Twenty-five-year-old rickshaw driver Ram Shrestha is lying in the sun on the outer edges of Thamel, his feet propped up on his rickshaw’s ripped seat cushions. His rickshaw hood shields him from the sudden torrent of rain ready to cascade on his vehicle. Business is slow as monsoon rains have muddied the labyrinthine pathways of the popular tourist neighbourhood. The back of his beat-up, rusted rickshaw reads ‘Need English?’
Three months ago, Be-Kul, an English training and advertising company, gathered him along with 24 other rickshaw drivers in Thamel for an informal meeting. Be-Kul offered to pay Rs 500 a month for prime advertisement real estate: the back of rickshaws. On a trip to Thailand, Kul Gurung, the executive director of Be-Kul, had seen Bangkok rickshaw drivers attired in company logos. On his return, he wanted to experiment with commercial advertisement on Kathmandu’s rickshaws.
During the meeting, Gurung quickly learned that Kathmandu had 1,300 registered rickshaws, with only 700 rickshaws truly operating in areas like Thamel and New Road. He offered to monetise the blank expanse on the back of rickshaws, which were often left to rust after a rickshaw’s polychromatic paintwork faded.
The response from the drivers was mixed: half of them were enthusiastic about commercialising, and the other half said they needed to ask their owners. Gurung wanted to ensure that no driver lost his job, so he offered to negotiate with the owners himself. Surprisingly, the owners allowed the rickshaw drivers to keep the money earned from displaying the advertisements.
As time went on, Gurung’s advertisement campaign grew more sophisticated. Gurung quickly realised he needed a better way to keep the drivers aboard his plan. So he selected one ‘coordinator’ among the 25 drivers, who would receive Rs 2,000 a month—Rs 1,500 more than the Rs 500 other drivers earned for the ad-space. The coordinator’s responsibilities included identifying new drivers and convincing them to join in the advertisement scheme.
For a rickshaw driver, advertisements hold monetary appeal. Drivers normally pay Rs 100 a day to the owners to rent their vehicles, and earn a few hundred rupees daily in profit. Because the money from advertisements goes directly to rickshaw drivers, it gives them an opportunity to earn even when the traditional business is slow.
Seeing the drivers’ excitement, Gurung spent a week targeting businesses in Thamel, including hotels and travel agencies, asking if they would like to be included. Initially, he asked Rs 5,000 from each company, but settled for Rs 2,500 for three months of advertisement. In turn, he supplied 150 rickshaw drivers with a paper contract each, requiring 15 days prior notification if any rickshaw discontinued the ads. These rickshaws would advertise myriad tourist companies based in Thamel for an experimental period of three months.
For businesses, rickshaw advertisements offer expanded visibility for Thamel’s tourist-oriented ventures. Rickshaw clientele are largely tourists gravitating to the novelty factor of the rickshaw. This makes hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies optimistic about an uptick in sales.
“Advertising in big magazines or on television can be quite expensive, so this is a small tool to achieve the same effect,” Gurung says.
But it is not simply firms like Be-Kul who are seeking out ad-space on the corroded, grey exteriors. When rickshaws operate on public streets, they can sometimes transform into public spaces, vulnerable to guerrilla marketing tactics by opportunistic advertisers—some of whom do not pay at all. ‘Flyposting’, or illegally placing advertisements without permission or compensation, is rampant in Nepal. Rickshaw drivers note that their vehicles are already used by some companies for advertisement—just without pay.
“It’s empty, so they see an opportunity,” Shrestha says.
But for Gurung, the benefit of paying drivers is obvious. “This generates a regular income for drivers, many of whom are unfortunately not earning that much.” He believes it is a moral obligation too.
And the artwork on rickshaws? Gurung has taken protective measures to ensure they still exist. “We have plastic lamination to make sure none of the colours erode when the fliers are removed,” Gurung says. Rickshaw drivers prefer that the glimmer and glamour of their rickshaws remain intact. So Gurung has made sure to minimise any alterations to the art.
Rickshaw drivers are just happy they are earning a second income. The owners, who often pay Rs 2,500 for each fresh coat of paint, are happy too. For them, the posters prevent them from having to get regular paint jobs on their rickshaws.
Gurung admits that paying drivers instead of owners arouses the owners’ ire. “We are willing to negotiate with owners, but often going through drivers is a shortcut.” So far, two out of 150 rickshaw owners have griped about being excluded from profits, but the rest happily feature ads.
“Now, ad agents have their eyes on the rickshaws,” says Gurung. He plans to introduce the advertisement scheme to 300 rickshaws, with 30 coordinators responsible for the logistics of the operation in Thamel. So far, 600 rickshaw drivers in Kathmandu have said they are interested in taking part in the scheme.