The world surely doesn't need another story about how information technology
and the Internet make it possible for entrepreneurs to shorten the supply
chain, cut out the middle man, and change the commercial landscape. The
basic outline of that story has been told many times. What makes this
version different is that its shrewd entrepreneur is a Sherpa guide whose
job is to keep foreign tourists from getting themselves killed among the
world's tallest mountains.
Three years ago Mike, a recently retired friend, was planning his first trip to Nepal. Faced with the complexities of tickets, passports, licenses, vaccinations, food and logistics, Mike did what any sensible tourist would do: he bought a package tour through a travel agency that specializes in treks and adventure tours. With the tour company making the arrangements, all Mike had to do was get on a plane, then get on another plane, then link up with the tour group, get on a bus, and finally arrive at the village where the trek would begin. At the village the tour operator introduced the group to Binod, the Sherpa who would guide them for the next week. The tour operator then got back on the bus because his work was done, but Binod's was just beginning.
Nepal's economy depends heavily on tourism, so guides are licensed and carefully regulated. It isn't enough for them just to know the trails. The guides are responsible, in so far as possible, for protecting their clients from the stupid things they might do that could get them killed. For example, every trekker is warned early on that if they ever hear the sound of an approaching bell, they should immediately step to the up-slope side of the trail. The bell indicates that a yak is coming. Yaks are the main beast of burden at altitude; they are normally docile enough, but are notorious for pushing any obstacle they encounter out of their way. You don't want to be standing down-slope when a yak comes around a bend, because it's a long way to the bottom of the chasm.
Mike survived the yaks and the mountains and returned home with a suitcase full of photos and a head full of memories. As he described the trek, Mike was appreciative for all the middleman functions the tour operator had fulfilled, but he had found a lifelong friend in his Sherpa guide. Binod had shown himself to be knowledgeable, friendly, patient, and trustworthy. More than that, he shared Mike's enthusiasm for computers. Binod was not just computer literate; he was using his skills as part of his business, staying in touch with clients who might want to make a return trip without using the services of the tour operators.
It is no simple task to use the Internet in Nepal. In larger towns there are Internet cafes where anyone can walk in and check their email for a small fee (connect time costs about 75 cents an hour). But most of the guides live in remote villages perhaps two days walk into the mountains, far from any electrical utility or telephone line. Binod was using his brother in law's ancient computer, which ran off a car battery that was kept charged with a solar panel. The Internet connection was by cell phone.
Though bulky and fragile, this impressive use of appropriate technology allowed Binod to stay in touch with clients in Europe, North America and Japan. In the following year he made arrangements with Mike for two subsequent treks. The cost to Mike turned out to be about half what he had paid the middleman, and he was assured of getting his favorite guide. Binod didn't have to share his fees with the operator, and he could tailor a trek to the specific interests of his clients. As an entrepreneur, he had adopted the technology that would help him expand his business and improve his profitability.
Mike has been so pleased with the arrangement that he decided to subsidize the technology. On his last trip he took along a little gift -- a cast-off 486 portable with a 14.4 modem. The portable was far from state of the art, but it has proved a cost-saving step up for Binod. Its 3-1/4 floppy drive lets him compose messages at home, and walk them down to the Internet cafes for transmission, thereby reducing the cell phone and connect charges.
This may all seem quaint and amusing to readers in the U.S., but it demonstrates something important about how technology comes into use. In a country that worries endlessly about the digital divide between information haves and have-nots, Binod's story should be reassuring. No matter where on earth, it isn't hard to find creative individuals who see the advantages that technology can confer, and who find ways of adapting it for their use, in ways they can afford. Given the tendency of people to adopt and use technology, is there really any reason to assume that technology must necessarily create an underclass of information-deprived citizens?
Since 1982 the author has donated obsolete computers to his church, a community college, Goodwill Industries, his mother, and now a Sherpa guide. He also donates his blood, but does so before it has become obsolete.