Financing dreams

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Financing dreams

 Money is the seed of money, and the first guinea is sometimes more difficult to acquire than the second million,” said Jean Jacques Rousseau.Most entrepreneurs today understand all too well what Rousseau meant by that statement. They know that ultimately they’ll need to procure finances to work on their business idea. More often than not, the one financial source that they home in on is usually the bank. Nepali entrepreneurs are no different in how they regard banks in this regard either.

We wanted to know how our entrepreneurs view Nepal’s banking system vis-à-vis their ventures. Are the banks helping entrepreneurs materialise their dreams? Or are the banks refraining from coming on board with them? We caught up with Ashok Sherchan, CEO of Prabhu Bank, to get a lay of the land.

A lot has changed in the past decade in Nepal’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. But the environment has not been as robust as many would have wanted. Where do you think the problems lie?

Let me start by first commending those who have decided to become entrepreneurs. That’s a big thing in itself. For if you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to have a new, or an innovative, idea in the first place. But to materialise your idea, you need both money and a market for your product. You might have a market readily available, but most Nepali entrepreneurs face the difficult task of receiving financial backing. Furthermore, the political and the economic environment in Nepal have been largely inimical to entrepreneurs. It can be difficult for entrepreneurs to thrive in such an adverse environment.

But there are also other factors that come to play. We haven’t been able to accept change and have been dependent on the same few companies who made it big in the past decades and continue to do well today. We also lag behind technologically. And then of course, businessmen have to deal with a rather complex bureaucracy too. But all these challenges notwithstanding, finding financing has been the chief issue for entrepreneurs.

 

But there are currently around 29 commercial banks, over 70 development banks and over 80 finance companies and micro credit development banks in Nepal. What role have they played in helping the ecosystem?

It’s not that the banking system has not tried to bring reforms in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. But banks are guided by directions, procedures and policies established by the central bank. Banks do need to see that an entrepreneur has some sort of security— be it land or guarantees or any concrete entity that entrepreneurs can use as collateral. If entrepreneurs meet the requirements of all the policies and procedures for procuring a loan, commercial banks do provide loans, and they do even at times, provide investments for new ideas. Banks are essentially here to do business too. So it is difficult for any bank to take a risk on just an entrepreneur’s idea if the entrepreneur does not have some sort of security backing his proposal for a loan.

Some entrepreneurs have great ideas and business models, but they might not have any security to apply for loans or investments from banks. Wouldn’t the policies we have now still be a barrier?

In such cases, entrepreneurs need to be able to convince the banks. First, their past work must prove that they are genuine and honest. Besides presenting a sound idea, they need to prepare themselves in three core areas: proper market research and validating their idea, financial viability and management soundness. Apart from these, entrepreneurs must also have comprehensive knowledge about business legalities and be able to vouch for the accounts of every other stakeholder in their venture. They also need to show that they understand their competitors.

Because most banks have already worked on thousands of projects, they are familiar with the ideas that are pushed in different industries and understand which ideas work and which do not. So the entrepreneurs need to make their idea and business model saleable to the analysts in banks. For startups, initial funds usually would not amount to much, so if the entrepreneurs’ ideas are saleable, banks might be able to provide the funds.

 

What roles has Prabhu Bank played in developing the entrepreneurial ecosystem?

We have played some part in creating new entrepreneurs. Our major investments have been in hydropower, agriculture and tourism. It’s not only big projects that we focus on; we also do look into small projects. Some of the small projects have been successful, and some have failed. But we have been able to boost the confidence of entrepreneurs by providing financial backing. We also give out loans to small and medium enterprises.

For instance, we have provided loans to farmers in Bara district—by initiating a three-party agreement with farmers, a sugar mill and Prabhu Bank. There was a guarantee that the sugar mill would buy sugarcanes from the farmers. The farmers were confident that the sugar mills would buy their products, we were confident the farmers would be able to pay back the loans, and the sugar mills were confident that the farmers would provide them their products because they were accountable for their loan. Having said that, there have been cases where we weren’t been able to provide monetary support to back ideas that were saleable because the entrepreneurs weren’t able to fulfil all the procedures and criteria.

 

Even with such provisions, startups still find it hard to finance their ventures through banks. What can be done to improve things?

To change things for the short term, the government needs to take on most of the responsibility. Right now, more than anything, there is a need to build confidence among entrepreneurs. So the government needs to help create an environment that’s conducive for doing business. Let’s say someone comes up with an idea of setting up an organic farm somewhere; the government should do what it can to help them during the initial phase. Protection is needed in the initial phase. If the venture makes it past the first phase, two benefits will accrue from that: one, the farmers will have refined their knowledge of producing and selling their products; and two, seeing these entrepreneurs finding their feet, other entrepreneurs too might want to start a business. When that happens, banks will also be more confident about financing new ideas. But that does not mean the protection must continue forever; it just needs to be instituted in the initial phase.

 

How can banks and the government play a part in financing startups in the future?

The government has also started to make things easier for startups. In the recent national budget, Rs 500 million has been allocated as a startup fund to support entrepreneurs with innovative ideas. But these sort of efforts will be in vain if we don’t have a plan. We must be careful in choosing the sector that we need to support. I think we should look for financing startups that foster technological development because that is where the market is and that is where progress lies.

Further, to ease financing, banks must work with the private sector. Just as with the tri-party agreement, we can come up with many other ways to assure returns on the investment banks make. In such a milieu, entrepreneurs will have ample opportunities to do their thing.

 *Photo Credits: Nirnaya Tandukar, M&S VMAG

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