Nepal, Inc.

We need foreign investors more than foreign investors need us


One To Watch, a Dutch-Nepal joint venture, co-hosted a well attended mini investment conference in London last month. What was originally planned as a Demo Day for the new cohort of 10 companies under their business accelerator program – Enterprise, turned bigger in scope thanks to Nepal’s Ambassador to the UK Durga B Subedi.

The centerpiece of the event was the keynote by Finance Minister Yuba Raj Khatiwada. He used the occasion as a curtain raiser for the Nepal Investment Summit in Kathmandu 29-30 March, and impressed the audience with his strong grasp of the economy and foreign investment in Nepal. He presented Nepal as a worthy destination for foreign investors, and that the country was ready for business.

The IMF’s recent Article IV Consultation Report supports the minister’s point that Nepal’s economy is enjoying solid expansion and that the near-term outlook is favourable. Political stability, more reliable electricity and re-construction activities are drivers of the current growth.

There is a consensus that Nepal offers tremendous business opportunities in multiple sectors. A senior IFC executive concluded her trip to Nepal recently with a ‘deep and profound sense of optimism about Nepal’s development prospects’ and indicated IFC’s appetite to ‘radically scale up’ its investment in Nepal from the current $57 million to even $1 billion by 2023.

Due to inadequate domestic capital formation, the local banking sector is not able to keep up with robust demand for credit in recent years. The need to channel in foreign capital is more pronounced now than ever. In addition to new money, FDIs enable businesses acquire technology, access international markets and improve quality of governance thus ensuring long-term sustainability.

However, Nepal’s track record on FDI inflows has been dismal. By contrast, Bangladesh, considered a basket case until early 90s, quadrupled its economy in last 15 years with the help of FDIs and exports.

Pundits have identified the following as main bottlenecks to securing foreign investment into Nepal:

  • Inadequate or ambiguous laws and regulations
  • Need for approvals from multiple authorities causing delays
  • Primitive foreign exchange regulations
  • Lack of currency hedging mechanism
  • Poor infrastructure and enabling environment
  • Absence of sovereign rating
  • Poor governance standards, corruption etc.
  • The negative list is still too long; there’s no ‘automatic route’ either

The good news is that the government has recognised the need to improve investment climate in general, and more particularly, make an effort to attract foreign capital. Infrastructure projects have been initiated. A dozen or so new laws, including the Foreign Investment and Technology Act (FITTA), Foreign Exchange Regulations Act (FERA), Intellectual Property Act are in various stages of approval or implementation.

A single-window system is being put in place. Currency hedging mechanism has been approved for large infrastructure projects. Preparations are under-way for a sovereign rating. Some of these initiatives still may not be adequate, but there is a clear intent to work towards creating a conducive environment. Bilateral and multilateral agencies have also been pro-active in helping the government address the bottlenecks.

The real challenge, however, lies in the day to day behaviour of the bureaucracy.  While Minister Khatiwada is leading the way to sell Nepal Inc to the world, there is almost equal and opposite reaction towards FDI transactions at operational levels. Almost every company with foreign capital has horror stories about how frustrating their experience with government agencies have been.

There are just too many layers in the investment process: approval, repatriation and everything in between. There are delays in every step, usually on flimsy ground or based on the most unfriendly interpretation of policy provisions. The few businesses that have managed to rope in foreign capital are unable to execute their growth plans due to procedural challenges at the Department of Industries and Nepal Rastra Bank – the two key agencies involved in processing foreign investment. This has discouraged the private sector from actively seeking international capital. It is not by accident that Nepal ranks a low 110 in the Ease of Doing Business Index.

To be sure, not all bureaucrats are obstacles. But the genuinely sincere ones are outnumbered by those happy with status quo in foreign investment.  This situation is due to poor governance, a self-serving, rent-seeking tendency combined with misplaced nationalism. We have insular officialdom that cannot grasp anything on a global scale. They seem trapped by paranoia that a reasonably liberal foreign investment regime will ruin our national pride and culture. Nothing could be more farcical and hypocritical.

Like water, money flows where it is most convenient. In today’s world, international capital can access numerous investment destinations more attractive than Nepal. They do not need to jump through hoops to invest in our country. We need foreign investors more than foreign investors need us.

Let us hope that the Nepal Investment Summit 2019 sparks a positive shift in our attitude toward FDI.

Former banker Joshi is Founder and Chairman of True North Associates, a private equity firm.