Mahabir Pun is a Nepalese teacher known for his extensive work in applying wireless technologies to develop remote areas of the Himalayas, also known as the Nepal Wireless Networking Project. He is a widely known figure in Nepal, and his work has been recognized by the Ashoka Foundation, the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation, University of Nebraska, and Global Ideas Bank. He is well known in Nepal for his extensive work in rural villages in fields of health, education and awareness projects by connecting those remote areas through wireless internet technologies. He was born and raised in Nangi, a remote village in the mountainous Myagdi District of western Nepal, Pun spent his childhood grazing cattle and sheep, and attending a village school without paper, pencils, textbooks or qualified teachers.
Traditionally, the local people had no education, and most men joined the British Gurkha army. Pun’s life changed dramatically when his father, a retired Gurkha, took the remarkable step of moving the family to the southern plain of Nepal and investing their entire savings in his son’s education. After finishing high school, Pun worked as a teacher for about 12 years in four schools, while supporting his brothers’ and sisters’ education. In 1989, after numerous applications to UK and US universities, he succeeded in gaining a partial scholarship to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, from which he graduated in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in Science Education. After graduation, he returned to his native village, twenty-four years after having left there as a child. It was in Nangi that he recognised the critical need for sustainable education, and began to formulate his goal of creating a high school to serve as a model for local educational and economic development. Pun founded the Himanchal High School with a special focus on computer education and other programmes with income-generating capacity. He then returned to the University of Nebraska for a master’s degree in Educational Administration, which he completed in 2001.
While in the United States of America, Pun had recognised that information technology had the potential to transform the education system and the economy of his village, and he had taken courses to acquire the skills needed to assemble, refurbish and use computers. On his return to Nepal, he successfully campaigned for the donation of used computers from Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Singapore, and the USA, and powered them with two small hydro generators (donated by Singaporean climbers on their way to Mount Everest) installed in a nearby stream. Pun began teaching computer classes to students and fellow teachers, but it proved impossible to establish a telephone connection to the nearest city, Pokhara, and the Internet. Pun e-mailed the BBC, asking for ideas. The BBC publicised his dilemma, and soon volunteers from Europe and the USA responded. In 2001, donors and volunteers helped him to rig a wireless connection between Nangi and the neighbouring village of Ramche, using small handmade TV dish antennae mounted in trees. Small grants soon led to the construction of improvised mountaintop relay stations and a link to Pokhara. By 2003, Nangi had a wireless connection to the Internet. Later, Pun brought in more used computers donated from abroad, distributed them to other schools in other villages, and began work to develop a wireless distance-learning project supported by income-generating ventures.
Pun’s work on distance learning and online educational services constitutes the first attempt in Nepal to address the scarcity of qualified teachers through technology. He took steps to ensure the success and growth of his projects, by arranging for other teachers to attend a computer training course in Pokhara, starting economic projects to fund students’ expenses and teachers’ salaries, and by attracting hundreds of international volunteers with wide-ranging skills. He has since built a new cultural centre, and has developed communication links for yak farmers, as well as new ventures to hc international trekking and tour groups. He has therefore succeeded not just in creating a self-sustaining educational system, but also a range of new economic and social enterprises to support remote communities.
In 2002, Pun was elected Ashoka Fellow by the Ashoka Foundation, the global association of leading social entrepreneurs. The Foundation noted Pun’s contribution to overcoming the geographical isolation of many of the communities in which he works, with a new idea which could be replicated in other geographically isolated areas with few educational or economic opportunities. In 2004, Pun received the Overall Social Innovations Award from the Global Ideas Bank, aka the Institute for Social Inventions. They said, “Using an inspired mix of solar power, tree-based relay systems and wireless technology, the project is helping yak farmers stay in touch, families communicate and, with an expansion into distance learning, children to gain education.” In 2007, Pun was awarded the Magsaysay Award, considered by some to be the Nobel Prize of Asia, in recognition of “his innovative application of wireless computer technology in Nepal, bringing progress to remote mountain areas by connecting his village to the global village”. Pun is one of four Nepalis to receive the Magsaysay Award, and the only one to receive the Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership. Later in 2007, the University of Nebraska awarded Pun an honorary degree as Doctor of Humane Letters for his outstanding work for his country, Nepal. In 2014 Pun was awarded the Jonathan B. Postel Service Award by the Internet Society.