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How 'Saarang' is curating stories hidden behind Nepal’s unique heritages
A travel tech startup brings to us folklores behind Nepal’s heritages while aspiring to make it big in the nascent travel tech industry through AI, augmented reality and a travelling super app.
A travel tech startup — Saarang — brings latent stories and folktales secretly etched behind Nepal’s unique heritages to your phone through their QR system.
Founded by three undergrad students — Sachin Dangi, Diwakar Rijal, and Sushant Gaire, molded at an incubation centre at their college, and recently selected as one of the 15 nominees for the NYEF KTM Startup Awards 2022, Saarang has growing ambitions — from developing a traveller super app to venturing into augmented reality to enrich travellers' experiences with Nepal’s natural and cultural heritage.
For now, the startup is filling up a crucial gap — preserving cultural memories that form the identity of these heritages, and bringing them back to us.
In conversation with one of the founders and the CEO, Sachin Dangi, this is the story of the storyteller:
Share with us your experience of how did the idea form and translate into a product?
Saarang follows all the textbook descriptions of ‘what a start-up looks like’.
First, identify a problem.
When we visited a fort in Makwanpur called Chisapani Gadi, which was closed at the time, we had to wait till the time the priest arrived. He guided us throughout the fort showing different artifacts and artilleries that were used during the Anglo-Nepal War and sharing stories, names, and myths related to the war.
It was a moment of realisation — if we weren’t able to call the priest and open the door, we would never have known those stories locked behind the doors. For someone who doesn’t speak Nepali — it would have been impossible to figure out.
It is a problem that we've never tried to look behind these places and explore what stories they hold.
We then started looking at other places. We didn’t have to go that far outside the valley. Walk around and you’ll find tons of places with hidden stories but very few to share them.
Next, validate the problem.
We started inquiring with different stakeholders. Based on discussions with the travel and tourism industry, the problem appeared more real. We took a step further and discussed with a group of tourists about the problems they faced as a tourist. Many responded that while they come across many spots where ‘stones’ on the streets around Patan Durbar Square and Mangal bazaar area are worshipped, no one has explanations or even if it is there, it’s difficult to access.
It was now time to find a solution. QR emerged as a powerful and viable digital solution — easy and simple that redirects users to a URL where you can put your content.
But why isn’t anybody doing it already? The question haunted us after figuring out the problem and formulating a viable solution to it.
This is where our college — King’s College — helped. We approached our professors, one of whom showed us the vision of what the product can look like. He threw light on the idea that we can place the QR codes across Nepal by partnering up with institutions; corporate houses, travel agencies, etc. That gave us the initial push.
But we had to find further innovative ways to add to the QR so that it becomes a product. Thus far, it was a solution, not a product. Even today, we do not only sell QR.
We convert all the stories into the world's major languages through AI. That gave us an advantage because we could tell those stories in all of the world's major languages without having to convert them manually — in both text and audio.
Finally, we had a product in our hands.
The stories behind the name ‘Saarang’ and its logo
When we brainstormed on the name, we were thinking of the way we traditionally told stories in Nepal. At the time when there were no newspapers or radio or TV, the King used to call sarangi players to his palace and share with them the information that he wanted to disseminate to his people. The sarangi players would translate the stories into songs, and play these songs across the villages for dissemination. That’s how we got our name Saarang from sarangi players.
When you look at our logo, one may get the first impression of a Chinese dragon or Hindu divine creature ‘Garuda’ but it's not that. There is a captivating story behind it too.
When Manjushri (a Buddhist deity) came to Kathmandu, it was all filled with water, inhabitable for humans. After draining out all the water, what was left behind were the many mythical water creatures. Manjushri asked them to leave the valley, but one creature named Cheppu was not comfortable getting out of his abode, as it considered itself too ugly.
Manjushri convinced him to get out, promising not to look at him at all. But curiosity killed the cat. The moment Cheppu came out, Manjushri opened his eyes and started sketching what this unique creature looked like. Cheppu saw what Manjushri was up to and went back into hiding.
Realising his mistake, Manjushri promised Cheppu that it can stay in the valley but will be a protector of all the heritages of the valley.
