A low-cost pre-school chain offers hope to rural Karnataka families
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In a classroom fashioned out of a cattle shed in Kyathanahalli, a village off the beaten track 110 km from Bangalore, three-year-old Likhith Gowda reeled off a breathless introduction in near-perfect English — "My name is Likhith Gowda, I am a boy, I study in pre-KG, my teacher's name is Geethanjali, I live in Kyathanahalli."
The toddler then walked to the long blackboard fashioned out of the sides of a cattle-feeding trough and proceeded to point out and recite the days of the week — "Sunday, Monday, Tuesday..." Once done, he headed back to the floor mat littered with Lego bricks in the well-lit shed with walls adorned with colourful charts of fruits, birds, shapes and numbers.
Gowda is one of the 36 students enrolled in the Kyathanahalli branch of Hippocampus Learning Centre, a low-cost pre-school chain in Karnataka. Its 77 branches already make it Karnataka's largest and among India's fastest-growing pre-school chains, with a further 40 pre-schools due to open in the next couple of months. What makes it unique is that its kindergarten centres are in the heart of rural India where children's English rhymes reverberate through the verdant sugarcane fields and tall coconut palms. Its students are the children of cane and sheep farmers, silkworm rearers and rural traders, some of them the first in their families to step inside a school and a majority of them first-generation English learners.
Even more groundbreaking is the fact that the chain is a for-profit social enterprise backed by Rs 7.5 crore venture capital from Acumen Fund, Unitus and Lok Capital, all international funds which finance entrepreneurs building bottom-of-the-pyramid social ventures.
The founder is Umesh Malhotra, 44, an IIT alumnus who was earlier with Infosys and one of the first of a wave of stock option millionaires to leave the outsourcing firm to turn to entrepreneurship. The idea of a rural pre-school chain came to Malhotra, who earlier co-founded and sold an IT infrastructure firm and then launched a library chain (by the same name Hippocampus) and a restaurant business, when he partnered with an NGO to build libraries in rural government schools.
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