This company is tinkering with the educational system of Nepal!

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Challenging the age-old system, a group of engineers, artists, and tinkerers came up with a very innovative and a much-needed idea to change the traditional educational system in Nepal. This group started Karkhana, with the purpose of starting a makerspace. This soon evolved to become a catalyst for the ecosystem that encourages children to experiment, innovate and collaborate, as opposed to the ‘traditional way’ of mugging up their syllabus.

We chatted with Sakar Pudasaini, co-founder of Karkhana, and his team at their office to  and learn about their endeavor of setting up an education company to bring tinkering and experimentation in their students’ childhood

How and when did you start Karkhana?
Back in 2012, Sakar and I were a part of a month-long event where we talked about the need for “makers’ space” in Kathmandu. Parallelly, some other people (named below) who were a part of the Robotics Association Nepal were conducting sessions and events on robotics. We met Sunoj Shrestha, Pavitra Gautam, and Suresh Ghimire at Google Developer Group Bar Camp and we spoke about the possibility of merging. And that is how, together, we came up with Karkhana.

We started out as a product design company but soon realized that mass production was not possible due to lack of automation. Plus, we did not even have the human resources to do it as people lacked the drive or the attitude to do something new. That’s when we realized the need for experimentation and tinkering in the ecosystem! We concluded that the education sector seemed like a large enough space for the sustainability, growth and development of our idea.

How has your journey been in the education sector?
As engineering graduates, we never thought we would be teachers. We faced challenges when interacting with the students because we did not know how to keep their attention and interest. We had no idea about classroom management or how to design lesson plans. To succeed, we had to approach a few mentors for tips.

What kind of reaction did you get when you chose a different career path?
Initially, we were all working for Karkhana on volunteer-basis because we all had the same vision to make this happen.  We had mixed feelings. There was some added pressure from our families to take the conventional path but decided to take that risk.

How did you raise initial capital for the company?
Initially, we had two investors – Sakar and Abhinav.  Sakar is directly involved in daily operations while Abhinav is involved indirectly. They both understood the project and  what we wanted to achieve

For someone who is not from the education sector, how did you design and develop the lesson plan and services that you offer?
We started with classes on robotics. Then we realized we wanted to expand and redesign. So, we started getting experts and professionals from various fields like farming, wildlife etc to come in and share their knowledge. Over a period of time, the classes evolved through the accumulation of ideas.

How did you realize that your product was sellable?
Actually, one passerby found our concept interesting and encouraged us to have a program. He even got his own kid as well as a few others for the after-school program. After that, quite a few more students came in on referral. Then, a few schools heard about us and wanted to collaborate, and they were even willing to pay. That is how we stumbled upon our selling point. We went from 5 students to 3500!

What is the classroom size, fee structure, and duration of your program?
For the ‘Bee Creative’ model, it entirely depends on the school on how they want to implement. For the other model, we limit the number of students to 20.  For the after-school program, we charge anywhere between Rs 1500 to Rs 7000 per month. For the school programs which go on throughout the year, we charge Rs 8500 per year per student.

What kind of reaction did you get from the market?
When we started, everyone was very excited, but soon we understood our limitations. STEM was the hype at that time. We realized that the integration of “arts” in STEM was equally important. That is how we made a pretty good transition from robotics to an integrated STEAM system.

How did you manage capital for day to day operations?
We have been doing projects like SMSkabi, Yantra etc which are very interesting. The organizations we have collaborated with, especially one Danish organization named CKU was so impressed with the work that they offered us seed funding even though we are a “profit-making” organization.

In terms of scaling up, what were the challenges you faced?
Primarily, the biggest challenge we faced was to find good people and good teachers. Also, we follow the national curriculum, schools require 100 percent sign up so it has to be compulsory for everyone. However, some parents are reluctant to even when their children seem very interested. Organizationally, finding the balance between flexibility and setting structure is a challenge for us. Innovation and creativity need flexibility, but growth needs a certain structure – that is our dilemma.

Are you planning to digitalize your education?
We are still experimenting with our online platform, so we plan to have an online as well as a real-life presence. Even if decide to start an online platform, the success of that may depend on the teachers and their ability to utilize the lesson plan and kits we design

What is the employee retention strategy in your company?
We invest a lot in the teachers we bring in. We go beyond grooming; we invest in personal development. We grow our employees as the next generation leaders. One member joined us for her 2 months engagement while on a break from USA and she decided to stay on and continue working with us. To us, that says a lot about the employee retention of the company.

Who are your target customers for the school program?
For now, our main targets are private schools that can afford the program. We also offer our programs to progressive schools that want to see a change in the system of education.

Is the company sustainable?
The growth has been gradual. Now, we are at a phase where we can pay for the teachers. We are still recuperating the losses that we have incurred and haven’t reached the breakeven point yet. But we are on the right path.

What are your immediate future plans?
We are seeing some natural limitation in growth here at Kathmandu. So, one strategy is to move on to more cities. The other strategy is to collaborate with teachers to empower them to run their own classes. This way we can design the lesson and kits for the teachers and the program will be self-sustaining.

Are you in touch with your initial students?
Of course! One of the students was in class 5 when we started and now he is in class 10. The classes are saturated now, so he knows everything. So, he helps us run some student sessions and co-facilitate teacher training sessions,

Do you consider yourself of a social business?
Yes, we do. Schools and other organizations in Nepal are established with the purpose of fixing the floor i.e. just the bare minimum. We, on the other hand, are trying to raise the ceiling – we want to set a benchmark and influence others to do better.

How do you measure the impact of your work?
We measure the impact via the students, students who have become more outspoken, more experimental and more focused on applied learning. We also measure the impact in the form of the visible changes that we have brought about in our interns as well as core team members.

How does it feel now since you have come such a long way?
Our families and friends are less worried, which is a big relief for us. Also, to hear people praise us for the work we do feels really good and satisfying. Now, people know the impact of the work we are doing and that makes us feel like we have accomplished a lot.

Find out more about Karkhana and the services they offer on their website here or email them at info@karkhana.asia and follow their Facebook profile here for more updates.

Interviewed by Jasmin Karmacharya and Thryza Dow