Nepal’s billionaire noodle king says things are looking up for the Himalayan republic

Binod Chaudhary believes a recent election has for the first time delivered his country’s politicians a mandate to focus on growth

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The Independent Online

It is surely a good thing to feel positive at this time of year and Binod Chaudhary, Nepal’s first and so-far only billionaire, is clearly on a roll.

A recent election, he believes, has for the first time delivered his country’s politicians a mandate to focus on growth. He is equally confident that he and his Chaudhary Group corporation, which does business from Australia and Canada, are in a position to help, as well as to benefit.

“I’m 100 per cent optimistic,” he told me, seated in a suite in a luxury hotel on a recent visit to Delhi. “The parties understand that the time has come to act and that you cannot take people for granted any more.”

The 58-year-old Chaudhary is an accomplished self-publicist and in recent years his personal story has become well-known. His family, who were originally from the Indian state of Rajasthan, moved to Nepal in the 1930s and his grandfather, Bhuramull, a textile trader, began supplying goods to the country’s royal family.

His father opened a series of import-export operations and Chaudhary joined the family business at the age of 18. The kickstart to the growth of his wealth, and the story for which he is perhaps best known, is developing Nepal’s first instant noodle brand – Wai Wai.

From a slow start, the noodle brand now sells more than one billion packets in 30 countries across Asia. And last spring, he became the first Nepalese person to be named in the Forbes magazine billionaire rich list.

But if Chaudhary has been doing rather well, his country has not. Following the turmoil of a decade-long uprising by Maoist rebels, the massacre of 10 members of the royal family and then the scrapping of that 239-year-old dynasty, Nepal has lurched from one difficulty to the next and seen five governments since 2008.

For a country with extensive natural resources that is famed as a tourist heaven, Nepal’s economy drags along at a dismal 3.6 per cent, while inflation has reached close to ten per cent.

Long seen as a political buffer zone between its giant Asia neighbours, India and China, every day 1,500 Nepalis leave the country in search of work. Remittances from 2.3 million Nepalis living overseas account for 23 per cent of the total economy. And these are the official figures; the real situation may be even worse.

In an election in November, voters appeared to reject the Maoist parties that in the last few years had dominated Nepali politics. The centrist Nepali Congress (NC), the Himalayan nation’s oldest party, emerged in first place, with the similarly centrist Communist party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), coming in second.

The Maoists, led by former rebel leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, whose nom de guerre was Prachanda or “the fierce one”, came third with just 80 seats. They have now agreed to take up their seats in the national assembly and help complete the task of writing a new constitution.

Chaudhary, who was once a parliamentarian with the CPN-UML, believes it is essential that the government focuses on the economy. He said investment was needed in roads, infrastructure and power generation and that Nepal should be exporting hydro-electricity to India rather than importing it. Kathmandu can suffer power black-outs of up to 12 hours in winter.

A cynic might suggest that Chaudhary, who often grumbled abut the Maoists’ supposedly anti-capitalist stance, is well-positioned to benefit from such outlay, given that his companies are involved in everything from cement to energy. (Some of those companies have previously been accused of failing to pay sufficient taxes, though Chaudhary has dismissed those allegations.)

Yet he said there was no alternative to investing in the economy. “People are frustrated. The Maoists were voted in but they could not deliver,” he said, as a waiter served tea and snacks. “We are the poorest country in [South Asia]. We are sitting on a volcano. It could erupt at any time.”

In addition to the need for long-term investment, Chaudhary said there were steps the authorities could quickly take to promote tourism and travel – he also owns a wide range of property and at least one resort in Nepal. Tourism currently accounts for between eight-to-nine per cent of Nepal’s economy and he said it should be considerably higher.

“We will have to completely revive the investment climate. We will have to make Nepal an investment destination,” he said. “There are many opportunities in Nepal. We are the birthplace of Buddha. We should be having visitors from Japan, Korea....”

He added: “All these opportunities require a resolute, determined leadership. You cannot run away from making decisions. The anti-India sentiment that existed will have to end. You will have to cut deals with India and China. The time of playing one off against the other has  to end.”

Chaudhary said he had been startled by recent revelations concerning the wretched conditions endured by Nepali migrant workers who were involved in construction projects for the 2022 FIFA football World Cup in Qatar. Reports suggested that at least 70 Nepalis had died since the start of 2012.

Such horrors would not be happening, he said, if Nepal could provide a sufficient livelihood for its people at home. “I am not only angry but embarrassed,” he said. “There can be no greater embarrassment than being the billionaire of the poorest country.”