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Meet the women driving electric public transit vehicles in Kathmandu

April 27, 2023

Safa tempos are electric vehicles that do not contribute to Kathmandu’s severe air pollution.

In Kathmandu, Nepal, air pollution levels are more than 10 times higher than what is recommended by the World Health Organization, putting the city’s more than 1.4 million residents at risk for severe health complications. In response, through the USAID Clean Air activity, the U.S. Agency for International Development and FHI 360, in partnership with Sajha Yatayat, a public transportation system in Nepal, are working to get Safa tempos — electric, three-wheeled public transportation vehicles grounded due to COVID-19 — back on Kathmandu’s streets.

“Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk globally,” says Bhushan Tuladhar, the chief of party for USAID Clean Air. “Kathmandu’s air quality needs urgent action.”

Three years ago, the government of Nepal endorsed the Kathmandu Valley Air Quality Management Action Plan. Together with local partners from the public, civil society and private sectors, USAID and FHI 360 are supporting stakeholders to execute this program to support the government in meeting its national ambient air quality standards. There couldn’t be a better time for electric vehicles in Kathmandu.

Customers sit in the back of a Safa tempo. FHI 360 is training women from under-resourced communities to drive them

Safa tempos have been in Kathmandu for 30 years. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, many drivers left the city, and not all the remaining owners could afford to replace their automotive batteries. To get these Safa tempos back up and running, USAID Clean Air designed a training program that helped women from under-resourced communities become licensed Safa tempo drivers — and they have created green jobs in the process.

To ensure that money wasn’t a barrier to getting trained, USAID Clean Air is setting up a revolving fund, which drivers can access and pay into once they start earning. That money is then used to pay for more women to have the same opportunity, creating sustained impact.

Let’s meet some of the women from the first round of participants.

Meet Palmo Bulon

Palmo Bular driving vehicle smiling

Palmo Bulon had always wanted to learn how to drive. She jumped at the opportunity when she learned about USAID Clean Air’s training program from her dai (big brother) while she was working as a cleaner. “I told him, if they were teaching, I was going to learn,” she says.

With two children and no support from her husband, Bulon had traveled to Iraq to earn money for her family, even selling her jewelry to do so. “I’m earning the money that I used to earn abroad right here in Nepal,” she says, noting that the pay has been very good.

Palmo Bulan driving backing up vehicle

Though Bulon was nervous at first, she got her license after just two weeks of training. “I passed on the first try,” she says. “It made me happy.”

And while she has faced a few challenges along the way — long routes and bad brakes on her first Safa tempo — she hasn’t let them stop her. She even taught her younger sister to drive.

Palmo Bulan smiling outside seat

“My biggest ambition is to educate my kids,” Bulon says. She has been able to buy new school uniforms for them. She also hopes to pay off her loans, purchase her own vehicle and buy a house.

When Bulon was financially dependent on her husband, she feared arguing with him in case he left her. But as a Safa tempo driver, Bulon is supporting her family and paving her own way. “Now, I no longer have to be afraid,” she says.

Meet Sangita Kumal

Sangita Kumal driving vehicle focused on road

For Sangita Kumal, having a female role model has made an enormous difference in her life.

After leaving an abusive marriage and moving her family to Kathmandu two years ago, Kumal worked at construction sites, carrying heavy loads. She struggled to make just 800 rupees (less than US$10) per day.

Kumal had never considered driving a Safa tempo, but her bhauju (sister-in-law) has been doing it for more than 15 years and encouraged her to sign up for USAID Clean Air’s training program.

Sangal driving truck

Kumal passed her exam but almost gave up driving altogether when, on the first day she drove on her own, her Safa tempo bumped into an oncoming vehicle at a turn in the road. Road accidents are not uncommon in Nepal and in the country’s last fiscal year, there were 10,733 road accidents in the Kathmandu Valley alone. The accident was a minor one, but it shook Kumal. “I got really scared,” Kumal says. “At one point I even wondered if I should go back to carrying loads as a laborer.” But her bhauju wouldn’t let her.

After calling her bhauju to tell her she was quitting, “[she] said that fear is a mistake and I must be brave,” Kumal recalls. Now, she has been driving on and off for five months.

Sangita Kumal looking back from front seat taking money from passengers behind her

Kumal is even considering learning to drive a bigger vehicle. “Maybe I’ll drive a bus one day,” she says. “Now that I have [driven a Safa tempo], maybe I can dream bigger.”

As a driver, Kumal finds it much easier to take care of expenses and hopes to use her earnings to give her children a good education and support them in whatever they wish to do.

“I have struggled and cried a lot,” Kumal says of her journey. “When I drive, I think of my bhauju and how much she has helped me, and it makes me happy and content.

All photos are credited to Pramin Manandhar for FHI 360.