Finding a niche in NepalA Nepali migrant returnee has set up a successful business back home and has some tips for others like him
This is the 32nd instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad.
I have worked overseas for nearly two decades, hopping around the Gulf countries from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar to Kuwait. I even landed up in Seychelles. I came to Nepal twice but left again for better earnings overseas.
After my SLC, I started working as a waiter for a salary of Rs450. I was also a sportsman, and worked as a wushu trainer. When a friend who had returned from Singapore came to visit me, he inspired me to go abroad for a secure future. Until then, I had not considered moving overseas. I handed him my freshly minted passport and he applied on my behalf.
Before I knew it, we were both headed to Saudi Arabia to work as trolley boys in 1996.
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My starting overseas earnings was just Rs13,000. By the time I returned in 2011 from Dubai, I was earning up to Rs400,000 a month in a managerial position.
But after all that time being away, I no longer had a reason to linger around overseas. My family was settled, and I was financially stable. It was time to go home.
After returning, I worked in a café for some time but I wanted to start something on my own. Having grown up working in the hospitality line, starting a restaurant seemed like a natural next step. Momos were the obvious choice, but I knew I had to do it differently to stand out.
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My research showed that extremely spicy Korean ramen noodles were very popular among young Nepalis. This was the niche I could fill in the momo market where customers could adjust their spice levels.
I chose a name that would stick: ‘Akbare Jhol Momo’. We sourced akbare chilis directly from farmers to keep costs low so it would be affordable for common people. Rent is high in Nepal but during the pandemic lockdown, I lucked out even though it was a risky move given the uncertainty.
It has now been three years, and we are doing well with three outlets in Kathmandu. The restaurants are always busy with people enjoying the hit that the hot chili gives them, without causing a dent in their pockets. My hunch about the demand for spicy momos in Nepal was fortunately right.
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Everyone wants to go abroad these days. There are Nepalis who earn over Rs1 million there and those who earn only Rs30,000. The struggle is much harder if we go overseas without any real experience and skills, which later also impedes our ability to climb the career ladder.
We now have good hospitality management schools in Nepal where people can get degrees in the field. With the right education and experience, more Nepalis will make it to leadership positions not just as chefs, but also in front of house positions.
I returned to Nepal despite a handsome salary. Being home brings a sense of comfort and satisfaction that I cherish. I am around family, provide youth with jobs, am connected with my community and get to follow my passion. The overseas journey had been full of missed moments and sacrifices. Right after my marriage in 2002, I had just spent 19 days with my wife before returning to Dubai. When I met my eldest daughter for the first time, she was already three months. These were at a time when phone calls were still expensive.
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The trepidation of leaving cushy jobs to try something back home is understandable. I have talented friends who have worked overseas as chefs who returned to Nepal, failed with their ventures and were compelled to remigrate.
I myself had started a restaurant in 2004 that did not work out. I had an investment plan, but not a plan to draw customers nor an understanding of the Nepal market to make informed decisions about potential locations, target populations, lowest cost sourcing strategies and what we could bring to the market that is refreshing and new.
Money by itself is not enough. Customers won’t come automatically no matter how much you invest. The invitation needs to reach target customers in a way that appeals to them. In fact, I advise people to start small and build gradually, instead of gambling away all their hard-earned money.
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Translated from a conversation with the author. Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform for Nepalis to share their experiences of living, working, studying abroad. Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with 'Diaspora Diaries' in the subject line.