The website is a simple affair: a distinctive logo sits above a lean-looking booking system that allows users to enter their journey start and end destination, date and then click for available buses and prices. Its simplicity is deceptive: redBus is a smart technological solution to a very complicated problem in India: booking and buying a bus ticket. The service it offers – relief from a chaotic, frustrating and time-consuming task – is transforming the experience of travel in India.
Based in India’s technology hub of Bangalore (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangalore), redBus (redbus.in) is a web start-up begun by young whizzes from technology companies who decided to take a risk and venture out and do something new.
Back in 2005, redBus’ three founders, all graduates of one of India’s top engineering schools, were working in Bangalore for well-known information technology companies such as IBM, Texas Instruments and Honeywell.
As they tell the story on their website, it was the difficulty of getting a bus home during the Hindu religious festival of Diwali that prompted the inspiration. The trip was a last-minute decision, and buying bus tickets proved far from easy. On top of failing to get a ticket from various travel agents, journeying around Bangalore meant encountering the city’s traffic gridlock.
This experience led to the idea of developing a service to book bus tickets over the Internet.
RedBus quickly evolved into an innovative service offering multiple options to customers. They can call a phone number and speak to a customer service representative or use a mobile phone to book a ticket. RedBus claims to have sold more than 8,000,000 tickets to date.
Tickets are also delivered to customers in major cities in advance of their travel. Even more conveniently, redBus developed a service called mTicket. It sends the ticket by SMS (mobile phone text message) straight away when a customer makes a booking. The mTicket appears on the display screen of the mobile phone and the customer just has to show their mTicket to the driver to board the bus.
RedBus uses partnerships to expand their distribution network, and this means redBus tickets can be purchased at more than 75,000 outlets. The company now works with more than 350 bus operators, allowing customers to book tickets on more than 4,500 routes across India.
The service set out to achieve two goals: create a one-stop shop for ticket purchases, and to make it possible for customers to get tickets when they needed them and not be told they have been sold out.
Indians were already having success with booking airline tickets online. But nobody else had thought of doing central, online sales for bus tickets before.
Research was behind redBus’ success. The founders interviewed bus operators, consumers and venture capitalists before setting up the business.
They then set about writing the code for the Internet service and put together a business plan and presented it to The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) (tie.org) – a network of mentors who help young entrepreneurs. With the support in place, they were able to leave their well-paying, secure jobs to start redBus.
Among the many challenges they faced was changing the mindset of bus operators used to dealing only with travel agents working out of sales offices.
It also took time for the concept to take off. But as word-of-mouth got around, more people started to use the website. The young team grew from just three to 50 within nine months.
Their business success, as they describe it, is the result of listening to, and soliciting feedback from their customers. They say it has helped them identify what is going wrong and fix it, and describe their business culture as “learn, implement, grow.” They also have a culture of sharing ideas and mistakes to encourage learning. It seems it is this buzzy, youthful and always-learning business culture that is behind redBus’ success.
2) TiE: Fostering Entrepreneurship Globally: The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE),was founded in 1992 in Silicon Valley by a group of successful entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and senior professionals with roots in the Indus region. TiE’s mission is to foster entrepreneurship globally through mentoring, networking, and education. Dedicated to the virtuous cycle of wealth creation and giving back to the community, TiE’s focus is on generating and nurturing our next generation of entrepreneurs. Website: tie.org
An African NGO believes the Internet is the single biggest key to rapid development in Africa – and it is working to connect youth, women and rural populations to the web, and in turn, switch them on to the vast resources stored across the world’s Internet sites.
After initial successes with a youth project and with farmers, Voices of Africa (VOA) (http://www.voicesofafrica.info) is now seeking to scale up its work to fan out across Africa – and takes its services to the world’s largest refugee camp, the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya.
The youth and technology empowerment NGO has developed a business model to deliver low-cost Internet access and e-resources to Africa’s slums and rural farmers.
VOA argues that “the digital divide, defined by a lack of access to information for a specific population, symbolizes the largest difference between developed and developing countries: the opportunity to obtain and utilize information.”
“The digital divide runs much deeper than hardware and software,” it says. “While equipment is necessary it is not sufficient. The real heart of the digital divide is that those without access to information resources often suffer needlessly while the solutions to their problems are floating in the air.”
But why is the Internet so important?
“The internet puts the choice of content at the fingertips of the user,” explains executive director Crystal Kigoni. “Traditional media is one way communications. Internet is bi-directional.
“Our NGO is completely grassroots. We train the people who train the people. It is an each one, teach one philosophy and is highly effective. We also design our projects to be self-sustainable after one year of successful implementation.”
The philosophy behind Voices of Africa – “Sustainable Development through Information Empowerment” – is to give people the information and resources to take better control of their lives.
