It’s often difficult to find a business niche in this crowded city of Kathmandu, where every tole is littered with small mom-and-pop shops sitting cheek to jowl, selling everything anyone might want.
Luckily for Dhurba Rawal, when he came to the city to make something of himself, he had an uncle who provided just the right business idea. It was an audacious one, and it would need Rawal to transform himself into combination of huckster, salesman and social do-gooder. What it would take to succeed, basically, was gumption—and guts. Selling condoms off a footpath in Ratnapark, after all, is no easy task.
Rawal was 18 when he first came to Kathmandu from Achham, for higher studies. Hailing from a remote village, his parents were in no condition to help him financially. His sole friend/guru was his uncle, who supported him when he initially came to the city.
His uncle, Katak Rawal, a government official in Kathmandu, was an advocate against HIV AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, and was actively involved in a campaign that promoted contraceptive use. It was with his suggestions and investment that Rawal got the ball rolling in a business that would help him sustain a livelihood in the competitive city.
Four years have since passed since, and young Rawal’s business is thriving today. Now 22-year-old, Rawal is a BBS third-year student, awaiting his results, at Nepal Commerce Campus, in Minbhawan, and he makes more than enough to pay for his tuition and board; and still has more to spare.
He recently appeared for his final year exams, and he has been using his time to take computer courses. “I have already completed the basic learning course. I am now learning programming,” he says. Rawal plans to make use of his insightful business mind and try his hands at something bigger. “Someday soon, I want to establish my own line of business,” he says.
From his savings, Rawal occasionally sends money to his parents for his younger brothers’ education—Sunil, a 9-year-old who studies in class three, and 13-year-old Rajindra, who is in class five.
Rawal runs his condom business from 6pm to 8pm every day, as the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) only allows small businesses to run after dark. He is not employed in any other venture apart from selling condoms. He thus has enough spare time to study at his rented flat. He says he sells over 70 condoms and earns up to Rs 2,000 per day. At his tiny footpath stall, a decent variety of rubbers can be found on display; their prices range from Rs 30 to Rs 200 per packet.
His customers include everybody from sex workers, drivers and government officers to porters and businessmen. “These days I get female customers, too. I guess this is because the people are getting more aware about safe sex,” he says. He estimates that over 200 sex workers walk through the Ratnapark every day, searching for customers in the vicinity.
Health worker DB Bishwokarma, 48, has observed Rawal doing the same thing every day for the past three years at Ratnapark. “I see what he does as a form of social work too. He is earning money as well as bringing awareness among pedestrians about contraception,” Bishwokarma says.
Every day, as evening falls, the footfall increases because Ratnapark is the central hub from which many buses head out after office hours end. Rawal starts prepping as other vendors start putting up their products, all vying for the customers’ attention. It’s tough to miss Rawal, even amidst the chaos of Ratnapark. You can easily hear his voice above the din, as he calls out to people, “Vitamins for the soul, come take some Vitamins!” or “The secret to a long and happy life! Come and get it.” or “Condom chahiyo dai, condom, condom.” This calling out to potential customers is what differentiates Rawal’s business model—unlike regular pharmacies, where the initial rapport building between customer and retailer is painstakingly awkward, Rawal excitedly screams out the fact that people should come to his stall to buy condoms. For visiting customers, the ordeal is made much easier—with Rawal screaming out the condom brands and the customer simply shoving a handful of money at him, sometimes surreptitiously.
It wasn’t always such easy going for him, though. Rawal recalls how, during his initial days, it was tough to sell condoms openly. “When I first set up a rubber shop in Ratnapark, people mistook me for someone who promotes prostitution. A group of people even came to attack me on my fifth day of business. But I only sell condoms,” he says.
Compared to the past, however, Rawal says there has been a slight decline in his earnings. Competition has cropped up everywhere, probably because the vendors nearby have learned that condoms sell well. “Nowadays, even retail shops, paan pasals, and people who run the public toilets in the area have started to sell condoms. But I’m still doing well enough,” he says. At one point, Rawal says, he used to earn as much as Rs 3,000 per day.
When asked if he was initially hesitant to take up such an odd job—the topic of condoms is taboo in our society—Rawal confidently says: “No risk, no gain! In such a competitive world, I had to do something most wouldn’t think of, and I have definitely fared well by taking a chance. In a way, I am also doing some social service by selling contraception. This is a healthy business,” he puns.