Lockdown Economy Nepal in Education Sector with Pavitra Bahadur Gautam
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Sujan Manandhar
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world. Lockdown Economy Nepal is done in collaboration with the Nepalese Young Entrepreneurs Forum — Kathmandu Chapter.
In this interview, we meet Pavitra Gautam, the Co-Founder and CEO of Karkhana, which is a social enterprise in Nepal. We talked about the problems Karkhana faced during the lockdown. There was a lot of uncertainty regarding how long the lockdown would last. The services of Karkhana are catered to students and some also involved training teachers. But due to the lockdown, the schools were not open. Karkhana had to adopt the digital platform and reengineer their courses so that they could provide them virtually. There was confusion in the initial phase when they implemented this strategy but many students, schools and parents have accepted it today. Mr Gautam talked about expanding these services in the coming months. More stable policies are crucial for local businesses to operate.
Could you tell us when you established your business and what services you provide?
Pavitra Gautam: Let us start with a small history of Karkhana. The word ‘Karkhana’ means factory in Nepali and other local languages in this region. We started in 2012 as a product design company in Nepal to solve local problems. But we soon realized Nepal did not have an ecosystem for that at the time so we pivoted to being a social enterprise that works in education. Now we try to build the ecosystem that we felt was lacking back then. Karkhana designs experiences and lesson plans for young children. These are very hands-on experiential lessons through which they deepen their understanding about science, technology and engineering. Karkhana believes makers of today are shapers of tomorrow. We are supporters of these young children on that journey.
How was your business performing before the pandemic?
Pavitra Gautam: We were about to expand our services. Our services are more than just designing lesson plans. For example, imagine you are learning Geometry in school, you learned it with a paper, a pencil and a ruler. But at Karkhana we teach Geometry with tools and actually cutting things down in triangles and other shapes and connecting them together. Before the pandemic, we were working with around 6000 students and 85 schools all over Nepal. Out of that, the majority of schools were from Kathmandu valley. We were about to add a few more cities but then the pandemic happened. I think the education sector is one of the most affected sectors during this time.
What kind of problems did the lockdown pose at your business?
Pavitra Gautam: I think the pain of the lockdown grew slowly and we adapted to it. If we had known what it would become, we would be more scared and overwhelmed. But when the lockdown started in March, we initially thought it was going to end in a couple of months (maximum of three months). We tried handling it by reducing our cost. We compared the initial phase of the lockdown with the difficulty we had to go through as an organization during the earthquake and economic blockade in 2015. Since then, we have had this mindset of creating a small buffer budget and a crisis plan. So, we were able to handle the situation for about two months. In the initial phases of the lockdown, we started training the teachers to transform their lesson plans into digital format by teaching them how to use digital tools, engage their students virtually and incorporating digital elements to lesson plans. In the first four months, we trained around 2000 teachers through a virtual medium. We were one of the first organizations to do that. But when the lockdown elongated we started to look for other revenue sources as well.
What other strategies did you incorporate to stimulate your revenue?
Pavitra Gautam: Most of our class experience is hands-on and delivered in a physical space. It was one of the biggest challenges we had to overcome. The students needed the materials in their hands. There was a facilitator to help them. When the pandemic happened, it was really difficult for us to rethink the program and deliver it virtually. But after a couple of months of research and development, we re-engineered our program where we sent the learning materials to the students at their home and the lesson was delivered virtually.
What kind of response did you get from your customers to going digital?
Pavitra Gautam: It was very confusing. I think we are in a phase where we have not completely accepted that this is going to be the new normal. But we also know this will go on for some time. There are many highs and lows to delivering the courses online. This is the first time most parents and children are experiencing how remote learning happens. There are many challenges to making distance learning effectively because we have never done it before. Some challenges are very emotional. For example, there are a lot of students who understand that the teacher is trying but do not feel the class environment is the same. There is something missing about this process (going to the canteen and getting a cup tea with your friends, actually making the journey to your school and coming back with them). Taking away the physical classes also took away these elements. Since Dashain and Tihar(major festivals in Nepal) we have seen more students and teachers adapting and accepting this system.
Do you have any competitors in this business?
Pavitra Gautam: We do not have any direct competition. One tricky thing about being in the education sector the way we are is we compete with other extracurricular (dance and music) classes. There are a lot of conversations about making schools realize that our courses are not extracurricular but part of the learning process. In our region, the justification of a good education is the certificate and marks sheets we get. We do not tend to assess our learning through skills and experiences. That is why we tend to compete with a lot of extracurricular activities. The schools have to choose to either allocate the time to dance classes or Karkhana. But for 2 or 3 years now we have seen other organizations working on hands-on learning such as robotics and computing. They are introducing them in schools in an experiential way. In that way, the competition is increasing but it is very indirect and confusing.
The lockdown has been eased in Nepal, how is your business performing in this situation?
Pavitra Gautam: The overall revenue has dropped by 80%-90% whereas the expenses have only come down by 50%. That is the amount of loss we are facing. We are trying to streamline the expenses as much as possible. But we are also trying to continue the flow of the economy. One big challenge I see in the pandemic, not just for us but the economy itself, is when there is a pause in the flow of money, there is a cascading effect in the entire market. When you do not get the money from your clients, you cannot pay your vendors. This chain effect is killing the economy. We cannot spend as much as in the past but we are trying to pay our vendors even if it is a smaller amount. We are trying to scale down the program. That way, it would not be difficult to expand when things are normal. It would be very difficult to kick start things from zero.
What is the outlook for Karkhana for the next three months?
Pavitra Gautam: Before the pandemic, we used to have quarterly and half-yearly plans. Now, we have monthly plans because it is difficult to plan for the long term. We plan to continue our online classes. There are a total of 7–8 schools who are working with us to try this new format. We are also starting programs that directly happen through us where parents can register their children. We are hoping this will help us sustain. In the meantime, we are looking for some policy directives from the Ministry of Education and the local government about how they are planning to reopen the education sector. Today’s Grade 12 exam is a good step but the preparation needs to be more concrete.
What are the 3 things that you need help within your business?
Pavitra Gautam: Just like any other SMEs, we need easy availability for soft loans (loans with low interest). The revenue has gone down and having loans would ease up the difficulty to some extent. Another thing is some kind of support package from the government (tax exemptions or subsidies). The last thing I expect is from the business community. It is an attitude to support each other. I think this is the point where you are not trying to save your shop but the bazaar (market) itself. We can help each other find good talent, transition into other kinds of business or make sure everyone is getting some business (large orders can be spread to other companies). That’s the motto NYEF is also going for as well. That would be the three things.
Pavitra Gautam: Education sector has been very weird. Being part of this sector has made me realize education is very important not just for knowledge but as a skill and attitude as well. I wish everyone to stay safe and healthy.
About the guest
Pavitra Gautam was the kind of kid who would love to experiment and face challenges. The same attitude made him a Programmer, a robot maker, an entrepreneur, and a teacher. He likes to call himself an engineer by education, an entrepreneur by profession, and an educator by passion. He loves to solve problems and work in teams. Being the CEO at Karkhana has given him a chance to convert his passion into his daily life. Through Karkhana he is trying to create a platform that can connect real-life and classroom using maker-based education to create critical learners for the 21st century & impact education the same way. He is also active as an Executive Member of the National Governing Council of Nepalese Young Entrepreneurs Forum. Through NYEF he has been active in growing Nepal’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.