Access to the Internet in Africa is patchy and, for the poor, an expensive resource. The penetration of mobile phones in Africa has been spectacular in the past five years. But there are limits to the resources people can afford to access with their phones. Issues abound about data costs, mobile phone networks, and mobile phone capability.
The e-learning resources include high quality training videos, presentations and screencasts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screencast) – like a movie, it is a digital recording of changes on a computer screen and is used to teach software – to share on the web. The resources are also shared through compact discs (CDs) and iPods (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPod).
Project coordinator Nick Kungu coordinates the staff working on the pilot Kenyan projects: a Rural Internet Kiosk; a Youth Empowerment Center; and KiberaNet, which launched in August 2011. VOA uses a part-time and volunteer staff of more than 20 Kenyans and four international ‘virtual’ volunteers.
The group is also working with farmers in Kutus, central Kenya, to help them get a better price for their products and introduce sustainable agriculture practices. This is done through online courses so the farmers do not need to travel. It is hoped by doing this they can improve the supply of food for the country.
The Youth Empowerment Center in Webuye constituency of the Western province of Kenya involves a partnership with the government of Kenya to teach computer basics, research and data collection, social media, ICT (information communication technology) for development, social business and community health.
In rural areas, the need for information cannot be overestimated. In the remote countryside, there are few schools with adequate resources and almost no community libraries. The lifesaving knowledge the people require has to date been completely beyond their grasp. As one rural woman in the Western province of Kenya exclaimed to VOA after encountering the resources on the Internet, “It is like being brought from the darkness into the light.”
Another project in development is SlumNet, which seeks to combine the Internet with low-cost devices like tablet computers and netbooks. Its pilot scheme, KiberaNet, launched this month in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya to test the business model. VOA hopes to then expand it to Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. It is using a business model to bring low-cost Internet access to Africa’s slums that is fully funded by the local communities and the users.
It has identified the key needs of youth in slums that need to be met: a way to access the vast resources available on the Internet; a way to generate income, undertake low-cost learning, and organise for social justice; ways to overcome social, economic and political isolation; a way to access affordable equipment and resources to improve their quality of life in the short-term.
To make it a sustainable business model, the community takes a 60 percent stake in the incorporated entity. Voices of Africa will select six local civil society organisations to take another 10 percent stake in the business. VOA takes 10 percent and the remaining 30 percent will be open to outside investors.
It involves setting up a closed intranet system and Internet access covering the entire Kibera slum, which has an estimated population of 2 million, a majority under the age of 30.
KiberaNet hopes to act as a community hub for socialising, education and generating content. A key part is creating an atmosphere that is welcoming to novices. The business model is about delivering the bandwidth of Internet access and simultaneously generating a sustainable source of income to keep it going. Partners in the business include Promote Africa, Plexus Group and Future Optics Networks.
VOA also has been blogging about its time in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camp (http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e483a16) at their website, www.voicesofafrica.info, and has been developing plans to expand services to the camp, home to over 400,000 refugees from drought and famine in Somalia. The camp was only designed to hold 90,000 people. The chronic food insecurity has caused a massive humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, leaving over 10 million people in need of help.
“There are plenty of resources going in but it is aid business as usual,” claims Kigoni. “You see lots of waste in many areas, and a lack in others that would be extremely beneficial. Hence, why Voices of Africa has come up with the youth technology and empowerment plan that accompanies a general information and communications system, DadaabNet.”
DadaabNet will be a youth-run community Internet service and education service. VOA plans to use a wireless intranet, internal communications systems and low-cost internet access in the refugee camp.
The project is the first of its kind in Dadaab and a first in Kenya, claims VOA, allowing free educational content without needing to access the Internet.
The intranet will host free educational videos that can be accessed by mobile phones and computers. The topics covered in the videos include health, nutrition, sanitation and computer training and how to use technology for sustainable development.
The curriculum is also approved by Nazerene University to certificate level.
The system is supervised and would be able to offer resources to other NGOs seeking to provide services to the camp’s residents. The intention is to open up opportunities for education and employment youth who are currently unemployed.
At present the youth in the camp, many of whom have not completed secondary school, get by ‘hustling’ for work, according to VOA. By being left to their own devices, there is a risk they will fall into negative behaviour like crime and drug use or be preyed upon by terrorist organisations operating in the area like al Shabaab, they maintain.
“In our dreams, everyone everywhere in the world can have the opportunity to develop their minds. It is through this creativity that Africa will rise,” concludes Kigoni.
The devastating earthquake that hit the Caribbean nation of Haiti on January 12 was a huge tragedy for the country’s people and for the large international aid community, including the United Nations. But the disaster has seen the use of new information technologies – often assembled by volunteers – to bridge the gaps in critical information and bring a semblance of order to the chaos of a large disaster. And many of the technologies being used in Haiti now arose from past disasters and crises in the South.
