By JONATHAN MARIANO
May 29, 2015—Bhu…What? Bhutan? Yes, not too many people know about this small Himalayan Kingdom let alone its emerging private sector. Admittedly, I only learned of Bhutan because of a geography quiz. After a quick Google search I was mesmerized. Bhutan seemed more like a fictional place, a Shangri-La, than a real country.
I subsequently learned about Bhutan’s socioeconomic policy, measured by Gross National Happiness (GNH), which appeared to fit that Shangri-La image. GNH focuses on maintaining the overall well-being of the roughly 734,000 inhabitants, upholding cultural traditions and Buddhist values, and conserving the breathtakingly beautiful natural environment. Then I encountered criticism that Bhutan’s economy lacks diversity that can provide sustainable, pro-poor growth as well as employment for a growing youth population. The country relies too much on the public sector and sales of hydroelectric power to neighboring India for employment and wealth creation.
Fortunately, entrepreneurship is starting to take hold in Bhutan, thanks to various initiatives and to organizations such as the The Loden Foundation. The Foundation, Bhutan's first registered charity, started its Entrepreneurship Program in 2008. It cultivates socially responsible and ethical businesses—innovation with a Bhutanese twist.
Entrepreneurs aided by Loden have entered a variety of industries reflecting Bhutanese traditions as well as Bhutanese needs and new, global markets: a monk making incense to support his monastery, a music shop specializing traditional Bhutanese instruments; global logistics services; water cleaning services; and graphic, advertisement, and IT software services. Seventy-seven ventures so far have received support from the Foundation, whose annual funding amounts to approximately $165,000.
Made in Bhutan, a documentary that recently aired in Washington, D.C., showcases some Loden-sponsored entrepreneurs. Deki Wangmo started her own tire-repair company, over her family’s objections that the job was suitable only for men. Wangmo was honored as the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year for 2011 by Prince Charles’s (of Wales) Youth Business International organization, even though candidates came from more than 40 countries. Karma Yonten was honored by Youth Business International in 2013, receiving the Global Environmental Entrepreneur of the Year award for his Greener Way, Bhutan’s first private waste management and recycling firm. The company provided a service that hadn’t previously been available.
In addition to showing the documentary worldwide to increase attention and support for the Foundation, it screens the documentary at Bhutanese schools and colleges to spur creativity and demonstrate the empowerment that comes from starting a business.
Loden has put more resources into entrepreneurial education in college. The Foundation started the Student Empowerment through Entrepreneurship Development (SEED) program in 2014 for seven colleges in Bhutan. The Foundation hopes to contribute to extracurricular development of the students and craft their entrepreneurial skills so they can pursue career opportunities other than working in the public sector, which can absorb only about a third of graduates.
Bhutan still has a massive potential for career opportunities and untapped industries waiting to be further developed. Loden entrepreneurs represent some of these specific industries: agriculture, food processing, tourism, ICT, and waste management. However, other industries wait to be exploited—all that is required are bright minds, and the passion to step into new territory. This is private sector from the ground up—with a Bhutanese twist.
No works of fiction here, instead just pure, innovative entrepreneurs made in Bhutan.
Jonathan Mariano joined Nathan Associates in February, 2015, as an International Recruiter/Business Development Assistant. He has contributed to studies and work on economic and policy issues affecting countries in Asia, Latin America, and Southern Africa. Jonathan has a B.A. in International Relations, with a concentration in Asia, from the George Washington University.