Air Pollution has become an integral part of life for the people living in Kathmandu. We all breathe the same polluted air. The increasing air pollution, not only in Kathmandu but also in other major cities of Nepal, is creating an alarming health threat. In that situation, minimizing air pollution could be the best solution. But it takes time, a lot of time. So, the immediate solution can be protecting ourselves. How is that possible? The primary option would be using masks while traveling or walking outdoors. It is really important to use a qualitative mask but there was hardly any option available a few years back. This is the area Tashi Galzen came up to fill himself with his self designed ‘Metro Mask’. It gave Nepali people the best option to go for. Bikas Udhyami had a conversation with him about his journey from a fashion merchandising management student to being a successful social entrepreneur in Nepal.
How was Metro Mask started?
I came back to Nepal after completing my Bachelors in Fashion Merchandising Management in New York. I started working for a clothing store named ‘Anta’ as a CEO. During my stay there for 3 years, as a person in charge, I had to visit a lot of places.I used to travel on my motorbike to reach different stores located inside Kathmandu valley. Traveling in the bike was really hard due to polluted air. To make matters worse, I had a dust allergy. I started searching for a good quality mask but could not find anywhere. People were using the simple doctor or cloth mask which I knew would not be enough at this pollution level. The only option left was to import from abroad. Then I thought I might not be the only one searching for a good mask. So I starting thinking of starting my own mask brand. I visited China to know the possibility of this area, its opportunities, and challenges. My self-research gave me the message that there is a huge potential for this business in Nepal. And I listened to that.
What were the challenges you faced while starting the business?
When the mask was in the production phase, Nepal got hit by the massive earthquake. Then the months-long blockade made the masks stuck in transit. So, bringing my product to Nepal was the very first challenge for me. (Laugh)
Another challenge came with the durability of the mask. People abroad use these kinds of mask only when they go on cycling or when they travel polluted areas. But in the case of Nepal, it is not so, we have to use a mask on a daily basis on severe pollution. That affected the durability of the mask. Sun, heat, sweat, and frequent use minimized the life of masks in our early phase. But that also enabled us to search for more durable innovations. And the pricing too was not convenient for most of the needy people, so we came up with another cheaper version with the same quality. So the early challenges were in a way giving us the option to be the best.
How was the early response? Were people desperate to get these kinds of solution or do you had a hard time to persuade them?
Obviously, I had a hard time persuading them. The mask I made or brought was popular among people living abroad. It was made as per international standards. Before making it, I had researched about masks used all over the world. Hence, I created a mask of a similar type and quality. But as per Nepali standard, the mask was really expensive. During that time it cost Rs. 3500. From my experience what I found was what works somewhere else does not mean it will work here in Nepal too.
After collecting feedback from people and realizing the price is expensive, we redesigned it addressing the previous problems as well. Now we have different versions available for the different set of customers.
How do you overcome all these challenges and difficulties?
Since the major problem was price and durability, we searched for other material which will be more efficient, more durable, more comfortable but a lot cheaper.
So, I went to China to research and used material which is used on trekking bags which are really durable. And we are providing a mask that cost 3500-4000 abroad at a price of 1500. People are loving it. And those who have used this kind of masks before are sending messages to us saying we are providing a very qualitative mask at a low price.
Do you want to mention any message that you received?
I receive a lot of messages every day. There is one user who has acne-prone skin. Pollution was making his skin worse and after he used our mask, his skin is getting better. So, the mask is not only being used for breathing purposes but also as an extra protection layer for the face. Even though our mask is a bit costly, customers say it's worth every penny. This gives me great satisfaction.
One of our regular users had a friend who was suffering from cancer and was getting treated. He wants to gift our mask to his friend so that he can protect himself from polluted air. We felt overwhelmed after reading his text. As children, old people and sick people are much more vulnerable to air pollution, knowing our mask is helping these people in everyday life makes us happier.
How aware are Nepalese in the context of air pollution?
