Alfanar Study Mission
An eventful year for Alfanar, 2014 saw the introduction of a new investment cycle, the expansion of our Board of Trustees, the addition of new team members and sad farewells to some of our amazing colleagues. The year culminated however with a study mission to India where Alfanar was able to take two of its most successful investments to see a rising star in the world of social entrepreneurship.
Hippocampus Learning Centres started life in 2003 as a small library in Bangalore, dreamed up by Umesh Malhotra and his wife to address the lack of reading opportunities faced by children in India. The success of the library led Umesh to taking the next step of challenging the educational status quo. While enrolment for primary schools in India has consistently surpassed 96% over the last five years, the public school system is lacking on many fronts, and the ills of the educational system are felt most acutely by the rural poor, where the vast majority of children still attend government-run public schools. Umesh, through the new Hippocampus Learning Centres (HLC), changed the dynamic by establishing education centres in villages at affordable prices. The fees collected go towards the costs of running the centres and the salaries of teachers. HLC’s goal is to make each village centre self-sufficient, a goal they are well on track to achieving.
In December of this year, Alfanar took the Future Lights for Development Organisation (FLDO) from Egypt, and the Ana Aqra’ Association from Lebanon to Bangalore to meet Umesh and his team, and see the amazing work being implemented on the ground. FLDO, an NGO that trains local nurseries in Cairo’s slums to offer a Montessori style education to children, has been Alfanar’s partner for approximately seven years. Over the course of that period it has expanded its social impact ten fold, while also working innovatively to increase its financial sustainability. Ana Aqra’ is an organisation with a long pedigree of operating in education, working with high-risk children in underserved Lebanese public schools to boost their literacy skills in a broader effort to encourage them to stay in school. Exponentially increasing its ability to reach students most in need, Ana Aqra’ began training teachers and administrators in 2011.
Upon touching down in Bangalore the entire team, which included Alfanar’s Lebanon and Egypt Country Directors, were taken aback by the twin feelings of experiencing something completely new and exotic, while also being comforted by a sense of familiarity. These feelings only increased with each passing day where every alien taste, smell and sight was accompanied by the gracious and welcoming nature of our hosts, who treated us more as cousins than colleagues. On our first day we met with Umesh in a leafy suburban villa that acts as the headquarters of Hippocampus’s sprawling network of learning centres. It was here where the HLC team gave us a rundown of their history, and a detailed explanation of their future plans. Immediately both FLDO and Ana Aqra’ felt they had found a kindred spirit, and no sooner had Umesh stopped speaking than they were firing away question after question slowed down only by the need for the occasional interpreter. The three hour meeting left them unsated and eager for the next day’s activities.
Piling up into a bus with members of HLC’s team accompanying our excursion, we visited their learning centres in three different villages, seeing local teachers engaging the children in a way that resonated with them. Always accompanied by a carer to assist them with the younger children, the teachers would lead their classes in singing, enjoyable literacy and numeracy exercises, and art projects. FLDO’s Chief Executive, Mr Sameh Edward, would remark time and again how he was amazed at the level of cleanliness of both the children and the school in rural villages where cow-drawn carts and old bicycles were the principle form of transport. Ana Aqra were similarly drawn to the children, sitting down amongst them to teach them new songs, or read them stories, while marvelling at the children’s aptitude in English, a second or third language for many in the village.
Throughout the week we visited three other organizations to compare the different models in education being implemented in rural and urban settings in and around Bangalore, and the various ways in which resources are mobilized to meet local needs: these included One Billion Literates, Pratham Books, and Hippocampus Foundation’s Grow-by-reading program. The final stop in our mission was where it began, back at Hippocampus HQ, with Umesh and his team. A friendly question and answer session soon turned into a crusade by FLDO and Ana Aqra to squeeze every drop of information out of the team, so impressed had they been with everything they had seen. Hippocampus went through their entire programme in detail, from explaining how they picked their teachers, their schools, and their project managers, to sharing their monitoring and evaluation systems, to discussing their financial models. Umesh, ever with a smile preceding an infectious laugh, explained that the idea is to simplify things as much as possible and approach it from the outset like a factory manager who understands outputs, bottom lines, and clients. The children and parents are not seen as needy people being given charity, but clients being provided a service, and as such they have the right to demand high quality. That was what allowed them to concentrate on the imperatives of low cost, a unique curriculum, strict and competitive teacher selection, a strong assessment method, and most importantly a community focus.
The study mission however didn’t end with us leaving the Hippocampus building, as the days and weeks since our return have seen both Ana Aqra’ and FLDO come up with a multitude of ideas and approaches that are almost revolutionising the way they work. Both have approached their boards with their new ideas, and are translating those ideas into action with the help of Alfanar’s new Business Development Manager who is assisting in creating strong business plans to take their ideas forward. The connections made on that trip have also created and strengthened the bond between Alfanar and our investees, and between the investees themselves. A shining tribute to the strength and relevance of south-south cooperation, the study mission can be seen as nothing less than a resounding success.
Thanks are required of Common Purpose who put us in touch with Hippocampus, Hippocampus themselves who were extraordinary hosts, Pratham Books and One Billion Literates who kindly gave of their time and expertise, the Alfanar board for supporting the mission, FLDO and Ana Aqra’ for their drive and enthusiasm, and of course the Alfanar team who made the entire trip possible.