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Optimistic Nepal - In The Global Minds For Development And Prosperity

Nepal concluded a two days Investor Summit 'Invest in Nepal' on 29th and 30th March- in Kathmandu - organized by Government of Nepal (Investor Board Nepal, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Industry and Supplies Commerce and Ministry of Foreign affairs).

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For over few decades when you heard the country's name Nepal- the episodes came into the global minds was the massive hijack, the massacre of the royal kingdom, the Maoist insurgency and the most recent earthquake with the blockade that almost destroyed beautiful Nepal - a destination for mountaineers & holidaymakers in the world! Somehow it always was in news for its political shift and for being a poor & low-income economy - Nepal as of today has moved forward of its conflicting past to a stable government and has made itself identified as a new Investment hub to watch-out for – for the global economy. This was apparent from the recent – Nepal Investment Summit 2019.

Nepal concluded a two days Investor Summit 'Invest in Nepal' on 29th and 30th March- in Kathmandu - organized by Government of Nepal (Investor Board Nepal, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Industry and Supplies Commerce and Ministry of Foreign affairs). The summit could be considered as the third summit of its kind after FY 1991 and FY 2017, with not much to talk about the actual investments in terms of values taking place – however, the FY 2019 summit projected itself as an Investor friendly country & policies and believed to have attracted over 40 countries, 735 foreign delegates, 300 foreign companies, 600 domestic participants, and 100 domestic companies and media. The IBN (Investment Board Nepal) showcased 77 projects in Hydro Power and Infrastructure and believed to have closed the summit with signing 15 MOU and some great display of intentions of the current government in terms to offer boundless support to get the MOU into actionable implementations, change and flexibility in the policies to accommodate inflow of the foreign funds as compared to the past policies and rigidness. 

The highlight of the summit was a very high-level closed-door round table discussion on 30th March with Hon. Dr. Yuba Raj Khatiwada - Minister for Finance and convener Nepal; Mr. Maha Prasad Adhikari- CEO- Office of the Investment Board, Nepal; Mr. Dong-ik Lee- Director General of Investment Operations, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; Mr. Geert Fanjet - Head of the Asian team, Energy Department, FMO; Mr. Hans Peter Lankes- Vice President, Economics and Private Sector Development , IFC; Mr. Hartwig Schafer, Vice President- World Bank, Ms. Keiko Honda- Vice President & CEO, MIGA, Mr. Nirukt Sapru- CEO Vietnam, ASEAN and South Asia Cluster Markets, Standard Chartered Bank, Mr. Shekar Golchha- Executive Director, Golchha Organisation; Mr. Shixin Chen- Vice-President, Asian Development Bank; Mr. Srini Nagarajan- Managing Director and Head of South Asia, CDC India; Mr. Suraj Vaidya - Former President, FNCCI and ACGI and Sadanand Dhume, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute as moderating the discussion.

The objective of the round table was to discuss key drivers to – ‘Make Investment Happen in Nepal’-  to facilitate the much needed economic transformation, work on policy reforms, encourage investors by making Nepal conducive for investments – bring confidence in the investors, help Nepal develop - as next promising destination.  The dignitaries – discussed the current challenges faced by the Nepal government in the implementation of the investments – sharing neighboring countries strengths & growth strategies namely– India, China, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Georgia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Kodobar. 

What came about during the discussion of other economies was - Nepal to adopt Georgia’s- service mentality and private company do the front ending of legal documentation avoiding direct interactions with the ministries. Having huge human capacity – Nepal can adopt Bangladesh’s mid-career training programs for people in the age of 25 to 35 and help them get jobs or become business owners, the garment exports where the policies, labor laws and infrastructure were changed to facilitate the export making Bangladesh an investor-friendly country. India’s energy policies, the electronic bidding system for infrastructure project applications, openness for newer projects, transparency was highly recommended to Nepal IB – along with India’s strategy of attracting several pensions’ funds. Nepal to have a fast implementation of the policies like Singapore – Vietnam’s government ability to move away after the bidding is completed and let the private sector take over – Cambodia’s Rice sector was much appreciated – how the systematic efforts standards in rice production enabled substantial exports. Came the country – Kodobar’s (West Africa) capabilities to fix the problem immediately, how the country looks at the problem, shares risk associated with the projects and understands where the private, public or banks fund can be brought into! In the end – essentially taking the best practices across all growing economies! 

