… call for collaboration 

Staff Reporter 

Bhutan’s startup landscape, that has remained dormant owing to the Covid-19 pandemic in the past few years, is gradually changing with the help of digital technology and innovation.  

Key figures in Bhutan’s entrepreneurial landscape at a panel discussion deliberated on “Entrepreneurship and Innovation for Economic Growth in Bhutan” last month sharing insights on challenges, opportunities, and the path forward in building a thriving ecosystem.

 Speakers, including DHI CEO Ujjwal Deep Dahal, Samuh Founder Nyema Zam, Denkar’s Getaway, and Rikesh Gurung, Founder of Green Road, highlighted challenges and collaborative strategies, spotlighting Bhutan’s pivotal shift towards a digital economy and global innovation hub. 

Dr Uwe Draeger from German-Bhutan Himalayan Society, in his keynote address, shed light on Bhutan’s economic situation, offering a reflection on challenges faced while suggesting potential avenues for growth. 

Dr Draeger delved into Bhutan’s GDP structure, revealing that the primary sector contributes 20 percent, the secondary sector 34 percent, and the tertiary sector 46 percent. A critical insight emerged when examining the distribution of employees, with over 50 percent engaged in the primary sector. 

Dr Draeger highlighted that the real financial gains occur in the secondary sector, where only 10 percent of the workforce is employed.

He also underlined Bhutan’s economic dilemma, where most goods are imported, posing challenges that need addressing for sustained economic growth, coupled with the dominance of civil service jobs in the tertiary sector.

Identifying challenges faced in the last four years, Dr Draeger said that there are issues of economies of scale, excessive regulations, and a lack of Bhutanisation. ‘The confusion of competencies and unclear decision-making structures further impedes the entrepreneurial landscape.” 

Specific examples, like the lack of standards for solar power procedures and convoluted regulations on electricity production, highlighted the need for clarity.

Dr Draeger proposed that for economic transformation, long-term planning and coordination, particularly in agriculture and tourism, would be critical. Clearing up the confusion of competencies, promoting sustainable development, and targeted incentives were presented as essential steps. The call for “Bhutanisation” of possible solutions emphasised aligning strategies with existing infrastructure.

The panellists highlighted that Bhutan’s journey toward becoming a digital economy is gaining momentum. The foundation for innovation lies in a collaborative effort involving the government, industry sector, entrepreneurs, academia, and society. 

The panellists emphasised the importance of embracing failures as stepping stones to success, as entrepreneurs in Bhutan face a unique set of challenges, from limited access to scaling capital to the urgent need for digital literacy. However, amidst these challenges, success stories emerge, reflecting the resilience and determination of Bhutan’s entrepreneurial spirit.

A key driver of Bhutan’s innovation landscape is technological advancement. Initiatives like the drone industry and the development of a National Digital Identity are pushing boundaries. 

Druk Holding and Investments Chief Executive Officer, Ujjwal Deep Dahal shared about how Bhutan is venturing into uncharted territory, setting the stage for pioneering achievements in technology and policy. 

“To bring in a participatory approach to building an innovation ecosystem, we are working on very small proof of concept projects. For example, testing drones, designing, fabricating drones,” he said. “Launching of the national digital identity project has been output of this small research.”

Panellists highlighted the significance of collaboration. It was emphasised that innovation cannot thrive in isolation; instead, it demands a harmonious partnership between the government, industry players, and entrepreneurs. The successful creation of a National Act for the drone industry development represented this collaborative approach.

Nyema Zam said that  in the last two years the company earned at least over 100,000 dollar revenues coming in annually from just a small 15 percent of Bhutanese users based abroad. 

“So that just shows us the potential that if we use technology and expand into bigger areas, bigger markets, especially with creative arts now, it is possible for us to really create a big creative export industry from Bhutan itself,” she said. 

However, protecting intellectual property has been a crucial aspect of nurturing innovation. 

The panelists addressed the challenges of copyright violations, emphasising the need for heightened awareness and legal frameworks. They stressed the importance of valuing intellectual property to attract investors and build a sustainable digital economy.

The panelists also expressed the need for international collaboration, inviting innovators from around the world to contribute to Bhutan’s innovation ecosystem. They discussed the establishment of an international fund, similar to the Yozma Fund in Israel, to attract investors and support local startups. The aim is to create an environment where Bhutan becomes a global hub for innovation.

Bhutan’s unique strengths, such as hydropower and tourism, were identified as areas to leverage. The entrepreneurs emphasised the need to consolidate experiences and explore how Bhutan could be more impactful in these sectors. The discussion highlighted the importance of recognizing and capitalizing on Bhutan’s inherent strengths.

While acknowledging the government’s recognition of the private sector’s importance, there was a call for a more profound embrace, treating the private sector as a true partner in economic development. 

Bhutan’s young population seeks opportunities within the country, and to harness this potential, swift action is required, the panellists said. “The focus is for Bhutan to evolve into an economy where the private sector plays a significant and integral role.” 

The panellists emphasised Bhutan’s stand at the critical juncture, where collaboration, innovation, and the protection of intellectual property are the pillars of sustainable entrepreneurship.

The panel discussion was organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in New Delhi.