Lab-based learning has since become common practice in Nepal, say the people behind the BUCSBIN project. The lessons learned in the project have also been adapted for a popular TV show

A few years ago, Assistant Professor in Entrepreneurship Rupesh Shrestha along with some other young entrepreneurial researchers and business influencers started to ponder how they could develop entrepreneurship training and education and the entrepreneur mentality in Nepal.

At the time, many of Nepal’s small-scale entrepreneurs were entrepreneurs not by choice, but out of necessity, due to a lack of employment opportunities. And finding employment is not easy without the proper education and training. According to Shrestha, the local education system is poor, especially outside of the capital, and does not encourage people to develop their home regions.

- A child who has finished school knows English, a bit of other languages and mathematics. In practice, they have the knowledge and skills needed to go to the capital or some other country to find employment.

While business studies were available, they were theoretical in nature, with practical business skills being difficult to obtain. Of course you could always look up business stories on Google or YouTube, but the fact is that nobody can become a successful entrepreneur without opportunities to try out what works and what doesn’t in practice.

Bibhusan Bista from the Young Innovations consultancy had contacts in Finland, through which he found out about the possibility of applying for a joint project with Oulu University of Applied Sciences (OAMK). The discussions that he started eventually led to the three-year BUCSBIN project, the objective of which was to increase university capacity in Nepal for supporting business incubators and startups.

The project was carried out in collaboration with Shrestha’s employer, Kathmandu University, and the private King’s College. Project partners included business incubator Idea Studio and Young Innovations, which was responsible for the project’s communications, technical implementation and links to the business world and local communities.

Labs for testing business ideas

The method chosen for the project was lab-based learning, which had been developed at OAMK. According to Project Coordinator Kimmo Paajanen, people at OAMK had realised ages ago that the traditional top-down method of pouring knowledge onto learners was not the best way to learn.

- Lab-based learning emphasises creative and critical thinking, respecting others and doing things together, he describes. - You start off by identifying the problem and then start seeking solutions to it through iteration and learning from failures.

At the start of the project, a core group of people from the two Nepalese universities travelled to Oulu to see how this kind of studying works. To ensure that they would really understand the method, the group got to experience the laboratory process for themselves.

Rupesh Shrestha recalls the experience as being somewhat frustrating at first.

- We asked them to explain how the labs work, but they would not tell us and instead made us do it ourselves. Eventually we understood that this is how it needs to be done, as otherwise we would have simply copied the Finnish model in Nepal, which would not have worked.

Since the reality is so different, it was better for the teachers to first internalise the new teaching method in the role of a learner. Next, they got to assist in running the labs, which gave them the knowledge and skills needed to eventually adapt the labs to local conditions back home.

Updated curricula

Back in Nepal, both universities ended up updating their curricula to make sure that lab-based teaching would continue beyond the project.

Courses based on the method were soon started, and because of the involvement of Idea Studio, which produces a reality TV show about business ideas, the new teaching method was quickly adapted for the small screen as well.

In addition to his job at the university, Rupesh Shrestha is also one of the founders of Idea Studio.

- The discussion at the studio focused on how these business lessons could be taught in a week or four days instead of over the course of a university term, he now says.

Somewhat similar to Shark Tank, Idea Studio’s TV show involves a group of candidates pitching their business ideas to judges, who then pick the best ones. While there are no investors involved, Shrestha says that the show offers exposure to entrepreneurs, which provides them with opportunities and public pressure to succeed. The show receives applications from 700–800 entrepreneurs annually, of which approximately 40 are selected to participate in a business incubator. From there, some go on to appear in the show itself.

Even a bee farm or ice cream factory can be an innovation

During previous seasons of the TV show, the budding entrepreneurs were trained using traditional business economics methods, but as a result of the BUCSBIN project, the incubator portion of the show was retooled to utilise the lab-based learning approach. The show is currently on its sixth season, and according to Shrestha, the pedagogy has never stopped developing.