Also – for Nepal the current focus should be – to leverage cross border investments in energy projects - the unexploited hydropower sector – that can easily supply power to the neighboring countries encouraging private sector investments, improvements in tax regulations, solving the immediate road situations, to streamline and prioritize resource allocations. The dignitaries also appreciated that Nepal has gone through a big Peace process and the new constitution has set the stage for investment in the country. However - the pace of execution is a concern and how the government can work with more private players easily – the private sector has felt the burden of not benefiting as they should have after the election. They believe Nepal has a strong government with the majority and with the right intention – however the private sector has not been able to solve their problems locally and which is adding to their cost!

Power & skill of the women and technology in Nepal is under-leveraged – how the current government can be an enabler like other South East Asian countries and give access to credit to women in Nepal.

The dignitaries also felt that Nepal has a huge advantage to its geographical location between two large and different economy - China and India! Nepal can leverage the great connectivity by way of expressways – airports and focus on supply chains, be a corridor between these countries and facilitate the exchange of goods that will save time, huge cost and expand trades for these two economies. Nepal being rich in tourism can leverage on the 70% tourist that comes from India and China even for that matter taking advantages of the Casino being legal in Nepal by managing it worldly and ethically. Importance of creating value products for promoting tourism the key  – as they are two different culture –a currency hedging mechanism to be in place so India and Nepal would benefit from the exchange.

The Finance Minister was quite delighted with the suggestions and named it more strategic than just a closed room discussion giving credit to each dignitary’s role that can change the whole Nepal Economy in any forms that bring complementarity in the efforts. He said – ‘We have all options of investing here, we are moving towards giving higher power to the private sector which we also believe will be catalysts for our growth and sustained development of the country’.

In the Political Transition in the last one year – Nepal has transformed the unitary state to the federal set-up and have resolved most issues relating to the FISCAL with proper laws and enabling regulations- saying only few legislation being left to be passed by the parliament. He continued.,’ We are planning to get this done in the next session of the parliament so next FISCAL year we start with a clean sheet that will help us function better than this year of transition’. Apart from the political transition the concern is  Economic Transition – ‘we have a history of 4% growth in the last 20 years we have changed growth transitory and moving into a higher growth transitory and we need to sustain this growth’.

FM’s concern was how to control and measure this growth – he said – ‘if the growth was due to nontradable we might have a problem in other areas of growth, as to have balanced growth we need to have exported as well – which we see Tourism as one solution. Nepal as of today has been able to reduce poverty by 1% every year in the last 20 years – without any interruption – despite decade long conflict –that’s makes a good history of poverty reduction, we want to reduce extreme poverty as soon as possible. So good growth, quick return – quick reduction in poverty – growing middle-level income people and domestic demand for our own products !.’

Demographic Transition – FM said – ‘on the social front a larger chunk of the population are coming into the working-age- getting skilled and literate in languages and technologies which are key elements of transformation- regarding women power it is the total social mobilization which is a fantastic work done in Nepal – community organization are very active in managing natural resources, developments and also the outcome so farwe are open society, free press, very active civil society. This Social Transformation is helping Economic Transformation but that won’t be successful unless we have the technological advancement supporting all this transition – FM said further – ‘We need a lot more investment in technology transfer and technological advancement – where we see the transformation of education. Therefore the government intends to put more resources into technical education rather than the general education we are trying to reverse the ratio of general and technical and vocal education in the next several years – resulting in creating skilled manpower – and be a catalyst in transforming the society and the economy. FM talked about – the complementarity between the highly growing neighbors and Nepal – as an opportunity from the growth of the neighbors in terms of trade – investments – tourism – technology transfer – and capacity development – he said –‘We would like to see more tangible results coming from trade and tourism – ‘ 200 million people move out of India and China – and we are expecting only 1 % of them coming to Nepal – which is 2 million for next year – and if we get it 2 % then we get 4 million flow of tourism- our target is to get 5 million in next 10 years’ time from India and China– as per the infrastructure development happening, Nepal is geared up to accommodate 2.5 million tourists in the next couple of times year! 