Before starting Metro Mask, I did some research about market demand and supply. I found that people mostly use the disposable mask but they don’t know if the mask is saving them or not. These masks do nothing to protect from actual harm of the air which is inhaling PM 2.5.
There are two types of particles floating in the air i.e. PM 10, which is visible to the naked eye and it can be filtered by our own natural body system through hairs in the nostrils or even by the throat in form of cough. Another is PM 2.5 which is invisible to the naked eye and can directly reach your lungs. And these regular cotton masks or disposable mask does nothing to protect you from that. Since doctors use masks during surgery or check-up, people think, those masks are really good. But the truth is it is to protect the patient from saliva or sweat. So, a surgical mask can only protect others from what you have rather than protecting you from air pollution. It's just a false sense of protection.
How is the air quality of Nepal or let's say major cities of Nepal?
The air quality is very bad and it is getting worse and worse every day. Air quality in Nepal is among the worst in the world. We were ranked at the bottom among the 180 countries surveyed in terms of air quality in a global study. And it is a leading threat to public health. And to make it worse, people are not fully aware of the dangerous air pollution. Those who are aware are also don’t know to what extent it is dangerous. So, it is really serious.
What do you think the government should do to minimize air pollution? What we as the general public can do from our place to fight this?
The government should bring strict laws and policies for this. They should ban old vehicles, monitor the running ones and should control the quality of oils/fuels used in vehicles. It is high time to promote electric vehicles in the major cities.
It could take so many years to fully clean the environment. So, the fastest and easiest way someone can do is putting effort to protect ourselves from the increasing air pollution with the use of a proper mask. Then the air pollution awareness should begin from the concerned civil society. We can promote air awareness through media. Giving information can also be a step toward fighting air pollution. I remember a quote that I heard from an environmentalist, ‘Air awareness is the first step in reducing air pollution.’
How is your business creating an impact on society?
It didn’t come to me from the very start. It grew on me. I started with protecting myself first. Only then I thought about protecting others too. And I think change starts from self. So, initially, it was to protect me and my family friends. And only then I started thinking about others.
And now I am not just selling masks, I am also spreading air awareness among people through our social media. It seems that I am marketing my products but that is not the only thing I am heading towards now. Obviously, I want people to buy my masks but I also feel like this condition should end. So I am meeting with concerned authorities, like-minded people and other stakeholders thinking to do something on reducing the air pollution. There are millions of people who cannot afford my mask and their health is also important. My mask only solves the short term problem. In the long term, it is an environment that should be clean. We are discussing now on how we can help the government to address the issues.
How do you want to expand? What are your future plans?
From here I want to explore more on the areas of air purification. People use AC in their houses, but it does not purify the air. It is used just to cool air. So, I want to make indoor air purifier. There is a lot of dust and PM 2.5 that enters through windows or while combusting papers or plastics or while using gas stoves. We breathe that from inside the house. I would like to design a product that can purify indoor air.
I would like to focus on environment-friendly products or health products for now. Though I am doing business due to air pollution I will be happy if air quality can
improve and people don't need to use a mask while going out. And I would like to be involved in creating such change for the better society tomorrow. I can do something else if not this business. What matters is the health of people rather than selling my mask. Since there is air quality is really poor I am selling mask as an immediate solution. I am fulfilling this requirement. If the government can solve this, I will be very happy because my children can walk freely without wearing masks. The society as a whole is much much bigger than my business.
Any last words to you want to pass to the young aspiring social entrepreneurs?
There are lots of social issues going on and you can always work on those areas. But you have to be sure that you are doing something you are passionate about or you feel deeply about. For me, it was an air-related issue which inspired me to start Metro Mask. So choose the area that you feel you would do better. You may come across lots of hurdles. Even when I discussed making a mask to people, many doubted. But what if you are doing is really what you want to do, you will always be successful. And don’t jump into making or starting something without doing proper market research.