Reincarnation of old phones in Nepal

SabKo Phone seeks to kickstart a movement in sustainability by giving old mobiles a second chance

Many Nepalis are worried about growing consumerism and throw-away culture, but most shrug and move on because they think one person cannot change the world.

But not Shubu Tewari and Uttam Kaphle. Both were working in the development sector, and felt they should do something concrete to prove that sustainability made business sense. They could make a difference by shedding their indifference.

Unlike a linear economy which begins in extraction and ends in disposal, the circular economy keeps materials in use for as long as possible, making maximum use of them and minimising resource extraction and waste. Tewari and Kaphle studied models for a circular economy that would work in the Nepal business context.

Read also:  Dangerous rubbish, Lokmani Rai

Tewari and Kaphle zeroed in on e-waste, researched the mobile phone market and customer behaviour, and set up Sabko Phone. They were shocked to find out that Nepal officially imports 6 million cell phones a year valued at Rs 24billion. So, they decided to focus on repairing and refurbishing phones. In April 2019, SabKo Phone was born.

Sitting in a sunny corner of their bright, airy office in Sanepa, Tewari and Kaphle explain that most Nepalis seek a phone upgrade every 15 months. They found that 40% of old phones were just lying around the house unused, and could be refurbished.

Old phones that cannot be recycled are used for their parts. All Photos: SHRISTI KARKI

“This is a sector in which there are a lot of problems, but that also means that there are many solutions to be found,” explains Tewari. “If only 5% of the demand for new phones switched to refurbished phones, more than Rs1 billion would be saturated in the market.”

Read also: What will Nepal do with its e-waste?, Sonia Awale

SabKo Phone offers phone repairs within three days, and refurbishes old phones in a week or so. The company also buys phones from people, and have prices for 300 models on its data base. If potential customers are satisfied with the price, they can book an appointment via the website, or just visit the store. Phones left with SabKo Phone are worked on by two full-time technicians and when clients get their phones back or buy refurbished ones with warranty.

While beating the planned obsolescence of mobile phones, refurbishing also ensures that gold, cobalt, and other hazardous materials in e-waste can be mined and sold so they do not contaminate landfill sites.

“We might not be able to change everything, but we want to at least try to mitigate the problem,” says Tewari. “The fewer new smartphones brought on to the market, the lighter the economic and ecological burden.”

SabKo Phone’s sustainability practice extends beyond phone repair and refurbishing. Tewari and Kaphle are researching alternative uses for phone parts that cannot be reused in phones. The company sells its phones in boxes made of Nepali paper, and most of the furniture in SabKo Phone’s office is reused or repurposed. The company calculates its carbon footprint and at the end of each working year, and is working with Wildlife Conservation Nepal to neutralise it.

“If there is one thing that we figured out, it is that people do not want to throw away their phones and have them go to waste,” Tewari says, “There are very few people who say that they would rather throw their phones away than sell them.”

There are other environmentally sustainable practices in Nepal like Fashion Revolution, and Tewari hopes others will join in creating non-waste ventures in the electronics sector as SabKo phone itself expands.

Shristi Karki


Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.