Tourism is 95-96 % under the private sector - he said – ‘We have more room and we will create enabling environment that will include industry policies, open air policy- we are interested in bringing in more airlines, strategic partnerships in our domestic airlines industry, new airports are almost ready that will be operational soon –along with additional airports. However FM – showed concern on how much value we are adding from the industry they are promoting- otherwise they will have some stress in some sectors of the economy and it could be foreign exchange reserves – so he said 'any activity done – ‘the idea is not to only enhance the balance sheet on both sides – we should change the structure of the economy – to create more of the tradable sectors and have double-digit income growth – a balance between tradable and non- tradable is a must. Talking about – infrastructure – the concern FM shared was – - ‘we must be able to reduce the transaction cost to make us competitive be able to do more tradable and export so that we keep on fuelling the process of development from the adequate reserves we have and minimize external sector gaps – which we fear might incur in the process- which is a very strategic issues along with inviting more of the investments.'

FM stressed on blended finance between Private- Public - Govt and short term and long term financing mechanism – Nepal currently has a problem with this maturity mismatch in the financing structure -Infrastructure projects needs long term investments and the major investor are the banks – that have a short term portfolio – so the problem is transforming this short term liability to a long term assets  - or short term resources into a long term investments .' Nepali banks are in very good shape now – as their NPA level is 1% -perhaps lowest in the world as compared to 10 years ago when the NPA levels were between 15 to 20% - all of them have come down to less than 1%- this only proves that our financial system is very healthy and they are the major payers in the financial markets. FM suggested to leverage financial resources from the Nepali banking system as a good idea, less risky and risk-less!

We would also like our investors to see that there is complementarity between infrastructure and industry while we are promoting such kind of infrastructure – that can promote exports –taking about the unfortunate situation that came across in the period of deindustrialization with manufacturing declining – GDP declined over a decade simply because we focused more on the trade and the growth pattern was  import driven,so the complementarity between infrastructure creating, enabling condition, and reducing the transaction cost – making Nepali products competitive in the world market- through better infrastructure facility would be the one to be a catalytic source to promote our exports.

FM has very positively agreed to many suggestions given by the dignitaries and committed to working upon them but moving ahead with reforms and making amendments in public procurements polices he said – that the country is still in transition – the pace of reform could be slow in the beginning but we  promise to gear it up – and assure won’t reduce the speed of reforms committed that private players will get good and better – in domestic and foreign investment!

On a separate note BW spoke to FM about educated people not getting jobs and the Nepal institute not been recognized outside – FM clarified – our concern is any person who wants to get engaged in professional career after being educated must be skilled, should have a technical education, that’s why from about 30% of the skills from the education system - we are transforming into 70 % so that most people will be skilled. For those who are already educated we can update their skill levels –in different capacities – without skills and without professional ideas –we cannot expect jobs for everybody – it can only for personal knowledge – so we have to see how we are getting the technical skills to get better jobs and better self-employed that’s the key !

Projecting Nepal as a major investment destination – ‘Nepal is targeting to get  20 billion USD a year – government  spends 5 billion dollars a year and they need another 15 billion to become double-digit growth – domestic and private sector can take another 5 or 6 billion so we need almost 10 billion dollars of foreign investments to promote us to double-digit growth and become middle-income economy.’

What has the Nepal government done to create more of Entrepreneurs and support young start-ups – FM replied by saying – ‘We have created enabling environment – we have created challenge funds – funds which are to be allocated to people who provide a lot of innovative ideas and we have our SME policies in which we encourage those kinds of activities – we are also ready to subsidize the smaller credits they take for start-ups and provide them with more entrepreneurship training if they need.

His dream Nepal is – Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali – the slogan of Nepal!

BW also spoke with Mr. Maha Adhikari - CEO, IBN during and after the Nepal Investment Summit was over– who talked about IBN, the Nepal Investment Summit, and post-event implementation plans.

Investment Board of Nepal was established in the year 2011 but operational since 2012 chaired by the Prime Minister having thirteen members comprising of all Ministers mostly Central bank governor, chief secretary, Finance Minister, Ministers from the Industry, Forest, Energy, etc. The main objective of IBN is to work for Megaprojects and on the mandate to deal with 10 billion Nepali rupees. The need for IBN came when there was a long political transition, they felt that Nepal needs some govt instrument – the regular govt will not dissolve the current development., the law in 2011 came in a hurry and the scope was limited so to facilitate foreign investment and mega PPP – a special body like IBN came into being- it is not just for commencement but implementation also.

