How do digital freelancers fare in Nepal?

While the country, and broadly the world, fights the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, the digital world has never played as important a role as it has today. Educational classes have been moved from the four walls of a classroom to the inside of a digital screen as work meetings share a similar fate: inside Zoom calls and long email conversations. Adapting to a strict work-from-home modality hasn’t been easy for many Nepali employers or even their employees partly due to the forceful nature by which digital workspaces were introduced to most of us. But a certain segment of the Nepali workforce has already had ample time to understand, experience and embrace these digital workspaces.

Working online has been the norm for many of Nepal’s growing community of freelancers, an independent workforce who work as independent contractors for many of Nepal’s businesses, organisations, and events. Freelancing is nothing new and Nepal’s digital revolution has only helped propel the scope of the local freelance industry. Through the internet and a plethora of digital workspace tools, Nepal’s independent workforce has access to wider international and local networks that help them access far-flung clients and market themselves better.

Robic Upadhayay, 21, is a freelance photographer and documentary filmmaker freelancing for seven years. Having worked for many local development agencies and commercial clients, he says that most of his work still comes through traditional means, i.e. through word-of-mouth. He has worked for a few international clients as well, but those too he attributes to his strong local network instead of freelance marketplaces like Fiverr and Upwork. While Upadhayay doesn’t look for work online, he says that digital platforms like Behance and Instagram have helped him market himself better while also exposing him to potential work partners and clients.

“While dealing with a potential client, I can use my portfolio [his Behance profile] to show them my work. I also use Instagram as a marketing tool, where I upload work images on my profile,” he says. “I have my own website as well, but social media is where I do most of my networking and connecting with clients.”

And while social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn are all excellent platforms to build professional networks, there are dedicated digital services that provide a specific freelance marketplace. Among them, two of the most popular marketplaces are Fiverr and Upwork. Both these marketplaces play host to many Nepali freelancers peddling a variety of jobs: from graphic design, web development and translation jobs to the more outlandish digital rotoscoping and online medical consultation jobs. While a definite number for Nepali freelancers on both these sites is difficult to come by, a simple Nepal search on Upwork yielded pages of Nepali freelances that when quantified came down to more than 260 freelancers on the platform.

Anurag Adhikari, 22, is one of the many Nepali freelancers featured on the platform. He started freelancing while pursuing a degree in Computer Science and Engineering at Kathmandu University. Working as a part-time freelance for four years while he pursued his education, Adhikari continued to work independently for both international and local clients for a total of six years.

“It’s not easy starting out as a freelancer,” Adhikari says. “Since you’re working independently, everything falls on you. You have to market yourself and be good at sales and communication. Entering the market inexperienced, I had a difficult time for the first two to three months because I couldn’t understand the industry very well. But after I got the hang of it, I started getting a lot of interest on Upwork and while I used to work for any client I was lucky enough to bag back then, I’ve room to be more selective and opt for clients that were more open to suggestions and were flexible time-wise.”

And these jobs can sometimes be rewarding as well. Adhikari says he’s managed to earn $2,500 with a month’s job but these jobs don’t always come by. He says that there have been months where he didn’t earn anything. On average, he works with 15 to 20 clients a year.

And 29-year-old Abiral Neupane, another Nepali freelancer of Upwork, echoes Adhikari. “I wouldn’t say freelance is lucrative,” says Neupane, who has managed to earn $2,000 on Upwork alone in the past two years of freelancing. “But it has given me a lot of spare time to invest in myself. You don’t have a boss and you don’t have managers to report to, your time is your own and as long as you meet the deadline, you can work as many hours and in as many chunks as you want. This freedom is more important,” he adds. Both Adhikari and Neupane agree. And while freelancing hasn’t been as lucrative as they’d hoped, they still think their earnings are higher than anything that they would’ve made working a traditional office job.

But while more and more Nepali freelancers are flocking towards international clients, the problem of an international payment system seems to weigh down Nepali freelancers. Without a safe and efficient way to bring their earnings into the country, Nepali freelancers have had to resort to international digital wallets like PayPal and money transfer services like Payoneer. But even services like PayPal demand international credit card and banking details that many Nepali freelancers might not have access to.

Apart from the payment difficulties, there is also a social stigma around freelance work. Sabrina Dangol, 26, a freelance photographer, videographer and video editor working independently since 2015, says, “That initial plunge is always difficult to make. You are trading safety for uncertainty and that will definitely ring alarm bells not only for you personally, but for your parents as well. It was difficult for me to convince my parents because it was difficult for them to understand.”

This type of social stigma seems to be prevalent beyond personal spaces too. Dangol says how people already have a stereotype around freelancers which translates to the lack of respect clients have for their work. “While international clients are relatively better, local clients try to bargain with you as if you’re selling vegetables in Lagankhel. In Nepal, clients usually are unaware of what they want from the freelance artist and some ask for way too much under a strict budget. And even when you do find a middle point and you get the work done, payments are regularly delayed,” she says.

Upadhayay agrees. He says, “Even some of the reputed clients I have worked with have delayed payments while some have not paid me the amount we agreed upon. Some have even defaulted on the payment even when the due deliverables have been submitted in the agreed schedule. There have been times when I have actually spent more time following up on payment than working on a project. This just shows how legal provisions aren’t in place to ensure security for freelance workers like us.”

Issues like these seem to be less of a problem with international clients and digital marketplaces following strict rules of professionalism. Adhikari says that his payments from Fiverr and Upwork have never been delayed. But while payment might not be a problem for Nepali freelancers while working with international clients, problems like time differences and language barriers definitely are. Neupane says that he’s had to wake up in the middle of the night to attend meetings with his international clients and sometimes due to the language barrier, some of the important bits get lost in translation. But most importantly, Neupane says that freelance work can be very isolating.

“While you have the freedom to work at any time and anywhere, it can get quite lonely,” he says. “Working on your computer with very minimal human interaction can get very boring which is why you have to keep yourself motivated to work and exercise self-discipline and -control. You can get very lazy when left to your own devices.”

The digital revolution has opened up various doors for Nepali freelancers to work with and collaborate with international clients while making it easier to find local clients as well. While in Nepal, expansive networks are still vital in finding clients, digital marketplaces like Upwork and Fiverr have opened up opportunities for Nepalis’ to undertake international jobs through the comfort of their homes.

“I really think the skilled and educated youth of Nepal should try freelancing rather than going abroad to work in restaurants,” says Adhikari. “They can earn the same with their technical skills and talent while staying in Nepal. It’s a very good opportunity to gain international exposure while developing both personal and professional skills.

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