Building up: One year On

It’s been one year since the earthquake in Nepal, since the fabric of community, homes, schools, offices and the services, which we depend upon, shook and crumbled; almost a year since 9000 lives were lost.


The great shake of April 25th and the second blow on May 12th ripped apart almost ten thousand families and destroyed millions of homes and communities across Nepal. This month marks the one-year anniversary of those cataclysmic events. A lot has changed since then – and, sadly for many, much of it for the worse.


It’s a time for reflection and review: both practical and emotional. Across the media we see adverts for multi-agency workshops, donor conferences and the like as many organisations involved in the relief and recovery efforts look back on how they responded to the quake – for their people, as service providers. What did we do? How could we have been better? What did we miss? When (if) it happens again what will we do differently? These questions course through conversations in boardrooms, meeting halls and other venues across the capital. 


At this time too thousands of families are marking the loss of loved ones through spiritual practice and religious rites. Many Hindus will invite a priest to perform a ceremony, Shraddha, at the family home where Pinda (rice balls) are offered to fuel the departed’s continuing journey through the astral plane towards reincarnation. Similarly Buddhists bring a lama to perform a puja through small figurines made of butter. It’s a time of letting go, marking the end of the mourning period, a time of looking both back and forward.


Below are my personal reflections on this challenging year of shake-ups and change. Practical to emotive – a pause for breath, a time-out to gain understanding.


In this brief blog I want to share with you my pathway as the Executive Director of Vishal Group, one of Nepal’s biggest trading houses, and as a part of the Global Shapers Kathmandu Hub: what happened and more importantly why? What has changed and what we’ve learned along the way.


For Vishal Group, the days and weeks immediately following the earthquake represented a magnitude of challenge we had never faced and had frankly never prepared for.  Within the space of an hour our entire group, 35 businesses in 6 sectors, had ceased. Our warehouses were completely devastated, the supply chain was non-existent, our channel partners were reeling and critically our people were scared, fighting to find loved ones, to find safe shelter, food and water. Thankfully not one of our 10,000 employees was killed.


It is said that people show their true colours in times of crisis. At Vishal I’m proud to say our colours were bold strong and vibrant: within hours our amazing people were coming together to initiate our response – selfless, courageous this outstanding family of professionals took on the challenge.


Within a day we’d formed three groups: the First priority being our people – reaching out and offering whatever help was needed, without financial constraint. The Second Group reached out to the community trying to bring some semblance of support taking out whatever could be useful (food, hygiene, medical supplies) from our storage units and distributing them in the hardest hit areas: The Third Group focused on how we could resume the business recognising that keeping our supply chains alive would be critical to the recovery and relief efforts of grassroots, national and international actors alike.


Like many organisations around the world we have ‘guiding principle’ and values inscribed on websites and other internal / external communication media. Understanding, revealing what we believe, why we’re doing what we’re doing and encouraging our teams to really ‘live’ these in their day-to-day work life is something that, although we have put quite a bit of focus on over the last few years, if I’m honest, I would have to say I’ve sometimes found a little hard to grasp. We say we are ‘Building Better Lives’ through sharing, respect, contributing, being family with a winning attitude and we somehow knew we were but, capturing this tangibly, had at times been a slippery fish.


The earthquake response from day one until now has changed all that for me. As I watched everyone from Directors to shop floor, from sales to engineers, working together without ego, with passion I understood we really are what we say we are: a huge, diverse family with genuine bonds and compassion. Dropping everything to put others first; giving so much to build lives, to build better lives whether that meant arduous journeys out to hand-out essential supplies in the refugee camps; sourcing umbrellas for our small shopkeepers to keep on earning a living on top of the rubble or re-strategizing our storaging systems to improve resilience and flexibility – it all counts.


Misery seldom comes alone.  When the country was just about thinking of getting to its feet – in August, we had a blockade by the Indian border. The nearly six-month blockade completely crushed the economy and livelihood of people; no fuel, no gas supplies for almost 5 months. Every single street in the capital had cars queued for fuel – sometimes queuing for 15-30 days to get a rationed 15 litres of fuel. 


Without any supplies – goods were stuck at borders for months – and any movement into Nepal was impossible. Again, this was an unprecedented challenge. While most companies rightfully put their hands up and called this an out of control event, VG Supply Chain team led from the front by looking for solutions. By November, the team had worked out options to move products to various borders; and by December, we were lifting stocks ourselves from the principal companies warehouses and plants.


In December and January, we used multiple borders and dynamic supply optimization to be the first company to truly resume supplies. In less than 2 months of blockade being lifted our distribution business in Nepal is stronger than ever.  With a herculean effort by our supply team, we are not only heading towards 100% target achievement in April – but are also building a measure of safety stock to win in such situations in the future. We have seized this opportunity to grow market and shelf share and truly beat competition.


And then there’s my other family – the Global Shapers here in Kathmandu. We have already narrated our response to the earthquake through the GS website, interactions, and Shape South Asia 2015. What can I add now? Well, similarly to the Vishal family, I’d say we have grown; we have been through a process of becoming one. We know ourselves better; we’ve experienced pain, great uncertainty, un-thought of challenges. It wasn’t just the earth that cracked; it was people too. And there have also been moments of immense joy; relief, pride, togetherness and deep-seated contentment as small actions pay off, fearful moments pass, months of tension and strain suddenly ease. We’re still on that journey of becoming. But we’re in it as a cohesive, close-knit unit with a little more self-awareness of who we are and why we are here.


So yes, I have gained something, a better understanding. An understanding of the trueness of the values that drive us as Shapers and business leaders; and an understanding of the beautiful strength of family.


Let’s go on together Building Better Lives!


- Arpit Agrawal


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