FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Nepal

CASE 18 -- When digital technology connects remote Himalayan villages with the world: the pioneering case of Nangi village in Nepal

Nangi is a small village in the hills of western Nepal nestled on the southern flank of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges of the Himalayas. Nangi offers a striking example of the power of technology to transform people’s lives and break down communities’ isolation. The story of Nangi is closely linked to that of one its native residents, the US educated engineer Mahabir Pun who, after finishing a degree at the University of Nebraska, returned to Nangi in 1997 to teach. Pun managed to bring internet connectivity to his village using Wi-Fi years before telephone connections or broadband internet connection was possible.

While at the University of Nebraska, Pun’s professor asked him to set up a website about his village, the first ever webpage dedicated to a village in Nepal. On returning to Nangi he made several attempts to connect the computers in his school to the internet to engage with the outside world. Nangi did not have a single phone connection and dial-up connection was not possible. By 2001, Pun managed to install antennas and wireless cards donated by IBM, making possible short range internet connection within Nangi and neighbouring villages. 

Nangi village near the top of a terraced mountain ridge

Although connecting the village to the outside world was his dream, Pun had a more urgent need: to eliminate a trek of several hours along mountain trails to Pokhara to check his emails. He did this once a month from 1997 to 2000. Communication between villages was also very difficult, as it took days to reach a neighbouring village. Pun initially experimented building small antennas that covered 100 metre range, but larger antennas were needed to cover a wide spread of villages.

By early 2002 Pun managed to connect five villages in Myagdi on Wi-Fi. The villagers gathered at the school to communicate with others in the region. Demand grew as communities learned through word of mouth about this new mode of communication. A USD 10 000 grant from the California based Donald A Strauss Scholarship Foundation was instrumental in installing solar panels. The next year they succeeded in connecting a server in Pokhara with landline phones in Nangi, bringing a telephone network to the locals. By late 2004, Himanchal High School was equipped with webcams, making internet meetings possible. Prem Pun, a medical doctor from Nangi based in Pokhara, asked how he could help and telemedicine emerged. The doctor talked to patients through webcams, to give a diagnosis and recommend medicines in Nangi’s spartan health centre. Similarly, in 2006 teachers from an engineering college in Pokhara helped field online education. Soon a group established an online bazaar where farmers could upload prices and pictures of farm and dairy products. Thus was born the village’s e-marketing project.

With the internet, the Nangi community could access telemedicine, distance-learning, e-commerce and general communications. Nangi village schools actively use computers and provide internet access to other citizens in the afternoons. They also use telemedicine services and have initiated income-generating projects. Pun’s NWNP (Nepal Wireless Networking Project, a not-for-profit company, plans to develop e-commerce services in eco-tourism and provide virtual ATM machines.

The NWNP has facilitated development of physical capital in these villages, such as Wi-Fi stations, telemedicine centres and telecentres. Many people living in Nangi, including all school children, can use computers and to some extent avail of online opportunities, rare enough in most remote communities in Nepal. The NWNP empowers local women, encouraging them to participate in the development process. For example, in the Nangi telemedicine centre, local women receive preference in training. To quote a health worker in Nangi telemedicine centre: “Telemedicine means, we have a small clinic here where two sisters [nurses] are working. If they have any difficulty or there is an emergency case then they directly connect to Kathmandu or 4-5 other main hospitals to consult with them.” 

“For his pioneering work and persistence, Mahabir Pun received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2007, recognizing his innovative application of wireless technology, bringing him fame across Nepal and beyond.”  

Within a decade this simple initiative transformed the digital landscape of a huge swath of rural Nepal. Pun’s NWNP, based in Nangi, has pioneered electronic communications and facilities in a community that had no access to them until 2002. Connectivity was initially extended to 42 villages of Myagdi with financial support from organizations such as the ITU (International Telecommunciation Union), the World Bank, Nepal Telecommunication Authority and the Asia Pacific Telecommunity. The federal government is helping local governments in remote areas build more wireless networks and introduce digital services. By 2013, the NWNP reached 15 hilly districts and a total of 150 villages. It collaborates with village development committees and district development committees, manages credit card payment facilities for trekkers and has subscribers in small bazaars.  

The pioneer, Mahabir Pun, is leading digital projects through the National Innovation Centre (https://nicnepal.org/), a new national level initiative aimed at nurturing youth and encouraging innovation.  For his pioneering work and persistence, Mahabir Pun received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2007, recognizing his innovative application of wireless technology, bringing him fame across Nepal and beyond.