Inside Nepal's post-quake 'maker space'

Nepal Communitere, located in Patan, consists of an office building and 10 donated shipping containers. Pictured are the training hall, the maker space and the hacker space. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

The shrill buzz of a skill saw cuts through the afternoon air at Nepal Communitere. It’s late on a Friday, but a few members of the Nepal Robotics Association are working on their weather station prototype, which aims to monitor and predict weather patterns for farmers. Others are discussing plans for a disaster risk reduction early warning system, an application of machine learning to predict floods.

The young engineers are working in Communitere’s “maker space,” a shipping container turned haven for building and creating. Wrenches and pliers line the wall and a sketched robot watches from the dry erase board.

The Robotics Association was the first to move into Communitere, a post-disaster resource center and innovation hub located in Patan, just south of Kathmandu.

The opening of the nonprofit — consisting of a building along with 10 shipping containers converted into additional offices, a maker center, a computer strewn hacker space and a café — just months after April 2015’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake was no coincidence. In fact Nepal Communitere, now home to seven local and international startups, is the third of the nonprofit’s country programs, after Haiti and the Philippines.

Following a disaster such as Haiti’s 2010 7.0-magnitude quake and the Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan, those affected scramble to rebuild their lives and reconstruct schools, homes and other damaged infrastructure. But Communitere believes catastrophe can also become a catalyst for innovation among people hit hard by the devastation — a phenomenon it wants to harness and support.

“When they do rebuild, limited resources often force them to be more creative and innovative,” Bahar Kumar, Communitere’s strategic adviser, told Devex. “They’ll stop and say, ‘How would I do this differently than before?’ and come up with organic, ad hoc ideas.”

Nepal was already demonstrating a growth in social entrepreneurship prior to the tremor, Kumar explained. Now she believes interest in innovation and entrepreneurship is stronger than ever, especially among young Nepalese in their 20s.

“We don’t want to lose this talent to a foreign market,” Kumar said. “Instead, we want to engage them in being makers, in joining networks and in building livelihoods to stay in Nepal to invest in development here rather than abroad.”

The ultimate goal of Communitere’s resource center is to enable international, national and local NGOs and communities to work together to transition from initial emergency relief to long-term development. The nonprofit doesn’t provide primary programming, but rather physical space, networks and facilitation.

“If Oxfam comes to us and says, ‘We want to do coding bootcamps with young women,’ we would say, ‘Great! What do you need? What space can we provide?’” Kumar explained.

It’s this role of connector and network provider that Kumar sees as Communitere’s greatest role moving forward. It’s time to bring the development and humanitarian sector of Nepal together with young makers and the tech industry, she told Devex, and Communitere is ready to do just that.

Members of the Robotics Association of Nepal at work inside Communitere's maker space, a converted shipping container. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

Already, Miss-tech, a spinoff of the Robotics Association of Nepal, was incubated at Communitere in an effort to support women who code. The group will soon be leading digital skills training workshops in coding, creating and computing in six of the country’s outer districts. French NGO Emergency Architects has also been working out of the space, as well as the School of Performing Arts of Kathmandu, which is using music and theater to address post earthquake trauma.

Local and international nongovernmental organizations are increasingly interested in incorporating more innovation into their projects, and Communitere is well placed to identify groups that can bring those ideas to the table, as well as provide the space for creativity, Kumar said.

“Nepal is ready for this,” she added.  

Though the nonprofit is currently struggling financially to meet overhead costs, it seeks to be the model “maker space” in the Himalayan country to demonstrate what it can offer should others wish to replicate it. Ideally, Communitere will be able to subsidize use of the space for groups who can’t afford it and offer seed grants to startups calling it home. Right now, the nonprofit charges 600 Nepalese rupees ($5.60) per person per day for co-working space including lunch, or 8,000 rupees a month. They won’t fully market coworking facilities until they’re able to secure funds to convert more of the unfinished upstairs space, but word of mouth has more young people dropping by to see how they can get involved, Kumar told Devex.

“Youth engagement was one of the really amazingly positive, visible outcomes of the earthquake — how engaged young Nepalese were to respond,” she said. “That’s why a space like this will thrive. Young people come out of coding bootcamps, for example, and they’re itching to get engaged.”

Eventually, Kumar would like to see Communitere running soft skills development and business coaching, as well as set up smaller maker spaces in other districts — or even a mobile maker space that could be deployed as a tool lending library post landslide or flood.

For now, the innovation hub is taking steps toward its goal of connecting INGOs with innovators working in the space by inviting Oxfam to hold staff trainings in its converted shipping container training lab.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.