Belonging to a large family of twenty two members, Mr. Shiva Dhakal always loved the feeling of togetherness and a sense of community. Having exposed himself to the tourism sector from an early age, he started his first venture in 2005. Despite establishing for-profit businesses, Mr. Dhakal always emphasized, directly and indirectly, supporting local communities and the tourism industry. After the exposure gained from his travel agency Royal Mountain Travel, he decided to venture into social entrepreneurship by establishing Community Homestay Network in 2017.
A few weeks back, we connected with the founder Mr. Dhakal and the current CEO Aayusha Prasain to learn more about this social enterprise.
Read our conversation to know more!
Community Homestay Network Team
What was the inspiration behind starting your own company?
Shiva: From the early age of 17, I had started working as a tour leader, which exposed me to several issues in the tourism industry. One of such issues is related to focusing on only major tourist destinations like Everest Base Camp, Pokhara, Chitwan, etc. This tendency in our tourism industry has not only compounded the existing problems of overcrowding, pollution, and inequality between urban cities and rural communities.
Understanding the market gap through my personal experience, I started my trekking agency, which initially had a corporate social responsibility (CSR) division that focused on donating to schools in Nuwakot. Through international exposure, I learned that social and economic impacts can be integrated into a business model. In 2017, Community Homestay Network (CHN) originated with a mission to create unique tourism experiences as well as employment opportunities among rural communities of Nepal.
What was the moment of epiphany that led to switching from a CSR extension of a business to founding Community Homestay Network?
Shiva: Following on the belief to start small, we initiated with one house, my leaders’ residence, in Panauti before the Community Homestay Network was established. Panauti attracted a large number of visitors despite the small size of the town. However, there was only a small guest house in the place, which hindered the growth as it couldn’t accommodate many travelers.
Hence, we decided to start a homestay project. Like several other startups, we involved friends and family to grow the homestay while recommending international travelers through personal word of mouth. The positive feedback from our initial travelers encouraged us to scale the project by building a good network with the community, training locals, and establishing guidelines and rules.
How would you define the main purpose behind Community Homestay Network?
Shiva: We established Community Homestay Network (CHN) with a mission to build a tourism value chain that creates employment alongside tourism experience in rural communities. As a company, we emphasized our social objectives towards improving local living standards and national tourism.
What does the initial process look like when you start with one community?
Shiva: We have our team leaders who screen and identify community sites with prospective tourism. It undergoes further screening and approval process at our main office. Then, we send training staff, photographers, videographers, and story writers to the community whose expenses are handled by us. It takes about three to four months which also depends on the accessibility of the location. During these trips by our team members, they educate communities about the vision, future prospects and provide them opportunities to invest and engage with us. Moreover, we provide them a small loan to work on their infrastructure. Although COVID-19 has tested the sustainability of our business, we believe that we will recover when the industry bounces back in the near future.
What are the activities or experiences that serve as a cultural nuance and make it memorable for your clients?
Aayusha: Tourism activities that include staying with local host families enhance the potential of any destination to delight and surprise travelers. For example, when people think about going to Nepal, they often imagine trekking in the mountains. Nepal has always been more than mountains, and the world has yet to take the time to explore the country’s rich culture and heritage. With that in mind, for each community, we plan to carve out four experiences. It includes culinary classes, cultural performances, organic farming classes, and seasonal farming assistance. In the Terai region, we offer a lot of nature and wildlife-related activities from bird-watching to cycling around the forests.
Shiva: Travelers also have added opportunities by moving from one homestay to another (community circuit). It becomes a truly unique and interesting adventure that allows them to visit multiple communities. Our mission is to create an environment that can benefit everyone. Hence, the independent community lodges that operate in the area also serve as additional accommodation.
How did you plan and expand to other locations after Panauti?
Shiva: Once the Panauti homestay program was gaining popularity, we decided to expand to Nuwakot as we were already supporting schools in the region through Royal Mountain Travel. Our vision for Nuwakot was to use the community program fund to pay teachers, which would later sustain each other in an equally beneficial manner. Moreover, Chitwan was an entirely different experience. We discovered a beautiful village that was much more unique than a hotel experience. Due to the challenges with small houses in Terai, we built hut-like houses for each family in the village and set up a community fund program model similar to Panauti and Nuwakot.
Our quest to search for more communities that could benefit from attracting travelers led us to register Community Homestay Network in 2017 as a social enterprise.
Who are your allies in running the business?
Shiva: I have team members from tourism and hospitality backgrounds. I always believe that hiring more people leads to a greater collective impact that can be generated for the community. Additionally, we are not just the brand that promotes our sustainable tourism product, but over 45 local and international travel companies also promote and see Community Homestay Network’s services in the market. Such companies can directly get in touch with individual communities rather than contacting us.
What is the marketing strategy to reach your client base?
