Braving New Horizons

Filipinas Navigate Entrepreneurship in the Kathmandu Valley

KATHMANDU, Nepal—Against the backdrop of rich cultures and traditions in the Kathmandu Valley, three Filipinas are navigating entrepreneurial opportunities.

Sharon G. Shakya, Ludivina ‘Vina’ Maharjan, and Sheilla Mae J. Manto, all with Nepali husbands, say their journeys have exposed them to unique and sometimes daunting challenges, all of which is to be expected when running a business in Nepal.

Many Filipinas have established businesses in the country, such as manpower agencies, education consultancies, inns, schools, spas, travel companies, cafes, bakeries, restaurants, and import-export trading houses, according to the Nepal-Philippines Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Sharon G. Shakya, a dentist, moved to Kathmandu a few years ago with the goal of making an impact on oral healthcare alongside her husband, who is also a dentist.

Yet, her journey did not stop at dentistry. While co-running Cosmo Dental Clinic with her husband, she ventured into the culinary world, opening a Filipino restaurant called Cebu Fiesta in Lalitpur, a city on the outskirts of the capital Kathmandu.

‘Cebu is like my second home in the Philippines because that’s where I met my husband when he was studying there,’ Shakya said, explaining why she named her restaurant after Cebu despite being born in Negros, another region in the central Philippines.

Shakya is among Filipinas who married Nepali spouses they met at Philippine medical schools. This is not surprising, as the relationship between Nepal and the Philippines is often linked to education. ‘We have hundreds of Nepali students going to the Philippines for studies, including aviation training and medicine,’ said Ramon S. Bagatsing Junior, Ambassador of the Philippines to Nepal, in an interview with local news agency myRepublica in 2022. ‘Most Filipino women living in Nepal are married to Nepali men,’ Bagatsing noted.

For Shakya, her restaurant is more than just a business venture; it is a cultural bridge connecting the flavours and traditions of the Philippines with the Nepalese palate.

She envisions Cebu Fiesta as a place where people from various backgrounds in the Himalayan nation can come together to savour Filipino dishes and learn about Filipino culture.

Cebu Fiesta, nestled in a residential area near schools and other small businesses, is adorned with Filipino handicrafts like buri products, creating a welcoming Filipino ambiance. The menu features a diverse selection of Filipino dishes, such as sinigang (sour soup), crispy pata (deep-fried pork leg), chop suey (vegetable stir-fry), halo-halo (shaved ice dessert), and more. The bestsellers include lechon kawali (crispy fried pork belly), sisig (sizzling pork dish), and chicken adobo (chicken stew).

‘It is a good start for us that we are slowly introducing our food—our culture—here,’ she said.

From domestic helper to business owner

The story of Ludivina ‘Vina’ Maharjan, executive director at Classic Diamond Jewellers, is one of ambition and relentless pursuit. She began her journey as a domestic helper in Hong Kong but took an unexpected path when she married a jeweller from Nepal.

Born and raised in La Union in northern Philippines, Maharjan’s journey began in a place where opportunities were scarce. According to her, the year 1996 marked the inception of what would become her jewellery business.

With a modest budget, her husband’s family ventured into the jewellery trade. The business started within the confines of their home. ‘The whole family started it, because in Nepal it’s usually a joint family business,’ she said.

‘I didn’t join the business immediately. I worked at a travel agency in Nepal for two years just to learn the language, and after that, I went to India to gain knowledge of diamond assorting and coloured stones, where I stayed for six months,’ she added.

She said that understanding every aspect of the business, from the ground up, was essential. She had also spent five years working in the family’s jewellery factory.

‘After that, we opened our first store in Lalitpur, then in America, in Jackson Heights, New York, Maryland, and then in Europe. I think we have four stores,’ Maharjan stated.

Maharjan says her interest in jewellery began in her childhood, watching celebrities on television, which deepened during her stay in Hong Kong. ‘Whenever I would pass by the streets of Hong Kong, I would always look for jewellery shops.’

While she does not consider herself an artist, she said that her passion and keen eye for aesthetics drive her design process. Drawing inspiration from various sources, she tries to bring her unique touch to each piece.

‘Almost everything here, I designed. These are not exactly my designs—I got the idea from the internet or magazines and just modified them,’ she explained.

The jewellery business takes pride in its diamond-encrusted crowns, particularly tiaras, which are popular not only among royalty but also among stylish customers.

According to her, skilled workers from Kolkata, India, known for their expertise in jewellery-making, are the foundation of the craftsmanship that distinguishes the company’s jewellery.

Maharjan is proud to see her creations worn at parties and special events. ‘I recognise them easily—they look different because of the finishing.’

From motherhood to entrepreneurship

Sheilla Mae J. Manto, a registered nurse from Cebu, set foot in Nepal in 2018. Having met her husband, Suav Zuwa, when he was studying medicine in her province, the pair soon discovered a shared passion for improving lives through skincare and medicine. This kindled the idea of bringing their expertise to Nepal.

