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Special Report: Innovation in Bangalore – Pratham Books and The Akshara Foundation

We pulled the bikes up alongside a charming colonial coffee house by the name of Koshy’s. It’s somewhat of a Bangalore institution, as I understand.

We were meeting there with one of Bangalore’s rising stars, a fellow by the name of Gautam John. We sat down with Gautam over a colonial breakfast of English-style ham and eggs, and plenty of coffee, tea, and toast. We were thrilled to hear a bit of his story.

Gautam began his career as an entrepreneur by starting his own food company. It was an ingredients supplier, providing mostly processed and dehydrated foods. The shop was named “Foods and Flavors,” and he grew it to a respectable 150 employees before striking out in search of something more existentially fulfilling. Gautam found what he was looking for when he joined Pratham Books, where he could draw on his entrepreneurial experience to help them grow their non-profit. He only planned to spend six months, but so far has logged just over two and a half years at the firm. Why did he do this? Certainly it was not the money. As Gautam explained to us, non-profit workers in India can expect to earn about 25% what they would in the for-profit space, compared to a much higher ratio in the west. “For me, it’s the mission of this organization,” he explained. He simply loves the fact that his work is helping his fellow Indians.

Pratham Books was a non-profit publisher, which focused mainly on children’s books. Now it is the largest children’s books publisher in all of India. Its stated mission is to put “A Book in Every Child’s Hand” and they are well on their way, with plenty more work ahead. Currently the company produces about 1 million books, which are distributed mainly by third-party organizations (both governmental and non-governmental) to children in Indian villages. In addition they distribute another 2 million of what they call story cards, more rudimentary short stories, delivered on folding cards.

“We focus on high value for the child by producing books with rich illustrations and with text in their local languages,” Gautam explained. They sell these books to their distributors at heavily discounted rates. Setting a price, no matter how small, rather than giving the books away, Gautam explained, aids in the perception of value associated with the product, encouraging its more efficient utilization.” We are a non-profit, but we run in a way that is very close to a sustainable stand-alone business.”

Gautam also does work at another non-profit called the Akshara Foundation, a service which couples nicely with his work at Pratham. This organization works to aid the government in measuring its own efficiency in primary and pre-primary education. They administer a system of tests that measure Indian students’ acumen in reading, writing, and arithmetic. “The three Rs,” as Gautam described them. “Our tests produce much better data than the Indian government… and they’re not always happy to hear it.” Over 325,000 children in Bangalore have undergone the testing. Using this data, the organization works to implement remedial interventions aimed at helping weak students to catch up.

The work being done by  Pratham and The Akshara Foundation is just another gleaming example of the thriving spirit of entrepreneurship here in Bangalore. At the end of the meeting, we presented Gautam and Pratham with a gift from AsiaWheeling and our esteemed partners at Openmoko: a Wikireader. The wikireader, as you may have noticed, is our faithful companion on AsiaWheeling, providing us access to Wikipedia in all its textual glory, all from the comfort of a hand-held, touchscreen-enabled, year-long-battery-life-endowed handset.

Pratham Books,  AsiaWheeling wishes you continued success.


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