BANEPA/CALIFORNIA: When Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive of Facebook — the world’s largest social network with more than 800 million active users around the world — was spotted in Kathmandu yesterday, it could only mean something big was going down.
The story emerging from a joint sting operation involving a team of The Himalayan Times journalists and scribes in California could prove to be one of the biggest scoops ever for Nepal and IT.
Officials who tried to avoid going into too many details have, however, confirmed that Zuckerberg is closing a deal worth almost USD 50 million with the government of Nepal to take over the IT Park at Banepa, which was offered as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for the development of information technology.
When tracked down, Zuckerberg did admit he was on an “unscheduled trip to Nepal to finalise some important deals”. He informed he has signed a record deal with young Nepali IT entrepreneur S Bajracharya, founder of sunglow.com, a nepali networking site and negotiated the use of certain apps featured on that site by Facebook. “It is a dream come true to be able to sell an app developed in Nepal, which will be used on Facebook and to meet Mark Zuckerberg in person,” Bajracharya said.
Zuckerberg who was “vacationing in Shanghai” with his girl friend, arrived in Nepal on a Thai Airways flight via Bangkok on Thursday and is staying at Hotel Radisson. He will be leaving for Tibet today.
The IT Park at Banepa was established over seven years ago with investment almost touching Rs 300 million. Earlier, international IT companies like Dutch software firm Javra and IBM had shown interest but never really took off due to various logistic problems. Sprawled over 12 hectares of land along the Banepa-Panauti road, the IT Park has separate buildings for administration, commercial and residential purposes. It has the capacity of engaging 144 engineers. It also has facility of electricity, telephone, VSAT and optical fibre cable.
Facebook also plans to develop the entire area as an IT city and invest further in infrastructure as well as construction of housing, banks, schools, entertainment centres, malls, swimming pools and even a helipad.
Officials at Facebook Inc headquarters in Menlo Park, California did confirm that there was a huge project in Nepal in the pipeline and that all their new plans and projects to develop various apps and their new dating site ‘datebook.com’ would be launched first in Nepal.
“Operating out of Nepal will result in even lower cost than outsourcing,” informed John Morgan, CFO of Facebook Inc. Herbert Redford, regional director of Facebook for Asia said that since the highest number of Facebook users were in the sub-continent, Facebook had been looking at stronger presence and bigger operations with Asian focus.
“Cheap and skilled manpower, a decade tax holiday for investors like us and subsidies on import of appliances and hardware offered by the government of Nepal make it a perfect deal that we just could not say no to,” he states. Zuckerberg himself stated that he was impressed by the level of trained IT professionals in the country and that the deal was a win-win situation for both Nepal and Facebook. He said the relocation of foreign experts would also mean technology transfer that would help Nepal emerge as an IT leader in the region, especially with its strategic position between two of the world’s fastest growing economies — China and India.
While Nepal government officials refused to confirm or divulge any information — honestly claiming they were “totally in the dark” — a highly placed source in the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the developments, stating that talks had been on since the last six months, which actually inspired the government to boldly announce Nepal Investment Year 2012-13.
Rakesh Bhattarai, chief of the Investment Board, is believed to have been instrumental in striking the deal. “It puts Nepal on the global IT map and will certainly provide a boost to FDI, with all eyes now on investment opportunities in Nepal.” He says that the way forward is to set up special economic zones and invite investors to build, operate and develop various sectors that are crucial for Nepal.