The Indian Adventure : Avanti Fellows

By this point I’d been in India for 4 days and therefore had adjusted to the time difference and my new surroundings (the heat and humidity on the other hand was something I would never become accustomed to).

Having already worked with one organisation, I knew what to expect, albeit not fully given that all 3 enterprises operated in different sectors.

Company number 2 were called Avanti Fellows. They are an exciting and innovative company, attracting International investment and mentorship, most notably from Harvard University. Indeed the organisation has had such an impact that one of their Co-Founders has been named in the Forbes 30 under 30 to watch.

In India there is a chasm between the super-rich and the very poor. The school system in India isn’t spectacular in terms of quality, yet exams to get into the best further education institutions are immensely difficult. For the wealthy, this doesn’t pose a huge problem as they can afford extra tuition and even to go to a University abroad. However, this isn’t an option for the poor – to put this into context around 21% (close to 250 million) of the Indian population fall below the defined poverty line. Avanti Fellows have created an innovative solution by providing video peer learning facilities at low prices. Students are expected to read the teaching material before the session, then large groups of children (as many as 40) gather in a hot class room in slums and other deprived areas to watch a video of a teaching setting them a task. There is then a break during which all of the students work together to solve the problem, the idea being the students who grasp the concept best teach the others, thus enhancing both the knowledge of the learner and the teacher. They already have some proven results of how this method improves the chances of these individuals passing the higher education entrance exams. Branding and marketing, enhancing brand awareness and attracting more potential students to match their plans to scale was the support they required.

This organisation were genuinely inspiring and a fantastic example of a social enterprise who have a solid business model underpinning the social good which they are trying to achieve.

Seeing the passion of the Founders made it special enough, but having the opportunity to visit a session in action which took place in a slum, not only really put their venture into perspective, but also the standards of living which some people in India are subjected to.

I don’t throw these types of compliments around often (if ever), but I genuinely believe that Avanti Fellows and the work that they do could change the landscape of education around the world. It was an honour to work with them and it is certainly an organisation which should be looked out for.

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The Indian Adventure: the beginning

Gateway to IndiaHaving had the opportunity to live and work in France and Italy, when I was given the chance by RBS and Birmingham Leadership Foundation to go to India to work with three growing social enterprises as a consultant, I didn’t need to be asked twice!

Arriving at Mumbai International airport following a 10 hour flight via Istanbul – which seemed more like a street market than an airport: people everywhere with no real sense of where anything was – I was initially struck by the humidity. I finally got through immigration and out of the airport at 6am local time, the heat and humidity punching me in the face. It was then that I had my first experience of Indian roads…lunacy! Considering the time, in the UK the roads would be quite empty, not so in India. Cars littered the road and the sound of constant honking was alien to me. I’m told that people drive on the left-hand side of the road in India, although I remain unconvinced. However, I quickly adapted to this element of Indian life, and in fact, it soon became a highlight of my day. Fortunately I had a driver to take me to meetings and other locations; but the thrill of not quite knowing if I would reach my destination was quite exhilarating. Although the accommodation was located in Bandra East, most of our time was spent in Mumbai. I had arrived on a Saturday, so Sunday provided an opportunity to adjust, being given a guided tour of the vast city centre. This also gave me my first taste of the market stalls and bartering culture, something I found incredibly enjoyable.

Monday was the first day with company number one: Under the Mango Tree. They attempted to increase the production of fruit and vegetables for farmers through bee pollination; by selling farmers small bee hives and transforming them into bee keepers. Bees are proven to enhance the growth of fruits and vegetables, thus enhancing revenue for the farmers. Their social mission was clear: enhance food production to reduce hunger in India, a clear problem given the number of people who officially live below the poverty line – roughly 30%, although this is dropping. In order to generate money to support their social mission, they charge farmers for the bee hive units whilst also selling the honey which is produced; although, the bees chosen produce little honey, but are the most efficient in terms of food productivity. They were eager to build brand awareness and ambassadors to spread their word, and after several good sessions working with them, they left with the blueprint for a strategy and I left with a greater understanding of business in India.

This blog is also available on the Kindle Store and you can follow me on Twitter (@benpfsmith) to find out more or get in touch