 Mr. Maha - talking about their policy priority said “Govt priority is building the infrastructure including hydropower energy - out of the total 43000 MW capacity to generate energy from the rivers we are able to generate only 1100 MW, it's clear we have a huge opportunity in Hydro Power. As per the demand study, Nepal needs 10000 MW by the year 2030, demand for energy is huge in India and neighboring countries too and we would aspire to export energy to them. We are working on transmission arrangement and the strengthening work is going on. We are forming new laws to facilitate the same and provide one-stop service by being digital and transparent.

We have a network through the agenda of diplomacy for further investment purpose- investors who are far away and not familiar of the landlocked, we would like to request all multinationals who are there in India and China to stop by in Nepal which is a few hours away- if you have presence in India/ China they can certainly have presence in Nepal- we are increasing the connectivity - we already have 5 to 6 highways that connect China and India and we are building more.

When asked about the 15 MOUS signed he says – ‘On the deals, we witnessed/ signed are mostly deal in between private developer, the name of which are there in summit site you can see some of the value in the deals itself; additional values are not available right now. On the follow-up - IBN Board will have its strategic follow up a mechanism to enforce and facilitate the deal to translate into action. One of the initiatives we tried this time is producing projects for FDI with the pre-feasibility study. We will share the exact response on the project after 20th April through a press meet.  That time name of the project, its estimated cost, respondent, etc will be shared.

Apart from the Nepal government officials, to get the 360-degree view of ways and means towards Nepal’s headway, BW decided to have conversations with few pioneers, early risk takers, start-ups and local small-medium entrepreneur and third country views – Frontiers who are full-fledged operating and are happy to have made the choice. Hopefully, this may encourage foreign investors, entrepreneurs and other potential individuals who may want to discover Nepal as their next destination for growth from the eyes of people who have already taken a big chunk of risk and towards growth. These conversations also hold some suggestion to the Nepal government on the challenges faced by them, what the government can/should do and make it win-win to all.

Catching up with Mr. Srini Nagarajan, MD & Head – Asia, CDC group, 'It took us some time and we recently did 15 MN large transaction with NMB Bank in the form of debt and for this year our pipelines look decent. We are looking at debt transaction in large hydro projects, this country requires long term debts. Banks in Nepal collectively cannot support long term financing, they are very small, essentially we have to make sure – banks consolidate create larger banks and institutions like CDC can support. As far as the private sector goes Nepal, still have to design PPP policies. DFI like us can set the base for private investors to come in, otherwise private investors are pretty nervous to come to these markets- once the base is set it becomes a fantastic mobilization for crowding private capital. Smaller businesses need growth capital in the form of debt and equity, so we need a proper Venture Capital framework – we don’t have it as of now – we need to have proper exit environments- vibrant exit policies – exchange control –provide all the technical support and creating a good venture environment. The entrepreneurs in Nepal are not used to running a company – so a framework to help them is needed– we are planning to have someone on the ground to support. There are opportunities in tourism, Infra, Vocational skills and education over a conventional degree, Health care is not enough – people’s specialty skills are lacking, Financial inclusion esp. for SME and MSME is a must. 

Having said this - Every economy has challenges nothing unusual about Nepal, they need to work around the policy framework and give us that! For foreign investors, it’s a matter of whether you can provide a vibrate exit policy and to make sure all DFI should be an enabler to create a framework altogether DFI should put in a billion dollar and create an atmosphere that is vibrant in Nepal.

The spokesperson of World Bank Mr. Faris Hadad- Zervos and this is what he had to say that – from investment perspective ideas is coming at the right time –and it the perfect time for frontier investors to come earlier into Nepal and invest. Series of laws and reforms have been taken up by the government which is a very important first step – the government has signaled very clearly opening up for private investors – so there is no better time than to Invest now in Nepal! 

