. Ali did his I.Sc from Amrit Science Campus, after which he wanted to study Civil Engineering but since he could not get in, he saw a future in IT.
His father’s conscious decision not to involve within the family business; failing to get through the civil engineering entrance exam and then choosing IT, meeting Biswas Dhakal and establishing eSewa are what he considers the major episodes of his life. These are the landmarks that define his journey.
The Start of an Idea
“We were a young team, each of us was geared to contribute and establish a digital presence in the country,” reminisces Ali about the inception of F1 Soft. Ali did his B.E. in Software Engineering from Nepal College of Information Technology (NCIT). Three friends—Biswas Dhakal, Asgar Ali, Subash Sharma started F1Soft International in 2003. “Opening a software company didn’t require much at that time. You just had to bring computers from home; put them together and look for work. We wanted to focus on transaction banking services. After a year, we developed the SMS and mobile banking software. I laid the groundwork for that. We gained more knowledge about the industry and the concept of e-Sewa was seeded,” he narrates.
As the company got bigger, responsibilities were divided among the three so that focus could be strongly maintained. “I had to look after the management of eSewa. I switched roles from developer to CEO. Subash Sharma takes care of F1 Soft and Biswas looks after the overall business,” he briefs about the power-sharing of the company.
But it was not an easy transition for Ali who was a coder, a developer; management was alien to him. He breaks down his definition of management, “Management is all about getting things in place; assembling everything. You have a vision and assemble the necessary components. Earlier, I, as a developer, was only a part of that component. So, my area of focus got changed – from a micro level to a macro level.”
But the country was not digitally forward when they started the company. “We considered that as an opportunity,” he shares. If everything was already in place, possibly, they would not have got the head-start. Ali reminisces, “Everyone had mobile and every mobile had internet as well but people had been using it for entertainment purposes only. Distanced from entertainment, we felt the need to introduce services to facilitate day-to-day activities.”
There was a time when the country only had eSewa for ‘online payment’; now there are other players like Khalti, IME Pay, iPay as well. “eSewa is a platform. Its size does not have limitations. It is a page for online business in the country. Physical cash related transactions dominate; and digital transaction is less than 2%, which means 98% of the market is vacant. eSewa gave hope for possibility of online business in Nepal. It created one level of success story,” he expresses. Looking at this success, others joined the bandwagon. “We gained success in proof of concept (POC) but to generate business, we are still working on the same less than 2% market share. Earlier eSewa was working alone. Now others have joined in which is actually good for us.”
Speaking on the reach of eSewa, Ali shares, “In Nepal, there are over two crore mobile users of which 1 crore 30 lakhs are smartphone users. 25 lakhs are eSewa users; the number is less than 20% of the total population; enrollment alone is less than 20%. We want to increase that to at least 50%.” The way he understands it is that for them to meet the target, users need a purpose. He juxtaposes eSewa and Facebook. To open a Facebook account, the purpose is to get connected with friends. In the case of eSewa, you need to register, have money in your wallet. So, eSewa is not like Facebook. It is, in fact, a need-based service.”
He says that whatever eSewa has managed to do till date is just scratching the surface. The platform can accommodate limitless services. eSewa has attained heights but “the tech world is ever changing and updating itself,” he informs rejecting any idea of remaining inert.
Even if his life trajectory covers an original route, there is a common denominator he shares with most of the world’s busy and successful men— sacrificing family time. “Well, family time has to wait. As of now, there are no options,” he dismisses the subject in a matter-of-fact manner adding, “I go home only to get sleep,” he says.
But his wife, Rehana Khatun deserves a special mention even if it is his professional achievements that are being discussed here. Asgar Ali shares, “Rehana is now used to my absence. Since the last 10 years, I go home just to get some sleep. Get up, get out, come back, and get sleep. In repeat mode,” he encapsulates his daily routine. The couple has a seven-year-old daughter, Arshiya Ali.