CHN provides holistic travel experiences from selling diverse local experiences both geographically and culturally to providing information and making travel arrangements through a single platform. We try to address various security concerns and help travelers plan their itineraries based on their personal preferences.
We have positioned ourselves as a travel platform that provides customers a hassle-free solution and immersive traveling experiences with an economic impact in rural destinations of Nepal. We do this by assisting travelers with organizing personalized travel plans and providing information about these destinations, which are still hard to find in today’s digital travel market. We also work with communities to develop and improve their offerings, homestays, and local activities. Our local and international partners also play a significant role to reach our client base.
What are CHN’s accomplishments after starting its operation in 2017?
Shiva: We have successfully expanded to 22 different communities. In 2018, we also became the top 10 recipients of Booking.com’s Booking Booster Accelerator Program for sustainable tourism start-ups, which led us to Amsterdam where we received a year of mentoring and coaching along with a €225, 000 grant. We have also received different awards such as Resilience through Cultural Diversity Award from International Institute for Peace through Tourism (IIPT) and the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) gold award for promoting community-based tourism. This year, we were recognized by the UN World Tourism Organization SDG’s startup competition in the category of Decent Work and Economic Growth.
Aayusha: One of the major accomplishments has been our work towards bridging the gap between the travelers and the hosts. With limited exposure to technology and without tourism industry supply chain connections, rural communities are unable to promote themselves. Similarly, the vast majority of travelers have neither the time nor inclination to proactively seek them out. Our young, energetic, and impact-driven team with our diverse life and professional experiences helps to create unique experiential travel offering a win-win for locals and travelers. Before the pandemic in 2020, we were able to host more than 7000 travelers.
In terms of communities, what kind of socio-economic changes have you observed so far?
Shiva: Our CHN program promotes unity as we encourage a minimum of 10 families to come together and open a bank account. This allows them to see the result of their collaborative achievement and bring a sense of togetherness. The majority of our Community Homestay Network is led by women, which has made more women financially and emotionally independent from their partners. Additionally, our training encourages our members to realize the value of preserving one’s culture and food.
Moreover, our program emphasizes collaborative work. Our business model focuses on sharing financial earnings by allocating 85% profit directly to the members who are responsible for earning it, while the 15% must be donated to community development. Thus, not merely the hosts, but other members such as teachers can also get the benefit from tourism.
Aayusha: Our program has further encouraged members to adopt environment-friendly practices such as the use of refillable water bottles, promote conscious traveling, enhance the voice of local communities in the sector, and diversify both Nepali products and destinations.
How does the Community Homestay Network accommodate the specific needs of travelers?
Shiva: From 2017, we have had over 7000 travelers so it has been a learning curve. Our client base is of travelers who are personally impact-driven and socially conscious; they tend to adapt to Nepali cultural practices. The major challenge stems from infrastructure as some homestays do have rudimentary facilities, which we support upgrading to the standard. In addition, we also provide basic guidelines for both hosts and travelers regarding the facilities required and available. In recent times, we have noticed that hosts are also quite business savvy. They understood the idea quickly and installed solar panels to provide hot water to the clients. Hence, they uplift their own standard of living once we show them the path.
What are the challenges you have faced when building relationships with the communities?
Shiva: It is inevitable to have disputes, but we are a very transparent social enterprise. From the beginning, we educate community members that we are essentially a business and they need to operate according to the guidelines. Some disputes emerge from financial reasons; however, we explain our business vision which requires collective effort and transparency from their end.
Aayusha: Transparency is the key to building a good relationship between the community and us. We create equity by not only supporting members with accommodation but also to local experience providers, shopkeepers, farmers, etc. to maintain harmony in the community. A combination of good communication and patience is integral. Building a partnership with the community rather than interacting with white saviour mentality helps to set a good ground with the communities to foster collaboration. Recently, we have been working on an online system to equally distribute travelers to maintain equity. We have additionally encouraged members to form committees that allow them to create a system themselves and bring forward solutions that help the entire community.
How has COVID-19 impacted the communities? What has been done to deal with the impact?
Aayusha: I have worked with several donor and grass-root agencies before joining Community Homestay Network to pursue my passion for rural development through tourism. While working with Community Homestay Network during the past six months, I noticed the impact of the pandemic among our communities. The tourism industries were the most severely affected area due to the pandemic. Prior to the lockdown, we carried out the analysis in different communities that would be able to recover from the pandemic sooner and focused our effort on training community members on health and sanitation. To make their livelihood sustainable and to diversify their income, we also started collaborating with the locals and initiated Project Koseli to create new products made by different communities which can also add to their income source.
What are the future plans for the Community Homestay Network?
Shiva: We plan to expand to 50 communities and add over 200 activities and experiences by 2022. We also have the vision to implement the CHN model outside Nepal through different partners.
Do you want to have the homestay experience in one of these communities?
Visit CHN’s website to learn more!