Remarkable stories from the disaster include a woman who used her mobile phone to text message Canadian officials she was trapped and needed rescue, to a filmmaker who used an application on his iPhone (http://www.apple.com/iphone/) to treat his wounds: “I was able to look up treatment of excessive bleeding and compound fracture, so I used my shirt to tie my leg and a sock on the back of my head and later used it for other things like to diagnose shock,” claimed Dan Woolley to NBC Miami.
Measuring 7.0 in magnitude (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Haiti_earthquake), the quake killed over 212,000 people, injured 300,000 and affected more than 3 million out of Haiti’s population of 9 million. Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes and are now dependent on food aid to survive. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and is ranked 149th of 182 countries on the Human Development Index.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, communications were knocked out and it was difficult to grasp the scale of the disaster. Major infrastructure was either severely damaged or completely destroyed.
The public telephone system went down, and the two largest cell phone providers, Digicel and Comcel Haiti, were both disrupted. Most radio stations went off the air in the immediate aftermath and a week later, just 20 of the 50 stations in Port-au-Prince were back on air.
This represented the worst of all scenarios for disaster response: not only was the scale of the tragedy enormous, but existing government structures and the large international aid mission were equally badly hit. First responders and the government’s infrastructure were paralyzed in the hours after the disaster and it took some time for the aid response to build to significant levels.
But while communications were down in the country, outside it was a different story: people around the world were using the internet and mobile phones to begin piecing together the e-response to the earthquake.
After the disaster, technology-savvy volunteers around the world kicked into action to find ways to help. They have built software to aid in tracking people, using technology to map the disaster area and ways to use mobile phone text messages to find the missing.
Kenya’s Ushahidi (www.ushahidi.com) is a free software mashup (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mashup_%28web_application_hybrid%29) born after the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007 and 2008. It gathers citizen-generated crisis information – SMS (text messages), email or web resources – and then places the information on a map or timeline. It is put together by volunteers from Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Malawi, the Netherlands and the United States.
Ushahidi’s founder is Kenyan Ory Okolloh, and the first version of the software for download is called “Mogadishu,” after the capital of Somalia.
It was put to use in Haiti (http://haiti.ushahidi.com/reports/submit) as users populated its online maps and timelines with information on the location of people in need of food and water, those trapped in rubble or those in need of medical attention. It is a real-time reporting system for people in a disaster, offering a way for people in need to broadcast to the outside world.
Sample reports on the timeline look like this (http://haiti.ushahidi.com/reports): ” SOS food, water and care needed in the Bertin Zone of Carrefour S.O.S. for the people of Carefour in the Bertin area, Titus Road, Froide River, these people haven’t recieved anything yet like water, food, care.”
“Alive under the Rubble of Bar Lakay Restaurant, Ave. Christophe 6633. Carole Joseph is alive under the rubble of the Bar Lakay restaurant on Avenue Christophe.”
The UN estimates there are more than 900 non-governmental organizations operating in Haiti. One of the best ways to try and coordinate this large aid response is through innovative information technology.
The Ushahidi software has spawned many creative variations to track a wide range of problems. In the Philippines, TXTpower (http://www.cp-union.com/ushahidi/) is put together by the Computer Professionals’ Union to keep an eye on mobile phone companies and their business practices. In Mexico, a mashup (http://www.cuidemoselvoto.org/) was put together for the 2009 federal elections. Stop Stockouts (http://stopstockouts.org/) keeps track of near real-time pharmacy and medical supplies in health facilities and pharmacies in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia.
In San Diego, California, computer programmer Tim Schwartz quickly contacted his network of fellow programmers to address the problem of information being spread too widely across many web sources. In a few hours they put together http://www.haitianquake.com, a way for people to post and locate missing relatives.
It was online in less than 24 hours. It was followed by many other similar services and they were merged into a service eventually put together by Google called PersonFinder two days later. Google’s PersonFinder grew to have more than 32,000 missing people listed.
Another response has been Crisis Camps (http://crisiscampmiami.org/) in London England and cities across the United States. Technology workers got together to brainstorm relevant solutions to help the aid effort, and developed tools including Tweak the Tweet, Port Au Prince Basemap (up-to-date data on what his happening on the ground), The Haiti Timeline (developing a real-time history of events as they unfold), Family Reunification Systems, crisis wikis (http://crisiscommons.org/wiki/index.php?title=Crisis_Wiki), Mobile Applications 4 Crisis Response, translation (Creole to English for example), Mapping NGOs in Action (in the chaos of a crisis, this seeks to track what NGOs are working where), We Need, We Have Exchange (a way to post requests for resources or help).
