Over the past decade, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft have led a transformative wave of gig-economy disruption, allowing drivers to work independently from taxi cab companies and the unions and bureaucracies that control them. It’s an inspiring story of bottom-up innovation and human empowerment in the face of entrenched interests and outdated laws. And in our increasingly technological and globalized age, it’s a story that continues to spread across countless industries and contexts.
In a short film from Dignity Unbound, we see one such example in the story of Tootle, a scooter ride-sharing company based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Tucked in a narrow valley between mountain ranges, Kathmandu’s 3 million residents have long dealt with traffic congestion, high transportation costs, and poor public transit services. Recognizing the struggle, Tootle founder Sixit Bhatta developed the ride-sharing company as a way to overcome the constraints of the city’s existing infrastructure and systems.
“Public transit in Kathmandu is unreasonably unreliable and inefficient,” explains Akash Shrestha, a research manager for Samriddhi Foundation, a Nepalese entrepreneur advocacy group. “Tootle is this new, really innovative and amazing ride-sharing platform that allows people without any means of transportation to just hop in on somebody else’s motorcycle and go around the city.”
Bhatta founded the company not just to meet a tangible community need, but also to challenge the city’s systemic barriers and change his community’s mindset when it comes to innovation, entrepreneurship, and empowerment.
“I think entrepreneurship is more like a creative art,” Bhatta explains. “So every feature that you develop, every product that you develop, you not only develop these products and features to make lives easy for people – you also develop these products to inspire a generation. … Mobility has a power to not only shape up how people move, but in the long term, it also has the power to [shape] how our societies and our communities and our infrastructure evolves.”
The startup has gained significant traction among its customers, but it continues to face legal barriers and significant institutional resistance. As explained in an article from the filmmakers, the company is still “technically illegal,” even though it is allowed to freely operate (for now):
Nepal’s laws don’t allow citizens to register businesses in nontraditional industries. These barriers make it difficult for aspiring entrepreneurs such as Sixit to innovate, create opportunities, and solve problems.
Last year, traffic officers would use Tootle to hail rides, and then fine the drivers for illegal activity. Many were furious. It led to a public outcry. Luckily, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli instructed the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport to back off.
Sixit was able to get Tootle back online, but Tootle’s legal status remains ambiguous.
Through such resistance, Nepal’s government isn’t just favoring select companies or controlling prices and products. It is actively stifling innovation and hindering access, both to new jobs among creators and needed services among consumers. As the film explains, the social benefits of Tootle have gone well beyond simple price competitiveness and convenience.
For example, Tootle has provided new opportunities for women in a country where gender stereotypes persist and only 22% of women are employed outside the home. For Bhim Maya Sunuwar, a mother who manages her Tootle customers during the school day, the company has opened new paths of empowerment for her and her family.
“Before Tootle, I relied completely on my husband for my expenses,” she says. “But now, with Tootle, every day I get a satisfying feeling for having worked all day and earned something.”
For Bhatta, this is all part of the company’s strategy. “I think this is a rebellious move where you can see a woman giving a ride to other people where even simple employment opportunities are not being given to them,” says Bhatta. “I think this is a big move that can change the gender stereotypes and empower women. And that empowerment can lead to a massive change in the future.”
The disruption has also expanded access for the city’s blind population. For a visually impaired owner of a local massage parlor, Tootle has greatly helped him and his employees, many of whom also have disabilities. “Chiran, a masseur at the parlor, said blindness made him a target on public transit,” the article explains. “Now he worries less, moves more freely, and saves rupees on his daily commute.”
For another visually impaired Tootle user, the service gave him an affordable way to travel to outside the city’s heavily polluted corridor. “For that man, and many others like him, Tootle has brought about the freedom and opportunity to breathe clean air for the first time,” the article explains.
Of course, ride-sharing is not the only area where technology and innovation have worked to bring services closer to consumers, tightening human connection while freeing producers and creators along the way. It is also not the only area where business interests and political forces continue to collaborate and conspire to resist and interrupt such trends.
In discussions about poverty alleviation, policymakers and philanthropists tend to ignore the mundane realities of restrictive regulations. Yet it is here where empowerment can actually begin.
As Shrestha explains: “At a time where the concept of shared economy is growing – where service seekers and service providers are able to connect by use of some technology – we need to actually capitalize on the existing opportunities that are being created by technology rather than creating hindrances that restrict people from improving their own lives and the lives of those that surround them. Until we make it easy for people to do business, we will not be able to solve the biggest crisis of Nepal that is poverty.”
For the entrenched business interests and the political powers who strive to protect them, it’s not about service but self-preservation. Likewise, for the entrepreneurs and challengers at the center, it’s not ultimately about new conveniences and cost savings, but liberation and widespread empowerment.
“One entrepreneur doesn’t solve all the problems,” concludes Robin Sitoula, executive director of the Samriddhi Foundation. “But if we allow or create an environment that creates millions of entrepreneurs, millions of our problems will be solved. That’s the beauty of the market.”