We are the development partner – we are building a new Nepal economy! What is really important now is to –how do we operationalize the summit moving forward, we need to translate the laws into operations –actual regulations- the law needs to have executive regulations, practices, and policies –we need to identify at least 20 key transactions and go from one to one – make sure they are actually facilitating and translating into investments. At the end of the day -we can have a summit but what is going to matter is a year from now – where a private investor says –I went to the summit, I brought in an investment – now I am making returns. Nepal's historic growth rate was driven by consumption lately a lot more of the GDP growth is driven by investment – mostly by the public sector- we need 8 to 9% of the GDP growth per annum to have the status of the middle-income country and the investment must grow by 10% every year. Public infrastructure is very important - currently Infrastructure investment is 3 % of GDP per year and in order to achieve the status of middle-income country Nepal needs to increase the investment by 4 times to achieve the 12 % of GDP by investing in roads, airport public sector resources are not enough so the private sector has to come in. Nepal needs to work on - How to create an investment environment with a minimum amount of public investment with a maximum amount of private investment. Nepal will have to create its own competitiveness so the neighboring economy would want to come – Nepal has the mountains – the Himalayas- the medicinal products – the syncretic religions-these should be branded and marketed more. It is actually unfair to compare Nepal’s performance at one point in time – a country that did not have a government that did not last for more than a year, beset by earthquake a country that has just gone for new federalism – we at the USA and other larger economy are still grappling with federal issues –so we have to set the storyline that it is a path- we need to accompany the path-this is where investors can underwrite the path- but if you come in early – you come in great !

 According to Hartwig Schafer – Vice President, South Asia Region World Bank –Technology is the strength of Nepal. Nepal should focus on the top 20 transactions in sectors where private sectors can determine! The top 20 investment doesn’t have to be all mega projects - we need to change the narrative in Nepal – it is a tech-driven country there are few very successful young tech companies and start-ups -giving example of a local tech company called – Incessant Rains that employs 200 millennial and does visual effects work for Hollywood is least talked about!

This year World Bank celebrates 50 years of operation in Nepal – they first started in 1969 they are largest development partner here. Their portfolio is very broad – the focus now would be to offer advisory support, monetary investment, – strengthening Nepal governances under new federalism, contributes towards better service that will create more jobs – anything that will make Nepal resilient against natural and microeconomic shocks.

When we heard from World Bank that -Technology is the strength of Nepal – BW was curious to know more about this company  – we took a look at – Incessant Rain a digital animation production and visual effects founded by a Nepali Kiran Joshi- it indeed was a rare find in Nepal. Kiran who worked in Hollywood for 17 years as a visual effects supervisor – for films like - Lion King – Beauty and the Beast came back to Nepal and started Incessant rains in 2008. He put up a small team and slowly started hiring people. Initially, they took off the shelves applications and soon they started coding their own applications and building their own properties. Their 95% of the clients are from the USA –like Warner brother and Disney India and many but they cannot name them- the big clients do not want their clients to know that work has been outsourced to Nepal and takes the entire credit to themselves. IR has also done the Netflix series of unfortunate events – they were the main vendors apart from the other two from India. The talented team says – 'Some clients give us credits, some don’t – some give the name of the company – but some also gives credit to the Artist – we feel great- as the objective of the company is just not an outsourcing company or make only money – but be recognized as a brand –We are specialists in technology data handling - we can deliver –  we are a creative content company! We have big plans – so far we are developing our own properties – some we collaborate – but eventually, we want to make our movies – we are self-funded as of now.'

Tim Gocher – CEO Dolma Impact Fund -a former Investment banker from London and a Hon. Prof. of Sustainable Business, University of Nottingham - in the year 2011 post the financial crises - felt that Nepal political environment is relatively peaceful, low crime and assuming that his assets will be safe – he decided to launch its first PE fund to support the country that he loved. It was a surprise to even hear that Nepal has a PE fund. Tim raised about 37 million USD from various FI and HNI family offices across the EU and closed the fund in 2015 just before the earthquake hit Nepal. During fundraising to invest in businesses in Nepal – the country did not figure in the Sovereign risk rating and had no track record of any fund performances -Tim was discouraged by a lot of investors – that he is taking a huge risk! Tim gives credit for his inspiration to his mentor Vineet Rai of Aviskar PE fund based out of India. He was immediately faced with challenges of destruction from the earthquake and the India Nepal Blockade. In my conversation with Tim He said – ‘2019 –with the first long term elected govt which is stable - is the first sign towards legislative improvement – one can feel business confidence  in the pipeline of deals – today is a good time relatively for the fund.’