“It really is amazing the change in the way crisis response can be done now,” Noel Dickover, a Washington, DC-based organiser of the Crisis Camp tech volunteer movement, told The Independent newspaper.
“Developers, crisis mappers and even internet-savvy folks can actually make a difference.”
Josh Nesbit is a co-creator of a text message service for mobile phones that is being used by international organizations like the United Nations and the Red Cross. Haitians are able to send free text messages from mobile phones on the country’s Digicel service. The messages include requests for water and food. The messages are organized and tagged with key words by volunteers in the Haitian community in New York City, and Haitian radio stations promote the service. It was developed based on similar systems already running in hospitals in Malawi.
In Haiti, mobile phone networks were back up and running within a few days – many within 24 hours. Haiti is poor, but it nonetheless has impressive mobile phone ownership rates: one-in-three people has one.
OpenStreetMap (http://www.openstreetmap.org/) is another excellent resource in a disaster and represents a significant step forward in helping people to respond. Real time data is uploaded to satellite photographs of the disaster area and people then can add updates on the location of working hospitals or where infrastructure has been damaged. The information comes in by many forms, from the micro-blogging service Twitter (www.twitter.com) to eyewitness reports.
Reports from Haiti have talked of rescue teams uploading the maps to their GPS (global positioning system) devices for easy access, or printing then in A4 form to carry around.
The utility of this service has been confirmed by many working on helping Haiti. “We have already been using their data in our initial post-disaster needs assessment,” Stuart Gill of the World Bank told The Independent.
Dutch mobile phone maker Intivation (http://www.intivation.nl/) is distributing for free solar-powered mobile phones in Haiti to help with aid efforts and is launching the phones for sale around the world as well.
6) International Community on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management: They will be having their conference on Defining Crisis Management 3.0 from May 2-5, 2010 in Seattle Washington USA. Website:http://www.iscram.org/
7) Telecoms Sans Frontiers: Focuses on providing communications in the first days after an emergency. Website:http://www.tsfi.org/
8) InSTEDD NGO: InSTEDD’s mission is to harness the power of technology to improve collaboration for global health and humanitarian action. An innovation lab for tools designed to strengthen networks, build community resilience and improve early detection and response to major health-related events and natural or human-caused disasters. Website: http://instedd.org/
9) Web mash-ups: Programmable Web website offers all the resources required to get started. Website:www.programmableweb.com/
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
“The years 1998 and 1999 have been volatile ones for Mongolia, with revolving door governments, the assassination of a minister, emerging corruption, a banking scandal, in-fighting within the ruling Democratic Coalition, frequent paralysis within the Parliament, and disputes over the Constitution. Economically, the period was unstable and rife with controversies.” Mongolia in 1998 and 1999: Past, Present, and Future at the New Millennium by Sheldon R. Severinghaus, Asian Survey, Vol. 40, No. 1, A Survey of Asia in 1999 (Jan. – Feb., 2000). pp. 130-139 (Publisher: University of California)
Ger Magazine was launched on September 9, 1998 (Ger is the Mongolian word for both the traditional tent dwelling and home). The theme of youth in the transition was explored by a combined team of Mongolian and foreign journalists. The Ger Magazine project had basically three goals: first, raise the quality of journalism in the country, secondly, introduce the country to a wider global audience and, thirdly, by being the country’s first online magazine, prove the internet was an effective way to communicate.
Issue 1 of the magazine investigated what life was like for youth during the transition years (post-1989). Stories tackled the struggle to find work in the free market, the booming pop music scene and how it is leading the way in business entrepreneurship, reproductive health, the basics on Mongolian culture, and vox pop views from Mongolian youth.
Issue 2 of the magazine investigated modern life in Mongolia during transition. The team of journalists were hitting their stride by this issue. Stories probed the proliferation of bars and the problem of alcoholism, corrupt banking practices and the loss of savings, how the young were the country’s leading entrepreneurs, Mongolia’s meat and milk diet, “girl power” and the strong role played by women, the burgeoning new media, the rise and rise of Buddhism, and Mongolia’s dynamic fashion designers (this article inspired foreign fashion designers to embrace the Mongolian ‘look’ in the next season’s designs).
Editor-in-Chief: David South, UNDP Communications Coordinator Editor: A. Delgermaa, UB Post newspaper Translation: A. Delgermaa Photography: N. Baigalmaa, David South Design and layout: B. Bayasgalan, UN Homepage Webmaster
“This is the second issue of Ger. We have chosen the theme “Modern Life” to introduce people outside of Mongolia to the complexities of life in today’s Mongolia – the good, the bad and the ugly as a cowboy film once said. Ger is a project that draws upon the best journalists of this country. Under democracy Mongolia enjoys a flourishing free press, with over 800 officially registered newspapers for a population of 2.4 million! Ger has chosen A. Delgermaa of the UB Post newspaper to edit this issue. The UB Post is one of two English language newspapers in Mongolia and is owned by the Mongol News Company, a publisher of five newspapers, including the daily Today newspaper. Ger is a project to improve the quality of journalism in Mongolia, while introducing the people of the world to Mongolian journalists and this wonderful country. We hope you enjoy this issue of Ger. Please send us your comments.
