Back for good

More and more migrant workers are returning home to start businesses in the country. The government should wake up and tap into their skills and enthusiasm

Roshan Sedhai

Back for good

When Krishna Prasad Subedi returned home after working for eight years in Malaysia, he was unsure if he had made the right decision by leaving the job overseas. He did not want to waste his life working as a security guard in a foreign land, but it was an important source of earnings, which helped him run his household and send his kids to school. Besides, he was not in a position to start a big business and lose his hard-earned savings in any unwarranted venture.
That was five years ago. Subedi now is a millionaire, with a stake in an expanding poultry industry in Nepalgunj. He, along with his brother Kamal, now own a poultry farm, a poultry feed producer and a butcher’s shop. The industry started with a mere Rs 500,000 in budget just half a decade ago and now is poised to become mid-western Nepal’s largest meat supplier.
With the profits from the poultry business, Krishna, an inhabitant of Sukranagar in western Chitwan, has bought land and built a new house. He has also persuaded his other brother, Ishwori, to give up his decent-paying job in Qatar and help expand fresh houses in the hilly districts of the midwest. Subedi brothers are just an example of how a growing number of Nepali migrant workers are returning home with a plan and wealth to start their own businesses.
Experts say that other factors, such as the growth of cooperatives and an easy access to soft loans and state funding for small-scale enterprises, have motivated migrant workers to leave their jobs overseas and start their own businesses in Nepal.
The data from the government estimates that around three million Nepali migrant workers are currently working in countries across the globe, besides India, for which data is unavailable. Nearly 95 percent of these workers are centered in Malaysia and half a dozen countries in the Persian Gulf. Most of these workers hardly earn a monthly wage of Rs 15,000, despite working in hazardous environments and living in squalid conditions—a reality which has forced some rights groups to call it a vivid example of ‘modern-day slavery’.
But most migrants are using overseas employment as an opportunity to acquire the much-needed investment and skills instead of making it a long-term career. Migrant returnees, with small capitals, are primarily investing in agriculture, husbandry, tourism and trade, and education, where comparatively, risk is lower. The government also provides assistance in the form of soft loans, collateral-free investments, and other technical assistance to such enterprises. The government also runs a self-employment fund for people wishing to launch small- and medium-sized enterprises. Data show that around 25,206 individuals in 73 districts have benefitted from this fund so far.
Another example of migrant workers returning home with capital to start a business is Bishal KC of Dhorfedi, a well-known name in Tanahu. KC, who worked for eight years in Saudi Arabia, owns one of the biggest buffalo farmhouses in the district. There are currently 45 water buffaloes in his farm. Earlier this month, he sold 10 buffaloes at Rs 650,000 in total. KC also makes a net saving of Rs 100,000 each month by selling around 150 litres of milk every day.
Like Krishna, KC started the business with the savings he made while working abroad. He also received financial and technical support from the local District Agriculture Office. KC does not want to go to Saudi Arabia again, although he used to earn around Rs 45,000 each month.
“The most important lesson I learned from my stay in Saudi Arabia was that I could do much better in my own country with that level of commitment and hard work. All I needed was the capital and now that I have it, there is no reason to go back,” says KC.
Many other migrant returnees are selling their skills in local job markets, with decent returns. Nepal’s internal job market has a huge demand for technical works like that of cooks, plumbers and electricians. Those with experience in the Gulf states are paid as much as they were aboard.
Thakur Chaudhary worked as a plumber for around six years in Qatar but he has vowed to never return to that country. He says that the plumbing skills he honed while working in skyscrapers in Qatar has proved very useful and profitable in building local houses.
“I decided to stay and work here after seeing a high demand for plumbers in Chitwan,” says Chaudhary.
The demand for skilled and experienced workers is likely to increase in the coming years, as the number of those going abroad is equal to those entering the job market. An average of 500,000 Nepali men and women left for work abroad in the past three years, according to the Department of Foreign Employment. Estimates show some 400,000 to 500,000 new faces enter Nepal’s job market every year.
Economist Bishambar Pyakurel says that the Indian and Bangladeshi workers have been filling the vacuum created in Nepal’s industrial and construction sectors in the absence of Nepali workers. He thinks that the government should make long-term plans to encourage the involvement of more migrant returnees in local industries, as the Indian and Bangladeshi workers are being paid more in Nepal than do our workers in the Gulf.
“How can remittance build Nepal when our workers are paying more to foreigners to build their own houses while they themselves get paid less in the Gulf for the same job?” asks Pyakurel. He says that Nepal should promote returnees and aspirant migrant workers to work and invest in country’s agriculture, tourism, hydropower and other industrial sectors for sustainable development and prosperity.
Many workers settled in European countries are also returning to invest in hotels and tourism. Rishi Dhungana, who currently lives in Kathmandu, worked in London for nearly ten years. He returned to Nepal two years ago and started a grocery store in Putalisadak. He says he returned after seeing better business prospects in Nepal. He plans to expand his business in the coming days after studying its feasibility.
“Many are thinking of giving it a try in Nepal, as things have changed a lot over the years. Migrant workers abroad still have a choice to return if nothing happens overseas,” says Dhungana.
In recent years, peace and political stability has encouraged many Nepali workers to return with a business plan. Experts also say that more people are likely to return once the constitution is promulgated.
To promote an entrepreneurial spirit at home and create jobs for returnee migrants, the government should introduce an integrated plan, they say.
“The government should change the current scenario, where Nepali jobseekers feel compelled to spend their productive lives working in foreign lands, by providing opportunities at home,” says Ganesh Gurung, a foreign employment expert.  
The government, however, lacks a clear roadmap to promote entrepreneurship inside the country, although the agenda has been finding a place in the state’s annual budget every year. Gurung, who was also a member of a high-level government recommendation panel formed to regulate the foreign employment sector, had asked the government to design a full-fledged package to hone the returnees’ entrepreneurial skills.
So far, the Foreign Employment Promotion Board, a government body that looks after the reintegration and rehabilitation of migrant workers in society, has piloted an entrepreneurial development project for women migrant returnees in a few districts. Raghu Raj Kafle, the head of the Promotion Board, says that the government is also working to form a labour bank, which would provide loans to returnees to launch their business ventures in the country.
Critics, however, say that such small-scale programmes are not enough to encourage the returnees to start their own business ventures. They say that more people could be attracted to opening businesses here if the government took initiatives to assist them in person instead of limiting entrepreneurship in agendas. The government should be committed to persuading the returnees to stay, say experts.

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