Bright lights brighten up the buzzing streets of Kathmandu at night. Markets spin with people, traffic weaving in and out of fabric shop fronts laden with orange, blue and turquoise clothes and wraps.
Thirty-year-old Sonika Manandhar is standing outside a conference hall. She has been working late, and bus services end at 8 p.m, so private hail rides are her only option.
She steps out amid the diesel-fueled traffic, searching for a safa-tempo, the small electric three-wheeler bus, ferrying commuters around the city. Since public transport in Nepal is run by individuals rather than the government, they are well known for being owned and run by women.
“This situation sparked a thought,” explained Manandhar. “As a daily commuter, peak hours are hectic and there is no aggregated system where one can get a comfortable ride, even at higher prices. There are ride hailing apps and crowded buses, but at night, hailing a private taxi is risky.”
Working in the public transport sector all her life, she knew she was not alone. Her father owns a transport company and faces various hurdles, from customers refusing to pay fares to congestion and peak traffic leading to extra fuel costs.
“At some point, these factors came together. One day, I decided to quit my job as a computer software engineer and use my tech skills to try and engineer a cleaner, better, more efficient transport system.”
Manandhar is driven to tackle pollution in Nepal. Photo by UN Environment Programme
Today, Manandhar leads an initiative to capture big data from electric vehicles and cut emissions by making transportation efficient, while empowering women.
“Fixing the public transport system is not just about making more comfortable travel options available to both men and women at all times of day. It’s also about protecting our environment in the process,” she said.
The climate crisis came into sharp focus for Manandhar after a course in technological solutions to climate hazards. She noted, for example, that the number of private vehicles imported into Nepal surged 8 per cent in 2017 alone, and that Nepal has the highest growth rate of carbon emissions per capita in South Asia, increasing faster than the world average.
Yet Nepal has enormous hydropower potential, thanks to the myriad rivers cascading down the Himalayan Mountains. Charging electric vehicles with cleaner energy is economically viable in the country.
“I had a new drive to really make a difference to try to tackle the climate crisis. But I wanted to use my skills to help ordinary people, not only technology companies,” she said.
Public transport seemed an ideal entry point to do this, and on quitting her job, Manandhar set up Green Energy Mobility, a micro-impact investing platform which aims to accelerate electric vehicle adoption.
Together with her team, Manandhar started researching green energy options for transport. Photo by UN Environment Programme
The network aims to provide three key solutions: first, to make electric transport a safe, clean and affordable option for commuters in Kathmandu and a more viable income earner for safo-tempo drives, mostly women.
Second, to help safa-tempo upgrade their vehicles to buy new lithium ion batteries which last a full day. Safa-tempo batteries need frequent charging, resulting in lost business during peak commuting hours. The system connects drivers with banks, helping them access loans.
And third, to gather data through the platform to predict and cut traffic congestion and in the long-term, help to plan more efficient cities. This is done using a system of digital tokens, bought from approved vendors. The tokens allow digital transaction of payments and tracking of data.
In future, the platform will have a booking app, connecting safa-temo drivers with events, so that clean and reliable transport can be scheduled and guaranteed to party-goers—especially women—late at night.
Green Energy Mobility aims to empower women safa-tempo drivers with financing options. Photo by UN Environment Programme
“We’re exploring other ways to link green habits and incentivize people to use green services, including people who want to drive a more sustainable future but fly a lot or have a big carbon footprint.”
“In five years, my vision is that at least 20 per cent of public transport in Nepal will be electric. I really believe we can create a better future, and we must all do our part to drive it.”
Rob de Jong, UN Environment Programme’s head of sustainable mobility said: “To mitigate the impacts of climate change, emissions from the road transport sector should be drastically reduced in the coming years.
“Collective efforts are needed from every part of our societies, including youth and women. This initiative is an excellent example of innovative financing for electric mobility.”
The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, powered by Covestro, is UN Environment Programme's leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges. Sonika Manandhar is one of seven winners announced this year! Stay tuned to apply in January.