Today when you visit different Hindu and Buddhist shrines in the valley or if you look at ancient mythical books, you will find Cheppu at the gates of these shrines as a protector and preserver, but won't see its body because no one ever saw it. Manjushri just saw the head and sketched it.
Because we preserve stories, we are like Cheppu.
With all the layered histories, spiritual, religious and symbolic, artistic expressions that happen in monuments — how deep do you go in your research and the telling of the stories in an authentic way? Or — do you want to provide a snapshot of these sites?
It depends on what we are writing about. Some locations have a deep history and require extensive research.
Our QR codes in Budhanilkantha detail each element in the structure that surrounds the deity and the adjacent temples.
Baghwan Bahal in Thamel is another example where we went deep. It is the genesis of Thamel as a tourist hub — starting off as a centre point for Tibetan monks to sit while traveling to India and vice versa. That’s how the initial push for tourism in Thamel came up. Since this site carried such a huge history, we talked to all the clan members, looked through their manuscripts, and wrote a detailed version of the history.
There are newer sites like us, but lack the depth as us.
We are working in Pokhara right now, one of the most touristic places in Nepal. The main lake has the famous temple of Taal Barahi — the abode of goddess Durga Agima — where people flock on boats for worshipping and to take pictures. But only a few people know about the temple’s story.
Before there was a lake, there was a human settlement.
The story goes that the deity of the temple once transformed into a jogi. The deity knocked at the doors of all the people in the settlement requesting food, but nobody helped except one old lady who offered her food that night.
The next day the deity went to the old lady and warned her that the entire city was going to drown and suggested she find a safe spot for herself. The old lady evacuated and the next morning there was a lake. After the old lady’s death, people made a statue of ‘khar’ and started to worship her. A huge rainfall brought some parts of the statue to the present-day location of Taal Barahi temple. On the same night of the rainfall, the King of Kaski Kulmandan Shah saw a dream directing him to establish the idol in the middle of the lake. He then established the temple of Taal Barahi.
The way we filter our stories is by collaborating with the heritage protection unit of the municipalities. We consult with them about credible leaders and voices in their areas, who we use as a primary source of information. We then verify the information with the temple committee.
In one case, all the stakeholders had approved of a story and the board was placed too. After a week or so, a local historian pointed out we had missed out on many things and that we overemphasised one perspective over another. A political conflict erupted within the community. We then got ourselves into more consultations, found a middle ground, and edited the story fitting in both versions.
Getting everybody on board with the story and into consensus is truly the hardest part of what we do.
In terms of financing, what is your model? How do you sustain yourself today, and aim to make money tomorrow?
We started with a self-funded seed investment of NRs 25,000. From that investment, we built our MVP (minimum viable product) and made our first sale. By the time we had our first sale, we were yet to register as a company — and just had a product and someone willing to pay for it.
Once we realised we could sell this, we took loans from our own circles — friends and families. For us, our friend was our colleague. King's College provided us with a loan of NRs 50,000, which we used to register as a legal entity — Saarang Services Pvt. Ltd.
By the time we hit our fifth sale, we started exploring start-up events. That is where we raised our first seed investment of one million equity investment. We then did another 100 sales, which afforded us to invest in research and development.
Presently, we sell the boards to municipalities at NRs 20,000 per board. We use the fee for travelling, researching, writing content, translating, and developing the board, and its placement. In some prime locations where we see the potential for larger traffic (like Thamel), we use our own money to place boards. In the future, we plan to use those boards for affiliate advertisements.
We understand that our present revenue will be stagnant one day and we will have to develop alternative ways. Affiliations will be the next step.
We are also working on augmented reality (AR). Once the app is launched, for the AR component and the mapping system, we will put a subscription fee, where the app will be free, but accessing the AR mode will come at a minimal cost — at least five dollars — for the users. The pricing is based on our discussions with some of the tourists about the kind of app they would prefer before visiting Nepal and the amount they are willing to pay for a service that would enhance their travel experience.
We are curious about the direction that Saraang would like to venture into in the future? Augmented reality? More storytelling?
Initially, we were in conflict. We aspired to be a travel tech-focused company, but based on what we are currently doing, we are often perceived as just heritage preservers. We want to make that switch.