Ger is not an official UNDP publication but a project to improve the quality of journalism. Opinions expressed in the magazine do not necessarily reflect the official views or policies of the United Nations Development Programme. Articles may be freely reproduced so long as credit is given and the editors are notified. Ger is published in English and Mongolian.
Ms. A Delgermaa: A reporter with the UB Post English weekly newspaper, which enjoys a good reputation among readers. Delgermaa is a young journalist and started her career in 1997, after graduating from the English Department of the Foreign Service School, Mongolian National University. She is a regular contributor to UN publications and has been published by Inter Press Service. She thinks Mongolia needs more psychologists to give courage to those many who are yearning for a better life. Like many young Mongolians she also wants to study abroad, to learn how journalism is practised in other countries.
Ms. N. Oyunbayar: Also a reporter with the UB Post newspaper, Oyunbayar, is a graduate of Ekaterinburg University in Russia, where she qualified as a Russian language teacher. She left her pupils in Sukhbaatar aimag, where she was born, some years ago and decided to undertake a personal crusade against wrongdoing by becoming a journalist for the UB Post. She is an award-winning journalist and a member of the Mongolian Free Democratic Journalists Association. She loves to cook and enjoys learning about new cuisines.
Ms. T. Mandala: A historian and journalist, she is a reporter with the “Weekend” weekly newspaper. She has been a journalist for two years, has written several interesting interviews with politicians, including the Mongolian parliamentary speaker R. Gonchigdorj and MPs Da. Ganbold and E. Bat-Uul. She explores issues like life after death and she wants to be a public defender in a court one day.
She is a successor of her grandfather Khodoogiin Perlee, who is a famous historian in Mongolia. And studies religion, especially Buddhism and Shamanism.
Mr. D. Dorjjav: A psychologist and a lecturer at the Administrative Management Department of Mongolian National University, he is married and has two girls and a boy. He is currently working on his doctoral thesis. His wish is to help people to open themselves up and discover their abilities. His plan for the future is to contribute to the psychological understanding of life in Mongolia. Dorjjav’s hobby is to talk to people and exchange opinions.
G. Enkhtuya: Born in the year of the pig (there are twelve years in the lunar calendar), a professional in marketing, trading, journalism, she is currently studying law in the Institute of Legal Studies, Mongolian National University. She is also a reporter for Odriin Sonin independent daily newspaper, once the largest state-owned newspaper until the start of 1999. She likes to cook when she is liberated from her official duties.
Jill Lawless: An Honourary Foreign Member of the Mongolian Free Democratic Journalists Association, Jill has been the editor of the UB Post newspaper since 1997. Jill regularly contributes to Agence France-Presse, Far Eastern Economic Review, Deutsche Welle and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She is happiest riding camels in the Gobi desert.
Michael Kohn: Michael is the editor of the Mongol Messenger and contributed to the first edition of Ger. He is a regular contributor to Associated Press and the Far Eastern Economic Review. Michael is an avid traveler and is an expert on hitchhiking across Mongolia.
Ms. N. Baigalmaa: Photo journalist for Onoodor (Today) newspaper, the number one independent newspaper for three years. “Photo journalism is always interesting. I really enjoy taking action photos.” She is fed up of taking photos of static photos of people standing or sitting and has devoted her life to photo journalism. One never boring thing for her is her two sons and a girl. Sometimes she loses her sports jacket to her oldest son, now taller than her.”
“Mongolia is currently in the clutches of a full-blown banking crisis. On the surface life appears normal on the streets of the capital. Workers busily renovate apartments to open as shops and restaurants, while other workers march to the many building sites throughout Ulaanbaatar. But there is no doubting the situation is serious.”
“Under communism, L. Bayasgalan studied fungus. Under capitalism, she’s used her scientific knowledge to build her own organic vegetable business. The 35-year-old is in the vanguard of a budding army of Mongolian entrepreneurs cashing in on the impoverished landlocked country’s nine year transformation from the world’s second oldest communist state to a free-market democracy.”
“A stroll down any Mongolian residential street is usually the first introduction to a visitor of the savoury odours of the traditional meals of this country. If you are invited into somebody’s ger (or traditional tent dwelling) or apartment, you will probably have an opportunity of tasting buuz, khuushuur and bansh.
