Bijay Rai is a co-founder of the technology company Utopia. Their aim is to use tech-solutions to solve society’s big problems to help create our own utopia. As an organization, they believe in creating workspaces where people can explore their technical creativity. People use their workspace to develop their own ideas and collaborate with each other. At the Smart Urban Tech Challenge, the idea they presented was an app called “Swachyalaya.” They designed it to help improve the condition of Kathmandu’s public toilets by harnessing the goodwill of local communities. Though he realizes the difficulties of solving such complex problems, he compares these issues to complicated math problems that might seem like they cannot be solved but those are the ones that the most satisfying when you finally do. We spoke to him about his organization, how Swachalaya works and what his future vision for Utopia is. Here is what he had to say.
1. Could you tell us more about Utopia and Swachalaya?
Utopia provides various IT services related to software and mobile application development. There are four people on our team. All of us completed our Bachelors around the same time and started working together informally for a while. About two years ago we registered our own private company called “Utopia.”
For the Smart Urban Tech Challenge, our idea was “Swachalaya.” The concept was focused on sanitation, but it had several components to it. The basic idea was to tackle public toilet issues in Kathmandu or other dense urban areas just like it. Initially we developed an app that was a smartphone toilet locator, but as we carried out our research we found that the bigger issue was the lack of public toilets itself. We created a feature that allowed people to fund the construction or repair of public toilets according to the needs of the community.
2. What exactly does the Swachalaya app do?
We are in a constant cycle of refining the overall idea. Initially, we saw that there were apps in India and on google that were similar but in the case of Nepal there were a lot of issues with the existing toilets. We chose to create an app that would not only mention the issues with the toilets but also allowed people to contribute towards repair and construction. People have been contributing more and more to their community infrastructure lately and this gives them another avenue to do so.
The app would allow you to place a pin to establish the toilet location sort of like we pin things onto google maps. But in order to increase the credibility of these pins, we plan on structuring it in a way that a certain number of people have to verify a toilet before it is considered legitimate or useable. If certain people are found to contribute more to the map than others, they are able to start an initiative. They are able to initiate crowdfunding projects for new construction or repair.
3. What other projects are you working on?
As a company, we want to focus on solving social problems but at the same time we realize the importance of creating a sustaining business model. The next issue we are planning on working on is regarding public transport. The potential of using smartphones to track public transport vehicles is quite promising. Public transport in Nepal is difficult to navigate and certainly needs some kind of intervention.
4. What are the biggest challenges in your company?
We want to design and develop the best possible product, but it is difficult to sustain employees while a product is still under development. Our approach was to have a community where new developers could come and learn from us. We have a developing working space where people do creative designing. We haven’t needed a huge investment so far.
5. Do you plan to continue working on social problems?
Prakash Neupane from Sarathi said that the solution always comes from the problem. We wanted to work on the bus tracking system because we experienced the problem ourselves. When people in society deal with all the same problems, that is what needs to be addressed.
6. Why did you start the company?
I felt that every other company that I worked for had their own vision and their own agenda. And there are very few workplaces that let you express your creativity through your work. But if you have your own company you can grow and explore your own creative skills. That is the major leverage of having your own organization. The name Utopia means a perfect world or dream world, and we want to use technology to create that.
7. How has your experience with entrepreneurship been so far?
There are a lot of hurdles. When you are working a 10 to 5 job, you can switch off at the end of the day and not worry about work anymore. Here, work is always on your mind but when you do something that you enjoy doing it really doesn’t feel like work. And you’re faced with a lot of challenges, but if you have good mentors to help you, solving these problems becomes enjoyable. It almost feels like solving a mathematical problem. Some people are driven to do so. When you can’t solve a math problem, you can’t move on to the next until you’ve solved the first one. The satisfaction of finally solving that problem is just great!
I teach in schools right now and a big problem is that they only take the academic road. There is a big gap between that and solving real-world problems. Students need to start working on solving those problems early on. You don’t have to wait till you graduate or anything. You can start solving problems anytime!
For more information about this company, connect with Bijay Thapa at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interviewed and article by Jyotika Shah.