Also published on Medium.
On a relatively quiet street in Bhubaneswar’s Baramunda district, Biswajit Nayak is trying to revolutionize the way kids learn in Odisha. His startup, Shikhya, is in the field of education technology, a sector that has admittedly seen questionable educational impact over the past decade.
Consider the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, an ambitious undertaking which promised to give digital technology to every child in a developing country and forever change the world by empowering billions; the project was conceived by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab, received support from United Nations Development Programme, Microsoft and many other high-profile donors. Despite such firepower, as Foreign Policy wrote in 2009, “OLPC is a classic case of a development program more tailored to the tastes and interests of its funders, than the needs of the people it was supposed to help”. OLPC, and in fact, the education sector in general, would be characterized by William Easterly as ‘planners’. But with Shikhya, things are different, they are what Easterly would call, ‘searchers’. Here is Easterly’s distinction:
“In foreign aid, Planners announce good intentions but don’t motivate anyone to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some reward. Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them; Searchers accept responsibility for their actions. Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand. Planners apply global blueprints; Searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the planned got what it needed; Searchers find out whether the customer is satisfied.” — Foreign Policy
Indeed Shikhya is grounded in local realities, rigorous in estimating educational impact of its efforts, and always willing to accept responsibility for and improve upon its failures. Shikhya embodies the ‘searcher’ attitude.
Earlier last month, in July of 2018, I spent some time with Biswajit speaking in his small office, visiting one of his active ‘learning centers’, and strolling through the sleepy streets of the Baramunda district. I found both an exceptional changemaker in Biswajit and a truly promising social enterprise in Shikhya. Biswajit has capitalized on a key need-gap, namely that students in Odisha would see tremendous benefit from digital education. This is because the existing, government supported schools lack crucial resources, have trouble retaining teachers, among various other issues. Nevertheless, young students are judged on the basis of their scores on government-run examinations. For students without the economic ability or simply the access to quality in-school instruction, there must be another way.
But while services like Khan Academy are prevalent in the English-speaking world, comparatively less common languages like Odia just don’t have the native content to allow for online education platforms. And so, Biswajit and his team at Shikhya set out to create Odia language content hosted on an intuitive and accessible platform, and distributed through an ingenious network of learning centers.
Biswajit’s journey began in a small village in Odisha where he was born, and after a winding path full of adversity, he eventually landed in Silicon Valley working as a software engineer at a large technology firm. He always felt a sense of purpose and wanted to give back to his small village back home. However, he quite honestly admits he was initially propelled by a sense of ego; he envisioned coming back to the village, transforming it, and being hailed as a hero. He was quickly humbled, he explains. Biswajit came in with a Planner mentality and was quickly educated on the complexity of the situation, bumping up with village elders, the school system and associated politics, and most of all, the ‘gundas’.
Biswajit recalls that his experience with a local gunda, who must have been just under twenty years old was a transformative one. When he initially came to his village and established a little school, the village gunda demanded a monthly payment from him for protection. What he did next was a turning point in Shikhya’s history; rather than paying the gunda what he demanded, Biswajit offered the man a monthly salary and commission equivalent to three times the amount the gunda initially requested, in exchange for him becoming an employee who would recruit students from fourth class to tenth class. Biswajit recognized that the young man was not inherently a bad person, but because of his circumstances, he resorted to a less than admirable profession. Moreso, he recognized that the hustle of the gunda could be redirected to a better cause only if the young man was given an opportunity; that the gunda was actually displaying entrepreneurial spirit.
To this day, Biswajit believes in the power of the gunda, and he still affectionately refers to his sales and marketing team as gundas. Whenever he is going to a new village to set up a learning center, he will always look out for young men and women in the village who are willing to put in long hours and display entrepreneurial zeal, even if in the form of a tea cart and creative marketing techniques.
While Biswajit refers to his distributed management team as ‘gundas’, this is really an iteration on the micro-entrepreneur model, the same one that we recognize in the health-care space. The microentrepreneur model was perfected in the agriculture sector by eKutir, a key partner of OSA Impact. As I wrote in our healthcare article about microentrepreneur models:
“eKutir has found the model especially valuable when operating in rural areas where villagers often view companies with suspicion, and therefore, social enterprises need to ensure they have buy-in from local leaders. Working with village-level entrepreneurs not only provides credibility, but also access and granular information about the needs of locals.”
Similarly, Shikyha utilizes its ‘gundas’ because they are locals who know the people best, who know the issues best, and have the energy and willingness to solve those problems. And so, Shikhya’s gundas start ‘learning centers’ with guidance from Biswajit and the central team — to be clear these are not schools, rather they technology-equipped tutoring centers. These learning centers are sometimes hosted in a local school, community building, or in the home of the local partner. Shikhya provides the technology, namely cheap but durable tablets that can access Shikhya’s in-house content; the entire set up of a new learning center costs all of $500 for Shikhya and these funds generally come from charitable donations. While the central team will give them a grace period sometimes as long as a year, the local partners are eventually obliged to pay the central team about 1500-2000 rupees per month. The central team recommends that the local partners charge students around 50-100 rupees per month, and so the local partner is able to keep any money they make above 2000 rupees, depending on the number of students they enroll, and the amount they feel they can charge students in their respective area while maintaining a sustainable class of students year after year. The central Shikhya team has an oversight function which visits learning centers on a biweekly basis to ensure the centers are meeting governance standards and are having transformational educational impact on the students.
Shikhya’s model is reflective of the critical model of social enterprises, namely that which utilizes an initial injection of philanthropic capital and then creates a sustainable, self-sustaining model that covers annual maintenance and operating costs thereby sidestepping the challenge of donor retention.
At OSA Impact, we are always conducting wide-ranging scans of social enterprises to look for impactful and sustainable business models. Education is one of the most rare sectors to find sustainable models in action and Shikhya may be only the second social enterprise that fits this criteria. Nevertheless, it does face systemic challenges.
Mainly, Shikhya is acting within the realm of the system; it is preparing students for examinations ultimately run by the state. They don’t have the ability to decide what content they want to teach since they must map lessons to state curriculums to ensure students earn high scores that will get them to ultimately underperforming and dysfunctional colleges.
Nevertheless, we sincerely believe that Shikhya must not ‘boil the ocean’ and should take its strategy step by step. However, we also believe this social enterprise has the opportunity to eventually create legitimate systemic change as it scales it sustainable model and introduces digital education to the masses. In the coming decade, telecommunications infrastructure will improve, smartphone penetration will increase, and the general public will continue to realize the growing ineffectiveness of the traditional education system. Shikhya, meanwhile, will be creating a database of Odia-language educational content, as well as, data assets to help optimize the learning of students. We see a world where much of education in India will happen digitally, and where Shikhya can play a major role in this transformation.