He encourages other funds and investors by saying - ‘Come and try, talk to the existing businessmen here – talk to the funds here – always get yourself a local partner. Competition is less of a factor here in Nepal– one can get a larger market share.’ The international perception of risk in Nepal is high but I know that this government has never missed an international bill, our experience have been- when you are on the ground working, the actual risk is much lower than the risk internationally perceived -the risk-adjusted return is much higher! We have access to the minister -If you are in a genuine problem you can talk to the minister unlike any other countries – they cannot always help but they try to. It feels like a partnership with the government – it is not perfect – but it is there. I endorse the govt to be less laborious in terms of policies to the country where the FDI application is 4 to 5 % higher than the money received. They have announced an automatic route like India where people like most other countries can bring money into this country ‘. Nepal -It doesn’t market itself well – more known for reason that investor won’t want to invest.

In another conversation with a small-medium enterprises – BW interacted with Mr. Rajan Sharma who runs a Quality Freight services – a logistic companies and considers that Government has blown the investment needs – but has completely ignored the small needs of us entrepreneurs – they only spoke about large investments in the summit – while being there in the summit to explore if he could do some partnerships –he didn't manage any! He was more looking at technology know how – JV with a foreign collaborations – the focus was too much on bringing investments into large projects of Hydro, Infrastructure, Tourism, power – but not much on getting some technical collaboration – he said - 'Nepal needs knowledge – we small entrepreneurs have enough funds – but we struggle with not knowing enough – I fear if too many large foreign players come into Nepal with huge capacities – small businessmen like us will vanish – Govt should focus on the ground level needs too'.

Anand Bagaris a 47 years old into the agriculture processing business called Probiotech Industries Pvt. Ltd. – a 1500 CRs Nepali rupees revenue - gave us peek into the good and bad of the agriculture sector in Nepal. He says our yields are far low than the capacity, agriculture is over employed – our farmers don’t get the right market and the right price for their produce– so we need a mechanism to give our farmers the right market. One of the key JV he has signed is with NCML based in India - a technical collaboration to create storage spaces for agricultural produce in Nepal. He said farmer during harvest don't have enough storage and the yields move to India to get stored and get processed and comes back to us as imports. The import trade balance increase – I have signed on grain storage on the vertical system – NCML has two million tons of storage capacity – we want the technical help and learning to create our own storage. NCML was the part of the investment summit -the JV was supposed to happen much before - however, the summit gave the confidence and accelerated the MOU. He says - NCML saw the ministerial level of commitment and the opposing backing it- the message they carried back was – Nepal means business and is serious now!  According to him, the Summit is a marketing strategy and they did well.

Another great interaction came about with Tom Broyles who was the state judge and a professor in the University of Texas, School of Law- retired and came to Nepal to create an Impact, He fell in love with Nepal and says Nepali people are the most beautiful people in the world. He loves education and is supporting Gandaki Province to start a world-class university – a research university. The existing education system he says has served its purpose but education keeps changing -it has to move towards a corporate structure. One of the specializations of the university would be sports management with the help of a PPP model– build a high altitude training for mountaineers. There are 105 different languages in Nepal – the diversity in culture itself provides it to be a bigger lab for an anthropologist. The idea is to offer what Nepal has to offer – not take anything from the world.

To close the arguments from India’s perspective of vibrant Nepal we caught up with Mr. Shardindu Vajpayee, MD - Amicorp Advisory Services – India- who was invited by the Investment Board of Nepal to explore investment opportunities on behalf of their Indian clients/investors. Shardindu- says 'he met 15 -20 large to medium Nepali enterprises and was encouraged by the response and back in India there are some serious talks with investors'. He did not share the name of the investors and Nepali companies saying that it is at a very nascent stage of talks – although said – it will happen and once it happens they will surely share it. They said mostly they may structure outbound deals for their clients in the form of a PPP model in Infrastructure especially in Airports, hospitality and technology, and e-banking services.

Note of thanks to Mr. Sujeev Shakya from BEED consulting Nepal for making all the one on one meetings with top officials in Nepal a possibility – Sujeev was instrumental is curating the high level closed door discussion with the Finance Minister, and is passionate about his Nepali culture and his country!

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