“These Mongolian national meals are made with minced meat seasoned with garlic or onion (it can be anything from mutton to beef to camel to horse to gazelle) covered with flour and steamed in boiling water, fried in oil and boiled in water. For many visitors to the country the vast quantities of meat consumed can at first be surprising. But it is not long before a visitor finds their favourite Mongolian food, be it buuz, khuushur or a number of other treats. A Canadian living in Ulaanbaatar once told me, “the Mongolian national food contains a lot of meat, but I like the buuz.
“The meat-dependent diet arises from the need for hearty food to stave off the cold and long winters. Traditionally nomadic herders, Mongolians have for centuries been dependent on mostly animal products for their dietary staples. Now after over nine years of transition, the traditional diet has been used as a shield against hunger and for the wealthy, subject to the influence of imported foreign foods and cuisine. When the Russians pulled the plug on Mongolia’s aid in 1991, the economy went into a severe crisis. For many Mongolians it was their first experience of serious hunger. The staple traditional diet of meat, milk and flour saw many people through this crisis, when food imports from the former Soviet Union dropped off.
“Mongolians traditionally have turned to foods that are high in protein and minerals, relying less on more seasonable foods like vegetables and fruits. This means a diet heavy on meat and dairy products, the latter when sour in the summer time thought to clean the stomach. It isn’t just about meat though. Mongolians do also eat cereal, barley and natural fruits and plants native to the country.
“Out of necessity Mongolians have found creative and ingenious ways to use the milk of all five of the domestic animals in the country: sheep, cattle, goats, camels and horses. Orom is the cream that forms on top of boiled milk; aaruul are dried curds and can be seen baking in the sun on top of gers in the summer; eetsgii is the dried cheese; airag is fermented milk of mares (female horses); nermel, is the home-brewed vodka that packs a punch; tarag, is the sour yogurt; shar tos, melted butter from curds and orom, and tsagaan tos, boiled orom mixed with sometimes flour, natural fruits or eesgii. The method of drying the dairy products is common in preparing them. The Mongolians prepare enough dairy products for the long winter and spring.
“The traditions of using, producing and preparing these foods are stronger outside the main cities, where the population is more reliant on the vast herds for food. B. Baljmaa (Mongolians generally use their first names), a dietitian and nutritionist at the National Nutrition Research Centre, says there is a genetic compatability for the food.
‘Before 1992 there wasn’t much research in this area. But now we know from our research that Mongolians are better able to absorb foods with more acid. So, traditional food should be kept in the country.’
“Since 1997 Mongolians have seen a substantial increase in the variety and quantity of imported foods, many of which were only thought of as exotic 10 years ago. Since the start of 1999 the Soviet-style market stalls now compete against western-style supermarkets, with trolleys and shelves proudly saying “Made in Mongolia.” In markets like Dalai Eej, Dorvon Uul, Food Land and Mercury it is possible to buy delicious prepared and canned foods, candies, biscuits, and unknown and unused before by Mongolians, products like oranges, bananas, plums and American chickens.
“On top of the canteens and cafes serving Mongolian food, there are now many restaurants, canteens, bakeries and tea shops which serve meals from Russia, Italy, India, China, Japan, Korea, England, France, Senegal and Turkey. Most of these restaurants are located in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians have taken to the new tastes. “I think Mongolians like roasted chicken and fish when they go to the foreign sit-down restaurants, and hot dogs and pizzas in the fast foods shops,” says I. Narantsetseg and her husband J.Battulga. Both were dining in the Seoul restaurant, and are happy they can go out for food: “it is a very good thing that there are opening a lot of restaurants where friends and family can go and enjoy food in comfort.”
“Isobe Hiroshi, manager of Seketei, a high-end Japanese restaurant, told me “only 20 per cent of our customers are Mongolians. The vast majority of our clients are foreign, especially Japanese people who are working and traveling here. I think Mongolians have still not grown used to sushi and sashimi, the raw fish prepared in our restaurant. But I hope we will welcome more and more Mongolians in the future.”
“The traditional diet in the cities is more changed, more european. And with comes its own dangers for Mongolians says the Nutrition Centre’s Baljmaa:
‘There is a big problem of importing poisonous foods and food which probably will cause the nutrition-related diseases common in more developed countries,” she continues.”While the trend around the world amongst health-conscious people is towards natural products for their food, some Mongolians use some food which can cause troubles for their health. For example, fast food made with more oil, salt and sugar are considered the biggest dangers for human health. On the plus side prices for these imported foods are higher and only the wealthiest people can afford them; the poor people can’t buy and eat it no matter how much they desire. This means their poverty is protecting their health. We should boost our efforts to raise awareness on what foods protect your health.’
