Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Nepal can tap massive demand for IT and data, skill gap needs to be addressed (Interview)


Prasanna Dhungel is an expert on applying Data Marketing and Human-in-the-loop models, the science of applying data to human interactions, to optimize how consumers buy online. His company, GrowByData, provides marketing intelligence, employing these techniques and technologies, to help some of the largest advertising agencies and brands in the world optimize the shopping experience for their customers. Bindesh Dahal of Lokantar caught up with Mr Dhungel Monday afternoon to talk about his professional journey in data, importance of data in modern life and Nepal's potentiality in data marketing.

Please tell a bit about yourself. What inspired you to enter the world of data?

My study is in engineering. I studied in St. Xavier's School and I went to Budhanilkantha School as well. Later, I went for undergraduate and graduate studies in the United States. I studied electrical engineering. Specifically, I studied telecommunications at a time when there were no wireless phones. I got fascinated with wireless communications.

Data are at the core of wireless communications. The phone takes your voice, sends it over the airwaves and it is the data that is decoded by the recipient. After finishing my Masters I worked for a telecommunications company. And later I joined a company called D2HawkEye. I joined it because I thought it was doing a humanitarian use of data. The company's mission was to get data to find sick patients and make them feel better. I spent a lot of years there and my data training comes from that experience.

Then I went to business school and it was all about how you use data across finance, marketing, and human resources. And then I worked for a few years in the healthcare sector.

I realized that this was the early stage of big data. Almost all companies I worked with were struggling in terms of using data. So, I created a concept called the data value chain which every company should use.   

We started GrowByData in 2014 with that concept. Our focus area was e-commerce and all these years we have used that platform. At the moment I advise other companies as well. Clinic One is one of them. I advise them to make better use of data to manage the clinic.

We all agree that data is very important in modern life. Could you tell us in simple words why data is so important?

Data is important for three primary reasons: it makes us happy, healthy and wealthy. A data-driven society is happy. Let's take our roads for example. There is huge traffic and there are potholes everywhere. Through data we know which stretches of the road have poles that distract traffic. Every rainy season you know what part of the road has a lot of stress and will develop potholes. Through data you know where there are potholes, obstructions, or a lot of traffic. You can give that information to the public authorities. The new Kathmandu Mayor can send his "infrastructure ambulance" to the section of the road that is most likely vulnerable. If he uses that data and improve the road we all are happy.

The new Kathmandu Mayor can send his "infrastructure ambulance" to the section of the road that is most likely vulnerable. If he uses that data and improve the road we all are happy.

I'll give another example. The Nepal Police has only limited staff. You might like to go out in the evening with your friends but sometimes you feel unsafe. Nepal Police might have data of particular areas that are a bit sketchy. They can deploy police personnel to those sections. That is using data to understand where there is trouble, allocating resources, and making our lives easier.

Data make our society healthy. For example, Clinic One tries to find patients who come to the clinic. It places a call to them or visit their individual houses. The clinic team can visit the patient and log their data and provide treatment accordingly. Telemedicine is another technology which stores data. At the time of COVID certain companies were bringing deliveries home. It saved people for getting infected.

Data also make us wealthy. NTC or NCell has a wealth of data on subscribers. They can make an offer to people who need higher speed of internet than others.

Another example I can give is about my friend who comes from Tarai. I told him that the price of rice in your village can go really high and come down later. If you use the data of the 12 months, you can see the time of year when rice is the cheapest and you could store it. Later, you can use it at your home or for your business. If you are a buyer of rice, you can buy it when it is the cheapest and save money. In this way, data make us wealthy.

With data we are not vulnerable to cyberattacks. We are saved from harassments and we don't have to pay the attackers. There are many other use cases of data.

You have been running a data company in Nepal and the US. What are some of the challenges and opportunities you have faced?

If I look at this industry for the last 20 years, I have to be grateful. Enormous advantages have been made in Nepal. Twenty years ago, internet was so expensive. Only Institute of Engineering had the talent to work in this industry. If you fast forward 20 years, we have staff who are educated in Nepal. The amount of talent has grown leaps and bounds. And the internet is so much faster, secure and affordable. The industry is far far better than in the past and I have to give credit to people who have done the hard work.

