When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal on April 25, 2015, the learning was interrupted everywhere; broken chairs and tables were strewn across classrooms and school buildings. The aftermath, lots of kids, especially those from rural areas, stopped going back to schools and the ones that did were compelled to study without a proper study space to read and write. That is when Educase came in, an innovative product that acts as both a desk and a backpack for the students.
An idea generated during college days by Vedika Murarka, Neha Ahmed and some of their other team mates has now made things easier for school children and their parents. Educase, a backpack that can be easily turned into a study desk creating a classroom everywhere and anywhere. And the most interesting part, by collaborating with other organizations, Educases are being distributed to the students free of cost across the country with plans of reaching out to other nations facing the similar problem.
Read our conversation with Vedika, one of the co-founder to understand their innovative business model as well as their unique products!
How did the concept of Educase come about?
Actually there is a really interesting story behind the ideation of Educase. The concept of Educase came about during a university project where we were required to come up with a business plan. We had a team of 5 people and all 5 of us came from 5 different countries, me from Nepal, Neha the co-founder of Educase, from Pakistan and 3 other members from Singapore, Nigeria and Cyprus. With the diversity there came diverse ideas but there was a common ground for 5 of us- we wanted to come up with something that was not only limited to doing business and earning a profit. We wanted to come up with a business model that created an impact. We were now somewhat clear of what we wanted, so now we started looking for a problem and that is where we found another common area- Education. No matter how developed or underdeveloped a nation is, there is always a group that lacks the basics and honestly the most important prerequisite when it comes to quality education.
Now we were a step ahead, we knew what we wanted and also the area we wanted to work in. The next step for us was to work on how to create an impact in the area of education. That’s when we started thinking about creating a portable and affordable desk for students, a basic necessity that is often overlooked.
How did you actually implement this concept initially? What was it like?
The implementation part is always tough and so was for us. When we first came up with the idea, we had targeted the college students as we had personal experience. Slowly we started exploring and studying our target audience and finally came up with the conclusion that rather than grown ups, our product would be more helpful for younger students and those studying at public schools where a basic study desk is not available.
Also, our college held a small competition and fortunately our project was declared the winner and we received a lot of feedback as well as some seed money which was a sign for us that it was the right time to implement our business idea!
What exactly is Educase and how is it operating as of now?
Educase is simply a backpack or a school bag which folds into a desk allowing students to study, read and write anywhere anytime. It gives students a personal study space at school and at home. Like I said it is primarily targeted towards children who are not privileged enough to have a basic study table. As of now Educase is available only in Nepal but we have the vision of making it available across South Asia.
Like any other backpack Educase is not available everywhere, so how have you been reaching out to these children, communities and public schools?
Actually we wanted to make sure that the students got the bags for free. But since we are a startup and we need to sustain that has not been possible directly from our side. So, what we have been doing is we reach out to organizations that supply school stationeries to public schools either as a part of their CSR or as a core activity. We also partner with NGOs and INGOs for this. This is how we have been reaching out to communities and public schools and making sure that the students get the backpack free of cost. We did a pilot test in a school located here in Kathmandu. But since then our backpacks have reached Nagarkot, Tulsipur, Dang and so on all through the partner organizations.
The organization distributes the backpack so how do you make sure the impact you are trying to create is achieved?
We actually make sure that we are in contact with at least one teacher from each school that our partner organizations support. This not only allows us to keep track of the impact we are trying to create but also acts as a medium for us to get meaningful feedback on our backpacks as well as help the students and teachers if they have problems using them.
Moreover, we have been really lucky in terms of the partners too. Majority of the organizations that we have partnered with work in the area of education, so our values sort of align for instance Changing Stories and Kids of Kathmandu to name a few. So, they too are operating with the motive of creating an impact.
All in all, I think mostly exchanging close contact with the schools and with the organizations provides us the assurance that the impact we are trying to make is being worked upon.
How do you manage the funds to manufacture the backpacks?
We actually sell the backpacks to the organizations and they distribute them for free. So, the money generated from the sales is used for the production and operations.
Where are they manufactured?
Every backpack is manufactured here in Nepal using the local resources which is also one of the reasons why it is currently available only here in Nepal. The production takes place in Kathmandu, we collaborate with the manufacturers and the suppliers here. We wanted to make sure that along with Educase’s impact on students, we also helped the local economy in some way.
Since your product is new as well as innovative, how did the local manufacturer take it? Was it difficult for you to explain the product to the manufacturers?
The designing process for the product was done in London, since we attended university there. So, we were really nervous when discussing it with the manufacturers here in Nepal. We simply asked them to try out the designs and not worry about things going wrong. But honestly speaking, they made the backpacks even better which I hadn’t expected. So we were in cloud nine, happy and impressed. I think the best part here is if you give the makers a prototype sample, they easily understand it even without a detailed fabrication, that the manufacturers outside require. So, explaining the product and getting what we were looking for wasn’t a problem at all, for which I am really grateful.
What about the organizations? How did they react when you pitch about Educase and them buying products from you and giving it out free of cost?
Luckily it wasn’t too bad because we had spent a lot of time designing the bags that are unique but seem familiar in terms of appearance. Also, before connecting to the organizations, we initially pilot tested the backpacks in a school located in Kathmandu. We distributed some bags free of cost and asked both the teachers as well as students to give us feedback which honestly helped a lot. After having confirmed everything from durability, usability, comfort and easiness, we finally approached the organizations, so they took it really positively.
Who are your allies in running Educase?
It’s Neha and me for now because we believe that in the initial days we need to be able to do things ourselves rather than depending on someone else. So we have been doing everything on our own from website building to social media marketing and so on.
What were the major challenges you faced when you started out and what are the challenges you are facing currently?
Neha and I live miles away from each other, we have a total 6 hours time difference. So, working together on a social business was very tough. But again since we had experience working together, we knew where we complemented each other, which made things somewhat easier regardless of the long distance working. Along with this, for me personally having stayed outside Nepal for almost 13 to 15 years, understanding the Nepali work culture, the system and everything was a big challenge.
Talking about the current challenges, the majority of them are due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our product is really unique and also new to the market. So, making the organization understand and pitching the idea of collaboration is really tough and COVID has made it more difficult as I cannot personally meet them to demonstrate the product in person.
What are the future plans for Educase?
Upcoming immediate plans would be to expand our reach to other regions. Currently, a lot of our products are going to familiar and popular locations. But we also want to expand to remote areas like North of Nepal and the mountains regions. We have been in talks with the organizations regarding this.
Similarly along with reaching remote areas our vision is also to increase girls involvement in education. We want to bring schools closer to them in instances where they are not able to attend one. Moreover, we will also go global, mainly countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh as they face the same problem in regards to education as here.
How has this journey been so far? What changes have you seen yourself after being a social entrepreneur?
This journey has been full of learnings and self growth. I have learned to work in a way that creates a win-win situation for all the parties involved. Similarly, before starting Educase I always found reaching out to people difficult, giving them a call and pitching the idea. But being a social entrepreneur has helped me bring out the confidence that was hidden within me. Also, Neha and I have also become more thick skinned now, a bad review or a simple product defect does not demotivate us. Rather we support and motivate one another. In general, when you start interacting with lots of people, you learn a lot and doing everything yourself is a game changer. If I hadn’t taken things on my own hand, I would have never known how to register a company, or even use a software like photoshop. So, yes this journey has been amazing, better than what I had imagined, full of growth and development at both personal and professional level.