“Help in improving nutrition awareness a poster portraying a ger details the food habits of Mongolians and the nutritional value of common foods.
“Now I want to present to you recipes of processing and preparing some Mongolian national products and meals:
“From ancient times, Mongolians use abundant and peculiar methods of processing meat and preparing food.. One of the more popular methods of processing the meat is to prepare borts (dried meat) for use in winter. Borts is made from the meat of cows, goats and camels. Here is a recipe for camel borts presented by Dr. Sh. Tserenpuntsag who engages in the research of the meat.
1. Separate the meat from its layer of fat, as fat will spoil in drying. 2. Cut meat into strips about 20-30 centimeters long and two to five centimeters thick. 3. Hang to dry in a well-ventilated room. 4. Leave for four to five months. 5. Cut into small strips for use in any dish you like.
“If soaked in water, the meat will expand up to two and half times in size. It should then be cooked for 18 minutes.
“The main method of cooking the meals of the Mongolians is boiling and steaming, considered the most healthy method in cooking by researchers the world over. Here is a recipe for buuz from the Nutrition Centre. It is considered one of the national meals of the Mongolians and is cooked by steaming and is a good fast food.”
“As American author Arthur Schlesinger once said, the main breaker of peace in our time is social differentiation. It is unfortunate that, despite developments in human civilisation, modern times have brought only new manifestations of this phenomenon, based on people’s mind, feeling, life style, goals and dreams.”
“Inside Mongolia’s former Construction College, a slab of brightly painted concrete overlooking Ulaanbaatar, murals on the peeling walls still depict beefy workers engaged in heroic labour. The stern visages of Marx, Engels and Lenin loom above the central staircase.
But students these days have neither communism nor construction on their minds. The building is now the School of Computer Science and Management of the Mongolian Technical University.”
“Last year’s fashion runways were dominated by one influence: Mongolian traditional design. If a designer wanted to show they were boldly embracing natural fibers and furs, then the refrain ” my show is all Mongolian” would be proudly boasted to the media. The country has become a synonym for sartorial flare and rugged beauty. It also doesn’t hurt that one of Mongolia’s top exports, cashmere wool, is in vogue, from Japan to Europe to the United States. After years of being isolated from the west under the umbrella of the Soviet Union, Mongolian fashion is proudly strutting the catwalks of the world.”
A Mongolian cashmere designer once opined that Mongolians are lucky that most goats in the country are capable of producing fine cashmere. And while Chinese cashmere dominates the marketplace, Mongolian cashmere is by far the purest and finest.
About 30 cashmere companies contributes tens of millions of dollars a year to the country’s wealth (though nobody is quite sure how much because most cashmere sales go unreported to the government). But the revenue isn’t what it used to be due to problems in the domestic industry and a drop in the world price. Z. Ayur, chief secretariat of the Gobi company, thinks it doesn’t have to be that way. “Unfortunately we lose half of our raw cashmere to China,” he says.” The Chinese buy cashmere at a high price, not depending on the quality. This means national manufacturers lack raw cashmere to process into garments.” He thinks raw cashmere exports should be banned or subject to a duty of 100 to 150 per cent. Mongolia’s weak infrastructure plays a part as well. It is cheaper for herders to travel to the Chinese border with cashmere than to bring it to the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Often when they are at the border with China, they are subjected to some hard bargaining by Chinese brokers, who exploit the fact herders can’t afford to walk away empty handed.
Cashmere has always been considered a luxury and expensive. But in the past two years it has lost its fusty image as only for old people. Trendy designs have attracted a vast market of younger cashmere consumers. “I guess in the past it was dear and expensive and designs weren’t very appealing to the younger set,” thinks Gerelmaa, the chief designer of Gobi company.
The Gobi company is one of the few state enterprises left over from the socialist period that still makes money (and is due for privatization this year – a prime pick for foreign investors).
In 1972 the United Nations funded projects to experiment with starting a cashmere garment industry in Mongolia. This innovative thinking led to a joint Japanese-Mongolian venture in 1981 to start the first cashmere manufacturer, Gobi. These days it still produces one third of the country’s cashmere products.
Mongolian Wool and Cashmere Federation head Tsendmaa is optimistic about the drop in the world market price.” It will soon go back up again,” she says with confidence. “The reserve of cashmere in the world will run out soon. What happened with the drop in prices is typical of any industry when it overproduces.” What worries her most is the flood of Mongolian cashmere going to China, where Chinese workers process and knit the garments and reap the job benefits.
While cashmere is still known for its use in classic turtle, crew and v-neck jumpers, things have changed. “Before we mostly exported classic styles in off-white, brown, grey, black, bark, blue or dark red to Japan or Germany,” continues Tsendmaa. “Now Americans order more fashionable cashmere for the young. The designs of short jumpers that expose bare chests and waists are cheap to produce (less material) and suitable for young fashions.”
