In 2017, Sumeena Karki, a Nepalese biotechnologist, came up with an idea that would change the lives of farmers in her country. With over 72 millions cattle, agriculture is the main source of income for Nepalese households, yet they still lack technological resources that could make their work easier.
After months of field research meeting with the farmers to understand how they could improve their lives, Sumeena and her team found their major pain point: the farmers were still relying on physical observation to detect pregnancy. But that method is very vague and the delay in detecting the pregnancy often led to severe consequences like difficult labour or even the death of the fetus.
So they decided to develop kits for farmers to detect pregnancy in cattle faster. RaRa Biotech was born with an ambitious goal: detecting pregnancy in cattle after just 28 days. Their pregnancy detection kit could be used without the supervision of a professional, which not only saves time for re-insemination but also money from maintenance cost, price of medicine, and fee of vet doctors.
Thanks to their intensive customer discovery, RaRa Biotech had an obvious product-market fit Sumeena explains, “For sample collection with our test kit, we travelled to many provinces in Nepal to interact with the farmers about the challenges they’re facing. Working with them, changing some protocols, and trying to make technology simpler to help them allowed us to gain their trust and develop a product tailored to their real needs.”
Being the change you want to see in the word
Convinced that biotechnology can systemically change the quality of living for people in rural areas, RaRa Biotech set out to start their journey as early-stage entrepreneurs. However, at the time, the Nepalese entrepreneurship ecosystem was underdeveloped, especially for a team made up of 6 female biotechnologists (Roshani Shrestha, Amina Baniya, Gauri Thapa, Apshara Parajuli, Ritu Sapkota and Jasmine Manandhar) with no business experience.
There were no policies in place to support entrepreneurs, let alone biotech companies. High rates on bank loans and taxes made it almost impossible for early-stage companies like RaRa to get funding, and the cultural and political environment wasn’t favorable either.
“We have a popular saying that the people are rich and the government is poor – and I believe it’s very true. We blame the government while also hoping it will step forward and solve our problems. We still wait for the perfect leader. But I didn’t have the patience to wait for the perfect leader. My parents taught me that no one will come to solve our problems. If we want change to happen, it should first come from within. I didn’t want to regret during my 60s looking back saying I wish I had done something to my country. At least I will be happy even if I fail, because I tried”
For months, Sumeena and her team worked from their own pocket money. They won different prizes in competitions, but given the cost of high-grade scientific materials, the money barely lasted a few weeks. Investors deemed their project “too scientific” and no one wanted to risk their funding in research. What is more, the team said they struggled to be taken seriously by clients and partners based on their gender. So the 6 biotechnologists fought harder to build a prototype that they knew would be convincing enough.
Empowering Nepalese farmers to create a strong country
All their hard work finally paid off. Private organizations began organizing events and incubation programs to uplift the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Nepal, and in January 2018 RaRa Biotech won “Best idea” in one of them: the Swiss-Nepal transfer workshop. A month later, they won “Best idea” in Startup Mela, an initiative of The-Startup.Org to connect all key-players of the ecosystem for social and economic improvement.
After this momentum, Sumeena and her team joined Bridge for Billions’ online incubation program, The Leap, in September 2018, and secured a small grant from the Swiss embassy: “It gave us freedom and preliminary resources to convert our idea into reality and spend in a responsible manner. I’m glad that we received a small amount of money, otherwise we would have developed a habit of depending upon grants and again applying for one after another in a never ending process.”
A year later, RaRa Biotech has diversified their business, adding the production of shiitake mushrooms and waste management to further support Nepalese farmers and empower the country to return to food sustainability. The company is planning on doing projects based on demand with corporations, and are in contact with agricultural students doing thesis research.
“The biggest lesson I learned till now is that until we don’t focus on those research-based projects which are able to uplift the economic status of people, we’re not going to help improve the present conditions of our country.”