The PM’s Consultant
Ali’s duties as the PM’s IT Consultant have now dwarfed his CEO duties at eSewa. “Even though, it is just a consultant’s job, all my time is consumed by it,” he informs. Ali doesn’t receive any recommendation for this role. “I was certain since day 1 that I won’t take any services, perks or allowance. I wanted nothing in return because I didn’t go there for money,” he explains.
“Under their policy, consultants are paid but I made myself clear that I don’t want anything,” he informs. It is a pro-bono job for him. While profit-making is not inherently bad, to have that aim trump over the vital belief of serving the country made getting paid for this role seem wrong to him.
By his own admission, Ali agreed to the job since the incumbent government endorses ‘Sambriddha Nepal, Sukhi Nepali’ and he wants to contribute to the prosperity of the nation and happiness of its people. His believes if by lending his expertise, he can help the government achieve its objective, then there is no better feeling than that.
Today when the bureaucracy functions at snail’s pace and what could have been accomplished in two days gets stretched to two months or even years, he is hopeful that all the toiling will one day materialise into an app. “I am bearing the responsibilities of an advisor. And advisors are not executioners. We just present ideas and request the team to execute them,” he states.
Ali reckons Nepalis will be happy when the governance is IT based. “‘Sukhi Nepali’ is tantamount to the citizens not having to suffer; government services are hassle-free so IT should be utilised in abundance.”
About his appointment at the PM office, he shares that it was the PM’s Chief Advisor, Bishnu Rimal’s doing. He says, “He had been observing our work and growth at eSewa. His concept is to have something similar at the government level – a single app that can provide all government services.”
In November, the PM’s private secretariat including advisors jointly resigned following the PM’s decision for a renewed secretariat. But he was among the few whose resignation was denied by the PM. “Possibly, the PM thinks that my job is not complete yet,” he shares. In the 2.0 version of his reinstatement as the PM’s IT Consultant, his job will be to continue the work he has been dedicatedly performing for the last 19 months.
Since he works closely with the incumbent government and his close circle of advisors, does he share their political ideologies? He answers, “I am not there on a political assignment. It is an apolitical position. The government’s political stand does not interfere with my working as I am a tech guy. I am there only on a brief appointment.”
His tenure as the IT Consultant to the PM has not been all sunshine and rainbows though. He had to bear the brunt of charges and conjectures, “The media tried to smear my image,” he says. In the current climate of tech companies like Facebook, Google facing the indictment charges of abusing public’s private data, Ali was accused of the same. He was blamed of abusing his position to pressure various authorities to provide private and sensitive information concerning the public. Eyebrows were also raised given his appointment which allows him unhindered access to public’s private data and his involvement with eSewa which is a company that engages in electronic financial transactions. The conflict of interest was pointed out. Concerns over abuse of citizens’ information at the hands of eSewa floated. But he did not let those accusations and hearsay deter him.
The KP Sharma Oli government is ‘for’ technology and Ali believes that going digitally forward is the need of the hour. When the PM started video conferencing with his council of ministers, it was a signal that the deal is for real.
When asked to comment on the entrepreneurship climate in Nepal, Ali resorted to narrowing down to the tech scene in Nepal. “We are dependent on foreign countries for a number of things. Youths need not labour much, just segregate the things we are dependent on and the things on which we are self-reliant. Then, list down the borrowed services and imported products and figure out the ones you can work on within. Also, government needs to support the initiatives. Things are possible; it can be done. We did it at eSewa. We solved a need at the local level,” he says.
He advises the youth that if they want to do business, they ought to find a gap in the market. “It is not primarily about earning money. First things first, fulfill the gap,” he advises.
Nagarik Adhikar App
The app that Ali is helping the government with will integrate all the government agencies’ works. All his endeavours will eventually ease the life of the citizen through a digital platform in the form of an app.
