Nepal Day 7: Chitwan and Sapana

Reportaje de Mateo Bueno

The lowland of the Chitwan region gives you a very different flavor of Nepal. Compared to the Himalayan region 100 miles north, Chitwan is a savannah with dense vegetation that borders the rivers where you can still spot wild rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and tigers. Its also hot as F. This time of the year, it’s about 95 F and going cheap on hotels and sacrificing AC is not an option in this region.

That may be one of the reasons why the fancier/stylish sign of Sapana Village Lodge stood out on the side of a dirt road.

I follow the road and park at a driveway where I’m welcomed by the friendliest staff.  They serve me a cold drink and insist on a quick walk to the restaurant area to see the lodge before deciding if I want to check in there or not.  

They probably know that their conversion rate from prospect to guest doubles as soon as people see the restaurant. The open dining area looks out to the savannah where elephants may be bathing and the snowy Himalayas continue to shine in the horizon.

These people know what they’re doing. This is probably a large hotel company running this Lodge and a few others in Nepal.

Wrong.

At dinner, I happen to sit next to a man who glows through his eyes.   He has a kind of  magnetic energy that draws you to him and you only want to ask him questions. I meet his wife and his daughter who are sitting with him, and over dinner he tells me his life story.

Dhurba, meaning North Star in Nepali, was born in the nearby village of Sauraha to farmer parents. He was dirt poor growing up – as in farming without shoes and sleeping on a dirt floor.  At 13 he decided to apply for jobs at restaurants and began his career as a waiter and restaurant host.  At 19, while while working at the restaurant, he met a Dutch couple who connected with him for some reason (probably that charismatic energy) and they asked him – “What’s your dream in this life?”

DSC00338
Dhurba with his wife and daughter.

He hadn’t thought about it much before but he somehow answers what he knew his dream was: to start a business, a hotel business, that can generate enough money for him to start different community projects for his village to thrive.

They ask how much he would need to get it started, he says $5K They say “Good luck with that but let’s keep in touch”.

In 10 months, they wire him $5K and a note: “This loan is for you. You can either have an amazing party or you can follow your dream.  No hurry in paying us back.”

At 20, Dhurba leases his first hotel knowing nothing about hospitality. The only thing he brings to the table (other than great food) is open ears. He listens to each customer and acts on each piece of feedback. He somehow knows that he has to make up for his 3rd grade education by listening intensely to each customer and digging for knowledge that every guest brings – from marketing, to customer service, to hiring and accounting – he learns how to run a world class hotel.

The Dutch come to stay at his hotel after 5 years and he tells them: “I can pay you back now, or I can use your money to buy land to build my own and do it the way I now know I want to do it.”  

He buys the land overlooking the Chitwan savannah and builds his dream, eco hotel to call it Sapana – “dream” in Nepali. The Sapana village has the best rooms I stayed at in India or Nepal, a spa, unreal cuisine, and remarkable staff.

With the revenue he is bringing in, Dhurba is funding Sapana Social Impact Project – an umbrella organization that has built an incredible Montessori-type school for the local village, a women’s skill center that trains women on traditional arts and crafts that the hotel and guests can buy, an authentic Airbnb-type experience for guests who wish to stay with locals and experience how the locals cook and live.  All proceeds from the projects go to the village.

At the school, parents are asked to pay what they can. For those who can pay little or nothing, they are asked to work what they can at the school’s organic farm to grow the food for the kids.  

Somehow, by hosting people from around the world and speaking about his dream, Dhurba has managed to build an orbit of volunteers who have helped him at critical stages of Sapana’s journey. The curriculum designers from the Neatherlands, the architects from Germany, the nutritionists from Australia who saw kids needed meals at school to learn better since they were malnourished at home, the ecommerce experts helping to sell the women’s crafts online.  Suddenly, a global village has formed to help out in this local village.

I’m floored by what this man has accomplished for his community.  I share a bit of my life story and background with him and mention that I wish I had met him sooner to do a video story on him.

His eyes light up. “We need video here!  The main challenge today is that hotel occupation has decreased after the earthquake. People are not coming like they were before.  If you stay one more day, I take you to see the projects tomorrow and you can help make a video for the hotel?”

I stay one more night and in a day we do an interview, visit the school, the women’s center, and the local village with the homeaway guesthouses.  Shooting video in 110F and dropping sweat over the camera can get pretty exhausting.

We wrap up the day in the evening and Dhurba is ecstatic about all that we’ve covered. He mentions that this could make a huge difference for the school. “The hotel is the main income for the school. 90% of kids are on a full scholarship.”

“What’s the cost to run the school per month with those 6 teachers and 30 kids?”

“We spend about $1,500/month. Over time, I know we will have more parents with more income believe in this concept and we can have a 50/50 split of scholarship and paid students – so the rich subsidize the poor. But the ramp to get there is the hard part. The proof of the concept.”

He talks almost like a VC. You’d never think he’s a 3rd grade drop out.

“Dhurba, there is this thing in the US called kickstarter.”

“Kickstart?”

“Yeah. Kickstarter. We can create your regular video on the lodge and the social impact projects. But we can also do a Kickstarter video asking people to help fund the school?”

“Which people? Your people?”

“All people. Internet people. We reach everyone Dhurba!”

So we plan it out. Details are still to come and I’d love your feedback on this before we create the actual video!  We are thinking to offer a few packages for potential supporters of Sapana:

  • Platinum donor: $500.  Become an official founder of the Sapana school in Nepal and stay at Sapana for two nights with all meals and accommodations paid plus two Spa sessions with massage.  Visit the school that you helped to build for one day!
  • Gold donor: $250.  Become an official supporter of the Sapana school in Nepal and stay at Sapana for two nights with accommodations paid.   Visit the school that you helped to build for one day!
  • Silver donor: $100. If you don’t have plans to visit Nepal, you can still be a donor, be listed as an official supporter at the school and receive a gift from the Women’s Skill Development project.

There is one thing that pushed me over the edge to help Dhurba meet this goal.

He is a stellar leader and manager. You can see it in the people he recruits and retains. The quality of his hotel, his teachers, the school facilities. He is humble, open to all help from others.

He also has the best philanthropic investment opportunity you can conceive.  With a functioning and thriving hotel, he covers all his overhead for his social impact projects. So 100% of all contributions go straight to the kids (aside from kickstarter / money transfer fees).  And he is providing an opportunity that requires capital only for the first couple of years to take off and will be self-sustaining in the long run.  So your contribution can make a significant long-term impact on the lives of many kids in Nepal.

We are shooting for $25k and I’d love your support in any way you can provide it once the campaign is live.

I’m making the video in August (my first Kickstarter video) and hope to release the campaign in September.

“Dhurba, are you concerned about failing at what you are doing?”

“When we fail, we learn.  Even with the Kickstart.  If it doesn’t work out or people don’t donate, we learn that it is not the solution. But there is no other way to find out than trying.”


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