There is massive opportunity for data. Using data within Nepal and serving international clients present opportunity in themselves. Just as India transformed by tapping into the Y2K crisis and became an IT power, Nepal has the same opportunity. I've seen companies in Nepal doing well. Esewa and Pathao are some of them. There are amazing people here that can serve global brands. There is massive demand all around the world for data and technology talent. Nepal can be a good destination for data. In my article, The Nepal Advantage, I argue that Nepal has three advantages: talent, time zone and cost. Because of these advantages, lots of companies have been established in Nepal.

The volume of talent Nepal produces is really low. That feels counter-intuitive.

But the challenge for us is the volume of talent. The volume of talent Nepal produces is really low. That feels counter-intuitive. So many people apply for the job. When we look at the aspirants' CVs, we see a skill gap. There is a chasm in what we want and what they offer. Many people have degrees in data and technology but they are not up to the industry. There are so many jobs available but we don't have pool of talent. I worry that like the boom in the garment industry 30 years ago that went bust, the IT industry will collapse if we can't provide the volume of talent that the industry demands.

You can stop the brain drain and retain talent in Nepal by providing a nice life to the talented people. It would be good if you let this massive demand for IT and data be tapped in Nepal. After all, jobs in data pay well and people like to earn money while having the company of their family. They would pay taxes and spend money here, thereby helping the overall economy. Nepalis outside of Nepal may also decide to come here to work. The same happened in India. I've seen many Indians working abroad come back to India and work in the IT sector. I think that is the way brain drain can be stopped.

You talked about skill gaps in this sector. Do you have any plans to lobby the stakeholders to address the issue?

I share this gap whenever I talk with them. We ourselves have tried to address this in a few ways. First, we have links with colleges and we have a cloud program as well. This program allows us to train students of engineering colleges to use data. They come to our office and work part time. That allows us the time to train future employees. Second, whenever I talk with the media or address an event, I say that there is a massive boom in this industry. Some of the biggest companies in this world are tech companies. Nepal will boom but there is a skill gap. I share this at all the forums I attend. Third, I go to engineering colleges and ask the principals to create a one year course on SQL (Structured Query Language). There is so much demand for SQL. That's the way I give tips.

But skill gap is still a big problem. Some of my friends have opened colleges to address this lacuna. That is one model. The other model is training the teachers and instructors. My colleagues have trained school students on data. Importantly, we have made colleges aware about the talent gap and suggested ways to address that. Just as you need a doctor to treat the patients, you also need a data doctor. Why don't you introduce a degree on data doctor or data technician? The world needs so many data technicians.

How is your expertise in competitive marketing intelligence data relevant to Nepali context?

How would you buy a product or how are your competitors better on SEO is the way that our product is relevant to the industry. We specialize on Google and Amazon and our technology provides competitive intelligence to anyone in the industry.

In Nepal we promote tourism. The right question is: who are our competitors? Is it Sri Lanka? Is it Myanmar? Is it Bhutan? And who are our customers? If a person wants to go to Pokhara, you can use intelligence like ours to understand who is appearing in the hotels in Pokhara, what's their price, what's their reviews and what are their facilities. You can use our intelligence to better target Nepali customers.

By using intelligence and technique like ours you can target the tourists who want to come to a country like Nepal.

If you are targeting foreign tourists, consider this. The question might be if there is a customer in London looking to go for the holidays. S/he will search for best exotic holidays in South Asia. Which country will come up in that search? By using intelligence and technique like ours you can target the tourists who want to come to a country like Nepal. You can understand what they are seeing and you can use our intelligence tools to be more visible to those tourists and really get them to come to Nepal. That is the way you can use technique like ours to attract buyers. The same can be replicated in other industries.

Anything you like to add to this interesting conversation?

Technology and data industry is massively growing. Nepal is a very attractive market not for the largest companies of the world because we cannot supply tens of thousands of employees. However, countries like Nepal, Ukraine, and Vietnam are excellent destinations for mid-sized businesses. There are good examples of companies based in Nepal that serve international markets.

There is massive growth in data, AI and machine learning but a real dearth of talent. If we get the right things done in Nepal, there will be a huge inflow of these types of jobs within Nepal to serve the Nepali, Asian and global market. Why don't we make Nepal a data nation by the year 2027? We can make the country happy, healthy and wealthy by using data.

We should reduce barriers for companies in doing business. There can be one door policy for companies like us. Don't add more frictions. If you want IT to be a pillar of your economy, you need big companies. You can help big companies grow by reducing barriers. By increasing the amount of this enormous talent that knows data and by spreading data awareness this country will see a massive change in the foreseeable future. 

Published on 22 June 2022