The biotechnologists of Kathmandu-based startup Ficus Biotech did not really know how to run a professional business until they came across the accelerator programme Rockstart Impact. Now, their road to success in Nepal lays wide open.
The three founders of Ficus Biotech are true biotechies. Managing Director Durlav Karki, who obtained a master’s in biochemistry at the University of Stavanger in Norway, and his co-founders Anuroop Manandhar, a graduate from Columbia University in New York knew each other from their bachelor studies in biotechnology in Kathmandu, and later they met third partner-in-crime Santosh Dahal who has completed his Masters in Biotechnology from Tribhuwan University in Kathmandu. “When we started our company in 2015,” says 31-year-oldKarki, “none of us knew much about crucial parts of doing business, like finance, marketing and management. The three of us were focused mainly on tissue culture and creating high quality plants.”
This all changed when the company was selected for the Rockstart Impact Programme in 2016. During this hundred-day-long accelerator programme, Karki and his business partners soon realized that they could not just focus on their products. Karki: “Strict financial management and monitoring is crucial for our success. Luckily, we have received, and continue to receive, a lot of help in those areas. The programme helped us to think more strategically about our business and we work much more organized than before.” With the final pitch at Demo Day 2016, Ficus Biotech partner Anuroop Manandhar convinced Netherlands-based Purplefield Investments to invest in the company.
Tissue culture in Nepal
One to Watch rightly recognized the enormous potential of Ficus Biotech. The tissue culture company is the first to address the lack of quality seeds and plants in the agriculture sector in Nepal. Karki: “We grow healthy and disease free seedlings and plants and multiply them. As a result farmers get high quality, disease free seedlings and plants that increase production and generate higher value.” Currently, Ficus Biotech focuses in the production of Paulownia and Bamboo. Paulownia is widely known for its good timber whereas Bamboo is used as construction material and in production of various handicrafts. Further, Ficus Biotech works on tissue culture of agricultural plants such as potato and banana. They are soon going to start production of flowering plants such as Gerbera and Carnation.
As 70% of the population is dependent on farming, the impact that Ficus Biotech can make in Nepal cannot be overestimated. The demand for high quality and disease-free seeds and plants is huge. Five years from now, Ficus Biotech aims to produce and sell at least 1 million seedlings of various plants. Nepalese farmers now import expensive and low grade seedlings which undermine productivity and reduce the quality of their produce. Karki: “Most farmers in Nepal have never heard of tissue culture, so we need to convince them that our plants are superior to what they can get elsewhere.” That is not always easy, admits Karki. “Farmers are skeptical towards outsiders because they have often been fooled by middle men and city folks. It takes time to gain their trust. We make field trips to rural areas to inform and train them – sometimes in cooperation with local government. In the beginning just a handful of farmers were brave enough to try our products. The rest will follow soon after they see the results. We try to explain to them that the cost of seedlings is less than 5% of the total cost but if the quality of the seedlings is not good then the whole harvest will not be good. Hence buying high quality plants is actually a very good investment.”
Save the harvest
When the foreign investment from the Netherlands comes in – expected in a few months time from now as a result of some remaining bureaucratic hurdles – Karki and his colleagues will start building their brand new production unit. By the end of the year Ficus Biotech hopes to start plant disease diagnostic services as well. When a crop is threatened by a plant disease, the biotechies of Ficus Biotech can detect the disease and offer a solution to save the harvest – a unique service that will significantly improve the lives and livelihoods of farmers in Nepal.