So right now we're trying to build this alternative image around traveling and building an ecosystem after we got our hundred QRs done. So we are investing more in content production, again around the heritage itself, but not just cultural heritage, natural heritage as well. We are traveling, creating content on YouTube and podcasting, bringing different people together, and sharing their travel experiences.
Right now, one of the limiting factors for us is users’ internet access to connect to these experiences. Since all the places we have codes have free wifi, the issue is resolved for now.
We are in the process of developing an app that allows users to download chunks of the experience offline. The vision is to venture into trekking routes, so you download the route online and as you walk along with our app, it will tell you the stories and history of the places along the journey.
We are also working on how to make popular boards better and want to combine them with augmented reality. Along with content, language, and text, we want to offer users an augmented environment around them where they can scan the code and see on their screens holograms and visuals of what the place may have looked like a thousand years ago. We’re still in the research phase for that!
The larger vision is to build a travel super app that caters to almost all essential needs of travelers.
Let’s talk about scalability and competition. That’s one of the biggest challenges for emerging startups. Saarang's journey so far has been quite true to the startup model, you get a little cash, make small steps, and so on. But moving forward, do you foresee these to challenge you?
At this point, I don’t think scalability will be an issue for us. If there is a story, there is a market for us and luckily, Nepal has tons of stories.
At first, when we were just in Kathmandu, we were concerned that someone would come in and take up a bigger market segment in other prominent cities in Nepal (Lumbini, Janakpur, Pokhara). If someone else puts their boards in those places, we won't have a big enough market! Now, having boards in all of those places gives us an advantage. We can spread out into smaller destinations and people won’t come in to compete for those places, it won't be worth it for them once the big ones are already taken!
The target users
The initial thought was that Saarang would be a foreign tourist based product, but the Thamel Tourism Council informed us that the users who scan the boards - Nepalis and foreigners – are equal in numbers. We weren’t expecting that as we thought that local people already knew about these places and that they might not scan them. We were holding on to a wrong assumption but it was exciting to realise a larger market.
Most industries are very data-driven. Moving forward as you're trying to digitise things, it'll be more and more informed by the data that is collected. What kind of data are you collecting? Any numbers that you would be able to share with us? Any interesting insights, any kind of things that come up when scanning this data that can specifically be used to plan the future of this model?
Every time someone scans the QR code, we receive the information. Budhanilkantha has 4,500 scans in seven months. The most exponentially growing QR scanner is in Sacred Ponds in Lumbini. That board got 2,500 hits in just two months. It shows that people are using our product.
As for possibilities with the use of data, I'll share a real-life example. There are plenty of hotels as you get to the very front gate of Thamel. Another chain of hotels as you cross Narsingh Chowk. Hotels at the back end have lesser visibility. The lesser visible hotels promote their hotels through social media with sponsored posts, because the front end is crowded with tons of hoarding boards.
When someone scans our QR code, say of any temple that is at the front part of Thamel, we can inform them about the hotels at the backend. It funnels their channel of promotion to a very specific target customer. They no longer have to rely on social media or Google ads for everyone who is in Kathmandu. If they advertise with us, we do their affiliate, we show that their hotel exists to this person who is right in front of Thamel and scanning the boards.
What about the future of the local guides?
The work of Saarang potentially affects the livelihood of the tourist guides. We do have several ways in mind to accommodate them. One is paying them a royalty for their voice. Every time someone hears their part of the version, we can remunerate them with a certain amount of money.
While we were placing our boards in Lumbini, we realised that there are guides who could speak English, but if there was a group of non-English speaking tourists, guides are short in numbers. Tour operators have to turn to guides from Kathmandu but that depends on their availability. Initially, we thought that there are way more guides in Nepal who will be impacted, but that's not the reality.
Our tech is also complementary to the work of guides. Guides don't speak all the languages of the world. If a guide speaks English, they can take a group on a tour and ask them to scan the boards. For the non-English language speaking groups, they can still know about the place in the language they understand. Now the guide doesn't have to speak all the languages but can still tour the group around.
We’ve realised there's a specific demand for us from what we need to put in Thai and Sinhala languages.
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