Detroit Soup reaches Kathmandu with new name

Detroit Soup is a crowd-funding dinner which has raised more than $85,000 (£57,000) for start-ups in Motor City. Is it an idea which can only work in Detroit, or could it work anywhere?

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, and nearly 10 years after the civil war ended there is a listlessness among many of its people – a feeling that the country won’t be back on its feet anytime soon and that there’s nothing they can do about it.

“Kay garnay,” they say, with a shrug of the shoulders. “What to do?”

In a country where the average age is just 21, the easy answer for many young people is to head off overseas to find work – often to the Gulf – but there’s also a growing community of youth activists looking to make their mark on modern-day Nepal.

“The attitude of many young people is that they don’t see a good future here,” says Brabim Kumar – the newly elected president of AYON (The Association of Youth Organisations in Nepal).

“But when there is nothing, that’s the opportunity – you can do many things when there is nothing.”

Building something out of nothing is what Detroit Soup has been doing for the past five years in the US. Working in a city which has been in decline for decades, Soup’s founder Amy Kaherl saw potential when others had given up hope.

So could a similar project be the spark that’s needed in Nepal? Could it empower people by raising money to fund their “What if?” ideas, which might just transform their community?

It’s a challenge the BBC set Brabim Kumar and Amy Kaherl for the Richer World season of programmes – and they readily accepted.

“I googled Detroit Soup and was really excited by it,” grins Kumar. “I emailed a bunch of people about it, and then at our first meeting only three people turned up.

“I was frustrated, but at the second meeting 10 people came, then there were 15, and now we have over 20 people working on this thing.”

This “thing” was eventually given a name and Idea Fest Nepal was born. Many of the organising committee are still teenagers, the rest in their early 20s. Among them is Alina Saba.

“Nepal is a very hierarchical society,” she says. “Young people are expected to listen and respect their elders, even if they don’t have the most brilliant ideas – we’re supposed to say, ‘Yes sir, that’s fine.’

“It’s difficult for young people to get listened to – they just tell us our ideas are too radical.”

Kumar agrees. “Young people are always sidelined. We’re told: ‘Just wait and after 20 or 30 years you’ll get your chance,'” he says.

“But in a country where you sideline young people, you’re pausing innovation.”

Despite the name change, Idea Fest shares the same concept as Detroit Soup: people put their money in a pot at the door, and they listen to people pitch an idea to improve the local community. Then everyone votes for their favourite – the winner goes home with all the money, to put their plan into action.

Joining the Idea Fest team in Kathmandu, Detroit Soup’s Kaherl is impressed with the progress the team is making. More than 33 ideas have been submitted – which will be whittled down to four finalists for the event – and it’s hoped around 150 people will come out to show their support.

“At our first Soup we had 30 people and no ideas. At the second Soup we had two ideas, and one of them didn’t turn up, so you’re already doing way better than we did,” Kaherl tells the Idea Fest team reassuringly.

The four ideas which have been selected for the event are diverse: a campaign to get more people recycling, another to get more young people to donate blood, an artist who wants to paint educational murals on primary school walls, and a drive to get more women and girls riding bikes.

Many of the ideas submitted are still on the drawing board, but this is where events like Idea Fest and Detroit Soup can make a difference – especially for people who have no business experience, and who would be shown the door if they approached a “proper” investor.

“You don’t always need a lot to do a lot – to test an idea, all you need is a little seed money,” says Kaherl.

“So we’re allowing people who want to be entrepreneurs a space to do that – giving people the feeling that there isn’t an ivory tower you have to climb to find someone who can help you.”

Detroit Soup asks for a $5 (£3.30) donation on the door – Idea Fest is charging 100 Nepalese rupees (NPR), which is around $1 (66p). That’s an affordable amount for young people in Kathmandu, says Kumar. “I told these young people if you’re willing to pay 500 NPR to see a movie, you can spare 100 NPR for an event like this.”

As the day of the event rolls round, the turn-out exceeds expectation, with nearly 300 people coming out, and putting their hand in their pocket to donate. To the organisers relief, the weather forecast turns out to be wrong, and the sun is shining – this is an outdoor, daytime event, as the electricity supply in Kathmandu is too unreliable for it to be held at night.

The crowd is young – mainly high school and university students – and eager to find out what Idea Fest is all about. They chat and laugh excitedly, their conversation switching effortlessly between Nepalese and English as they sing along to home-grown and western pop songs being sung by the pre-event entertainment.

While the people attending Idea Fest are drawn from Kathmandu’s middle class, the four ideas which are competing for funding are for the benefit of everyone.

“It’s good for Kathmandu but this should go to more cities in Nepal so everyone can benefit,” says a young man in a heavy metal T-shirt.

While the inspiration for Idea Fest is American, the day is very much Nepalese. There’s no soup being served here – instead, people munch on bowls of buckwheat flat breads, spicy potatoes, pickles and popcorn as they talk, dance, and importantly, cast their vote.

It’s time for Kumar to announce the winner, and by a landslide it’s Economising the Waste – a recycling project which wants to pay the people of Kathmandu a small amount of money for their household rubbish and turn it into fertilizer – there’s a big market for it in Nepal, where agriculture still dominates the economy.

“It’s a big deal,” says Suman Dhakal, who goes home with nearly $300 (£200) to put his plan into action.

“People are trusting us and they’re hoping we can implement the idea. We’re going to work hard and we won’t let them down,” he says before his friends drag him off and parade him around over their heads.

Kumar is beaming at the success of the first Idea Fest. “The thing about today is that this isn’t down to one individual or group – every person who attended is responsible for this,” he says.

Kaherl started Detroit Soup five years ago with a few friends, who just wanted to do something positive in a community which had hit hard times. Today, she’s 7,500 miles away from home, seeing other people trying to do the same.

“I’m halfway around the world right now, and there are so many issues and problems going on here that aren’t that different [to Detroit],” she says.

“We get fixated on place, we assume people are different, and we’re just humans trying to solve problems.”

And in Nepal, Idea Fest 2 is already being planned for the summer.

“We want to start a new culture – to change people’s mindsets,” says Kumar.

“Too often when there are problems in Nepal, people just expect the government or an NGO to come along and fix it.

“We need to start looking at this from the other side and recognise that we probably caused these problems, and so we can fix them too.”

Find out more at http://www.bbc.com/soup

For more on the BBC’s A Richer World, go to http://www.bbc.com/richerworld – or join the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #BBCRicherWorld

The BBC is keen to hear about your experiences of “Soup” groups, so please send us your comments. DISCLAIMER: Please note, the BBC cannot provide financial or administrative support or be held responsible for any losses that may arise.

Source Credits: Richard Fenton-Smith in BBC World Service, Nepal

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