The couple started their entrepreneurial journey by venturing into retail. They recognised the demand for cosmetic products in Nepal, ‘From brightening skin to combating acne scars,’ Manto explained.

Manto, president of Zuwa Enterprises, was determined to balance the responsibilities of motherhood with her entrepreneurial dreams.

‘I want to take care of my three kids while running the business,’ she said.

Her background in customer service and sales in the Philippines also provided valuable insight into handling customers effectively, she noted.

The couple soon diversified their operations, delving into import and export activities between the Philippines and Nepal, introducing their own skincare brands under the Zuwa Enterprises umbrella.

Recognising the low trade volume between the Philippines and Nepal, ‘we saw an opportunity to contribute,’ Suav Zuwa, Manto’s husband, added.

In the last 25 years, Nepal’s exports to the Philippines grew at a rate of 7.39% per annum, from US$30,800 in 1996 to US$184,000 in 2021, based on reports from the Observatory of Economic Complexity, a platform for international trade data.

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ exports to Nepal increased at a faster rate of 12.2%, reaching US$6.21 million in 2021.

According to Zuwa, a key milestone in Zuwa Enterprises’ journey was the positive reception of Philippine-made skincare products in Nepal. The products ‘gained good attention especially during the summer months,’ he claimed.

The couple also highlighted the similarities between Nepal and the Philippines. Both nations share an Asian heritage and a preference for brighter and flawless skin, and there is a high demand for exfoliants and whitening products like glutathione, collagen, and tretinoin in both countries.

After a brief hiatus due to the pandemic, the company resumed operations in December 2022 and imported a substantial four to five thousand kilograms of cosmetic products in the previous quarter.

The company, Zuwa said, encountered ‘no resistance’ when introducing its products in either the Philippines or Nepal, instead witnessing rapid growth fuelled by the shared enthusiasm for ‘trying new, unique, and effective’ cosmetic solutions.

On her part, Manto uses TikTok to market her company’s products. Initially, TikTok served as a modest platform for their marketing efforts, but the shift toward livestreams and engaging video content significantly boosted sales, she noted.

‘Sheilla herself wants to be on TikTok, and this trend, I think, is inspired by beauty company CEOs in the Philippines,’ Manto’s husband said when asked about his wife’s marketing strategy, noting that the platform enables direct engagement with customers and aids in product improvement.

Zuwa Enterprises in Nepal operates from its own office in Kathmandu and delivers products nationwide, offering cash-on-delivery services. ‘We have had around 40,000 customers reach out to us,’ said Zuwa.

Making choices

Running a business is not without its challenges. The Filipino restaurant owner, Shakya, said she faces challenges during religious and cultural celebrations. For instance, Nepalese people’s preference for vegetarian food during Shrawan (mid-July to mid-August) affects business in her restaurant known for its meat-based dishes.

To address this, she made the bold decision of adapting her menu to the Nepali culture by offering purely vegetarian dishes during this month.

She ventured into online delivery services to survive during the toughest times, especially during the pandemic.

Shakya also found support in her Filipino friends. ‘Many friends were willing to help me,’ she noted. ‘They said, “Okay, in cooking, we will be there for you…” even though they didn’t really have a background in this since their professions are different,’ Shakya explained.

This camaraderie among Filipino expatriates plays a vital role in her journey.

For Maharjan, the jeweller, a key challenge in the Nepali market is ensuring customer satisfaction.

In Nepal’s close-knit business environment, reputation and word-of-mouth are crucial. Even a single customer complaint can have a significant impact.

‘They are the customers, so they are always right; even if it’s impossible to do what they want, we still try, because Nepal is a very small market.’

Ms. Maharjan also emphasised the importance of maintaining a close relationship with customers. ‘We treat them like family,’ she said. ‘We have regular customers, and that’s what makes me happy here. If you have regular customers, it’s like a cycle, generation to generation.’

The challenges of customer service are shared by other Filipina business owners. Effective communication with local customers proved difficult for Manto of Zuwa Enterprises, prompting her to turn to technology and use artificial intelligence translation tools to understand and engage with Nepali customers.

Her advice to fellow entrepreneurs is grounded in her own experiences.

‘We need to have persistence because the market is not constant; sometimes it’s up and sometimes down, so you have to be patient and consistent with your marketing strategies,’ Manto said.

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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Arjay L. Balinbin

Arjay L. Balinbin is a Manila-based business journalist. He pursued a Master’s Degree in Journalism through the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung fellowship at the Asian Center for Journalism, Ateneo de Manila University. Arjay serves as Multimedia Editor at BusinessWorld Publishing Corporation, the Philippines’ oldest business newspaper. In his role, he oversees articles dedicated to micro, small, and mediumsized enterprises (MSMEs) and occasionally the corporate stories. His reporting also extends to areas such as publicly traded companies, start-ups, and government agencies within the technology, telecommunications, and transportation sectors. Arjay has covered events in Spain, Germany, Malaysia, and Singapore.

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