- Now we have lab masters who studied at Kathmandu University holding workshops for entrepreneurs, which teach them the fundamentals of running a business and promote entrepreneurial thinking, he says.

The participants learn to identify problems, seek solutions, engage in cooperation and develop their business plans. The role of Idea Studio is to steer the entrepreneurs and help them develop their business, but the solutions ultimately come from the entrepreneurs themselves.

To succeed in the show, the pitched business ideas need to be innovative in their own context. Even things like bee-keeping and honey farming can be innovative if the idea is to do it at an elevation of 3,000 metres up in the mountains. Similarly, establishing an ice cream factory in the southern part of Nepal can be innovative if the factory is the first of its kind in the area and uses buffalo milk collected from local villages as its main ingredient.

One of Shrestha’s favourites was a chicken farmer who identified the problem that industrial broilers yielded plenty of meat that people found bland, whereas the chickens running around freely in villages were praised for their tasty meat, but were all skin and bones. The entrepreneur proceeded to cross-breed various native breeds of chicken, producing delicious and quite meaty birds that the entire surrounding community is now rearing for sale.

The business ideas pitched by people living in cities are often more familiar-sounding to Finnish ears, with young people developing things like platform economy applications that connect plumbers and other craftspeople with customers. For Shrestha, it is important to see a wide variety of ideas coming in from different parts of the country.

- Entrepreneurship should change people’s lives, he says. - That is what we need in Nepal to vitalise the economy.

What is needed are expertise and role models to make industrious people see the opportunities in their own environment, Shrestha states. In other words, you need people who will set up a bee farm in the mountains or a chicken farm instead of leaving to find work in the Persian Gulf, the United States or Europe.

Links to the business community now in order

According to Bibhusan Bista, while not all of the recent development of Nepal’s startup community can be attributed to BUCSBIN, the project nevertheless had a tremendous positive impact.

- It laid a lot of the groundwork, he says. - The project created good connections between academia and companies, as links to business life were at the core of the project from the very beginning.

Nowadays it is also easier for Young Innovations to find motivated and skilled employees. Bista notes that before the project, it was difficult to find new entrepreneurs who had an ‘entrepreneurial mentality.’ In other words, the project succeeded in changing many people’s way of thinking, including his.

- User-oriented thinking is now at the core of all of our projects, he says.

Young Innovations has since carried out a number of different innovative development projects with local governments, the state of Nepal and other countries, for example.

Lab-based teaching still going strong

Lab-based teaching has become established practice at the two universities as well. Kathmandu University now offers lab-based courses, while at King’s College the lessons learned from the project have been deeply integrated into the very core of the university, according to its President Narottam Aryal.

- I can say without exaggeration that the project was a significant milestone for us. It brought about a profound change in our entire culture, thinking, methodology and the ways in which we engage with local communities, Aryal says.

Today, everything at King’s College is based on human-centred design, which was inspired by the BUCSBIN project. The university also now has its own business incubator, Do-Lab, which was established during the project.

The staff of King’s College also visit other provinces to hold workshops for students, teachers and would-be entrepreneurs.

- We have integrated the project into the core of our philosophy and way of doing things, Aryal says.

Part of the national curriculum

Kathmandu University has also been spreading the new teaching methods to other universities, and is currently assembling a consortium of universities that have a potential interest in entrepreneur education.

- I have had discussions with five or six universities, and we would like to launch a joint project to develop our pedagogy, Rupesh Shrestha says.

The aim is to also incorporate lab-based learning into Nepal’s national curriculum to proliferate it across the whole country.


Text: Esa Salminen


Building University Capacity to Support Business Incubation in Nepal (BUCSBIN)

Project Budget: €673 818 with MFA funding (total budget €842 273)
Project Duration: 1.3.2017-31.12.2020
Coordinating Institution: Oulu University of Applied Sciences
Partner Institutions: Kathmandu University, School of Management (KUSOM) and King's College, Nepa