“By the time I am done with my duties, I can write a book about my experience working with the government. It is also a real test of my patience. In the private sector, decisions are not postponed for indefinite time, but at the government level, it takes months for a singular decision to be approved. It is not the ‘work’ but the decision making and approval aspects that is the most taxing and demands the most time. But I have not lost my patience yet. Inaction and delayed decisions can thwart the potential for rapid action, improvement, growth and development,” he states.
However, the app service comes with a condition. To make use of Nagarik Adhikar app, “the first requirement is that the mobile number you use for the app must be registered in your name. Only then will you be able to use it.”
“In about two months time, we will release phase I with 2-3 services,” he informs. “Today a person’s identity is his/her mobile number even though we agree or not. Every Nepali citizen should use the mobile SIM card number registered under his/her name. A circular for the same has already been released. Nagarik Adhikar App will then be made available to them. You can then access all your government data to your mobile number.”
On the usefulness of the app, Ali reports, “Suppose you need to have your PAN card prepared, you have to visit the Income Tax Department with a photocopy of your citizenship and one copy of your photo. Your personal details are at the Home Ministry, while your photo is with the Election Commission. To get the data from these agencies, why trouble the citizen? The app will integrate all the government agencies which has the personal data of the citizens stored in their software and the particular government agency that needs it. This creates a sync between inter-governmental functions and eases public needs.”
“It has been 19 months since my appointment at the PM’s office. First, I visited all the government agencies with the concept that PAN, license, passport, basai-sarai, marriage, birth certificates should be done via the app. Some of the agencies are technically sound. They have all the data but the others are neither technically sound nor have data,” he narrates.
“In these 19 months, we gave all the agencies a timeframe to update their system and to work on the data. Come to think of it, Home Ministry’s data is unused. We are given the citizenship certificate, we are asked to bring the photocopy of the same everywhere for government services. But the data is already there with the government. Why ask people for something which the government already has access to?” is his argument.
Ali believes that citizens will experience ‘a drastic change’ while visiting government offices for services. According to Ali, we have the architecture and the fundamentals to make Nepal digitally equipped. “We are not at zero level. Every government agency has software system and database. The only place we are failing at is ‘integration’; we are not integrated. Therefore, the software system data of one government agency does not recognise the software of another government agency. In fact, when applying for license, you need not submit anything. In the app, when you visit license and click on the ‘apply’ button, the system should do the work for you, gathering information required to process the procurement of the license.
Producing Able Manpower
It is said that the only thing more expensive than investing in education is not investing in education. “In Nepal, the tech industry and academia are distant. The industry does not even have the slightest inkling as to what the academia is teaching. And what the industry requires, the academia does not pay any heed to. Based on questions like ‘the number of wives Prithvi Narayan Shah had’ we are chosen for Lok Sewa,” he protests.
There is not much practical know-how imparted to students except in the field of medicine. Even tech students are devoid of real-time experiences. An engineering student studies almost 48 courses in a span of four years; and just the basic of everything. When they graduate, the individual only has an engineering degree but not much exposure of the real world.
“Keeping that in view, the current government, under the name of the late Madan Bhandari is planning to build a Tech University in the outskirts of Kathmandu,” he states and adds, “Industry is never constant; but it’s different with academia. We may contribute to some extent to make things more effective but it is difficult to take both along together. In a way, we are planning to act as a bridge between the industry and academia so that depending on the demand of the industry, we will produce the required manpower.”
It has been a year that F1 Soft has acquired a college, Swastik College in Bhaktapur which is an IT college. “Our desire is to produce and ready the manpower needed in the industry. We don’t interfere in the daily functioning of the college; it has a separate team. Whatever the tech industry requires to function, we have included in the course syllabus – not a university course though, but something to augment students’ learning and for their easy placement in the workforce. That way, we are building the required human force. Practical knowledge is provided from the onset with few hours dedicated to our own syllabus so that in four years, the students are industry ready.”