24 Good Businesses 2012

A window to the villages

Rose Academy is bridging the digital divide by imparting computer  education to rural youth

In Gurgaon, National Highway 8 is not just a road. It is for all practical purposes the line that separates Bharat from India. If you are coming from Delhi, your left hand side could be, for a moment, mistaken for the business centre of any great city in the world – all shiny chrome and reflective glass. On the right, lies what is respectfully called Old Gurgaon, a semi-rural region of unpaved roads occupied by farmers and their livestock.In what is perhaps the definitive indicator of the “non-inclusive” growth of our economy, while the left side is populated by people working for IBM, Oracle and Dell, on the right side, even as late as 2006, there wasn’t a computer academy where people could go and learn the basics of operating this modern necessity. 

Amit Kataria, 25, was born in Choma village on the right side of the highway. He studied at the local primary school. However, the nearest secondary school was about three kilometers away. Kataria is afflicted by polio and walks with the aid of crutches. His parents, both farmers, did not have the means to drop him and pick him up from school.

So Kataria was sent to an aunt who lived in Delhi where he continued his education and returned after his graduation. “I came back to Choma during my final year of graduation and was shocked at how there was no facility for any computer education,” Kataria says. Even though his aunt was only about 40 kilometres away, Choma and New Delhi were two entirely different worlds. 

Kataria then resolved that he wanted to do something towards the development of his community. He drew up a curriculum and approached his alma mater — the primary school. The head mistress was pleased with his plan, and he started collecting signatures from parents in the area. He then took the proposal to the district education officer who almost instantly rejected the idea. 

 New windows

Refusing to give up, he decided to set up his own training academy. Back in 2006, the Katarias had shifted to another house and the earlier one was decrepit but vacant. He decided to fix that old house, a contractor promptly handed him a ₹2.6 lakh repair estimate.

Kataria asked his father for money, but was told to wait until his sister’s wedding. Unwilling to wait, Kataria started tutoring students to make money. He borrowed #1 lakh from a cousin and with a corpus of about₹1.3 lakh started the renovation. 

In 2007, Rose Computer Academy opened its doors with 65 Choma-based students on its rolls. The courses varied from one to six months and the fee was as little as ₹25 a month, depending on the course. He named it Rose — an acronym for Rural Organisation for Social Empowerment. When it started, the academy had three computers. As inflows began, Kataria used that money to buy more. In 2008, Kataria won ₹80,000 in the ICT Business Plan Award, which was invested in the business too. He also upped his fee to ₹600-3,000 depending on the course. 

So far, Rose has trained about 5,000 people in the basic use of computers. It has three other centres — in Islampur, Mullahera and Rajendra Park, all of them catering to clusters of 10 villages. It employs nine people of whom six are teachers and the rest help with support functions like accounting. The students range from four to 81 years old. Some of the former students are employed as data entry operators or call centre executives in companies like Wipro, Airtel and Aegis and earn anywhere between ₹4,000 and ₹15,000.

Although the academy does not guarantee placements, its alumni network informs new graduates about possible opportunities. The fact that it has changed the life of its students is indisputable. Two years ago, Oqaiss Alam, 22, did a basic IT course, which he liked, and he followed it up with one on graphic design. He spent about six months and ₹8,000. Armed with these skills, he decided to start a photo studio. He sells computer-generated prints and earns between ₹10,000 and 15,000 per month. “To do this course in NIIT or other large centres would have cost me about 10 times the amount,” Alam says.

Spreading cheer

Rose also plays an important role in bridging the gender gap in education. This year, about 80% of its students are girls. “The problem is in changing the mindset. In villages, they won’t usually let girls study.

But when they see one girl doing the course and learning new things, then their resistance decreases,” says Kataria. One of them who stepped out and tried was Sonal Anjirwal. The 20-year-old who lives in Choma came to Rose as a student and learned the basics of computing. She then did an advanced course.

Today, she is a teacher at the academy, training students in both typing and computer skills. “When I finished my course, I was offered a job here and since this was a place full of familiar people, it was easy to convince my family,” she says.

Though Rose had revenues of about ₹5.5 lakh in FY12, it is yet to breakeven.  This year, in anticipation of some lucrative tie-ups with schools, Kataria is projecting revenues of ₹10 lakh. Kataria’s dream is to open another 350 centres in Haryana over the next five years but his biggest challenge is raising the required funds. Kataria requires funding worth₹25-30 lakh to carry out the expansion he has planned for the next couple of years. The other challenge is sourcing teachers. It currently takes him about a year to train a potential teacher even with the help of the NIIT Foundation. 

For now, it seems the fragrance of Rose is spreading. Pradeep Yadav, 20, did a basic computer course a few years ago. Today, he works in the fire department and even though his job does not require the use of computers, the internet has opened up a whole new world for him. “I have taught my family to surf the web and our dreams have gotten bigger,” he says, “and that is very important to be successful in life.” Although it is a little drop in the ocean right now, Rose is certainly bringing the right side of the highway closer to the left.