Italian, French or Belgian customers are fussier and demand greater variety in designs. These countries determine the vogue for cashmere wear and use the most high tech knitting technology.
Contemporary cashmere fashion in France or Italy can combine fur or silk. Colours have also been revamped, with the young going for light blue, light pink, snow white, off-white and light green. Italians and Americans like metal grey with rose or pink. Mixing up the colours in sporty stripes and lines is also popular.
Cashmere is very practical, warm and light. “It is not suitable for the office,” says Gerelmaa.” Cashmere wear is more suitable to wear for a night out or just for hanging out. But of course it is not for sport!”
Fashionable Mongolian cashmere is becoming a strong competitor to Chinese, Italian, Scottish or American cashmere. “The raw material is pure and the design is more fashionable.” And a happy Gerelmaa likes the sound the cash register makes in Japan: “In Japan classic Mongolian style is sold for more than US $1,200 in the Takashimaya Store, in GINZA.” Now if more of that kind of hard cash found its way back to Mongolia, the country would definitely be better off.
It could be said that there is no girl who does not dream of becoming a model. Many Mongolian girls, particularly Ulaanbaatar city girls, are flocking to attend courses in modeling in the last few years. Some say models are mushrooming in Mongolia, a country known for its fresh-faced people and robust physiques.
Ger interviewed S. Ikhertsetseg, one of the twin top models of Mongolia.
When did you first appear on the fashion stage?
“When we were 15 we played piano for the state concert on International Women’s Day on March 8. The ( Best Fashion) company was in trouble and they did not have anyone to wear some leather fashions for the show in the concert. It was fortuitous that we were asked to be the models. We kept it secret from our parents until we received a prize from Mongolia’s top fashion show, Goyol (or beauty) , in 1988. That was a year after the state concert. Being a fashion model was not considered so desirable as it is now. We were busy studying at music school and our parents did not know what we were doing.”
What do you think of today’s models?
“In the early days of fashion shows in Mongolia in the 1980s, we did not have many competitors. These days there are many beautiful Mongolian models we have to compete with, but only a few are very good. If someone is lucky, they have the potential to compete at the world level. Personally, I don’t like models who are too trained by courses.”
Do you think becoming famous is pure luck?
“Of course it is luck. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of hard work. You must send photos to agencies, and then only then, will someone see your photo – that is luck.”
What about design and fashion in Mongolia? Are Mongolians fashion sensitive?
“I can not say Mongolians are sensitive to fashion. I think our designers should work harder. Design is not a dress or a suit. It is everything, the whole cornucopia of details. I do not think we are going to compete with Europe, which has a long history of making clothing, rich in colors or designs. There is a big difference between fashion in the West and in Mongolia.”
Mongolia has a lively free press who sometimes step over the line when it comes to gossip and scandal reporting. These so-called “yellow” newspapers have damaged many people’s reputations. This had also happened to you. Some newspapers called the two of you the Barbie girls in Beijing, earning a lot of money.
“Yes, they did say those bad things. We replied to them.”
Was it before the court?
“No, that is a personal question.”
What was the result?
“The newspapers didn’t do that again.”
What do you do now?
“Both of us keep up the fashion work and also teach piano. Music is our profession and love. We founded the Association of Models of Mongolia to protect their rights and strengthen their position in the society.”
The stories have been featured in many books on the country, and the magazine was recommended as a good resource by the Lonely Planet guidebook.
This was not only the first publication of its kind in the UN, it was also a pioneering online venture and remarkable for a country lacking the advantages of wealthier countries.
An online survey of the state of Mongolia’s media and its history (www.pressreference.com/Ma-No/Mongolia.html), had this to say: “An interesting variation from some of the other publications available is Ger Magazine (published online with guidance from the United Nations Development Program, UNDP), which is concerned with Mongolian youth in cultural transition. The name of the magazine is meant to be ironic because a ger is the Mongolian word for yurt—a yurt being traditional nomadic housing—but the magazine is about urbanization and globalization of Mongolian youth.”
A Complete Guide on Celebrations, Festivals and Holidays around the World by Sarah Whelan, Asteroid Content, 2015
Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media by Jeff Summer, Gale Group, 2001
Mongol Survey, Issue 8, The Society, 2001
Mongolian Culture and Society in the Age of Globalization by Henry G. Schwarz (editor), Center for East Asian Studies, Western Washington University, 2006
Nations in Transition: Mongolia by Jennifer L. Hanson, Infobase Publishing, 2003
Teen Life in Asia by Judith J. Slater, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004
World Press Encyclopedia: A Survey of Press Systems Worldwide, Volume 1by Amanda C. Quick, Gale Group, 2003