The world transforms life with a story. That’s the reason we are sharing the success stories of entrepreneurs across India who aim to transform their communities through business.

We learned about Locus Learning Academy through LinkedIn; and they aim to:

Provide a strong learning foundation to rural students through innovative learning tools and methodologies at an extremely affordable cost and thus adding value to the Human Resource capital of India.”

We have with us Mr. Manish Saini to share his journey with the Locus Academy.

  1. Give us a brief about you, your team, and your startup.

Manish Saini: An IIM Indore Alumni, worked with many organizations such as Infosys, eYantra Industries, Staples Future Office Products Pvt Ltd. After quitting the job, with an immense passion for education, Manish handles the curriculum development, recruitment and training, and New Center Development for Locus.

Preeti Saini: Completed her Masters in Mass Communication. With a pulse of rural Psychology, her experience is an asset. She works with the school staff to ensure that the concept of Locus is promoted to the last person in the village with an equivocal passion. She ensures the management of all the centers which are currently in pilot and strives to achieve operational breakeven.

About – The Locus Learning Academy

It is a remarkable journey of the first 2000 days from a single cell to that of a child going off to school for the first day ready to take on the world.  What research tells us is that a child is born with almost all the brain cells – the neurons that one is going to have. What science reveals is that the basic architectural plan that specifies this development is contained within the DNA of that single cell and it tells them is to reach out and connect to each other. More than 85% of the connections we use during our lifetime are formed by the age of 6 years i.e. during the journey of those 2000 days.

The utilization of the critical windows of brain development during these years by providing an optimum environment can result in the development of positive neuron connections. The scientists have found a positive connection between very young children who are properly stimulated during this age to their doing well in school later. An optimum environment which provides positive stimulation to the brain has the capability to modify the genetic blueprint of the child positively.  And there is strong data to prove that in some cases that marking on the DNA can be passed on to future generations resulting in trans-generational impacts.

But in India, we lose these important years of almost 75% of our children who are residing in the villages of India because the government schools don’t have a pre-primary education program. All children are enrolled in schools only at the age of 5-6 years.

The Locus team, in consultation with leading educationists, designed and created a project to take the pre-school education to the children who need it the most and at a cost which the majority of the parents in a rural area can afford (800 out of every 1000 families in the village).

With our aim to improve the access to quality pre-primary education in the rural sector by making it more affordable, the solution was designed with two important features –

  1. The school acts as an independent and autonomous unit with Teachers recruited from the village community and trained by the Locus trainers.
  2. The school works at an extremely low-cost basic infrastructure to provide affordable education to the children and thus the focus is only on the quality of education dissemination.

Because we keep our input costs extremely low, we are able to charge a monthly fee which is not more than 2 day’s minimum labor wage in India.

Over and above this we maintain an international standard of Pupil-teacher ratio of 20 to ensure individual attention to each child and thus provide the best possible education. The medium of instruction is dual -Vernacular and English. The pedagogy used is a combination of the best practices used across the world but the key focus is kept on the learning through play. And the whole curriculum is designed around it.

  1. What is the story behind your Startup?

With my father having a transferrable Job, I had the opportunity to move around the country and meet a lot of people. During the final leg of my father’s career, we spent a good amount of time living in a village near Hoshiarpur. Hoshiarpur is a very small city, we were not able to find a house for rent and we stayed at my mother’s ancestral home for over 4 years in the village.

It gave me a great opportunity to learn about our countryside. I volunteered in many social activities during that tenure within the village. One of those being acting as a Chowkidaar along with other young boys to protect the village from the attack of a gang of thieves which was pretty active during those days.

I went on to make my career after my Engineering and pursued MBA from IIM Indore. The passion to learn new things took me to build a startup with a couple of my friends called eYantra Industries. After building a scalable business, I moved on to head the operations of a Fortune 100 company in India – Staples Inc.

But during all those times, I always felt privileged for getting all these opportunities that my friends and peers who lived in the villages could not avail. My exposure helped me understand that education is the key to provide a level playing field for children in rural areas.

I started exploring the education sector more in detail in the year 2013 and met a lot of experts and entrepreneurs across the country. Discussed the problems, read reports by experts, and created my own detailed analysis of the education Problem. Once I had a good understanding from the higher level, I decided it was time to dive deeper into the sector and put the thoughts to action.

In 2016, I along with my wife moved out of Mumbai where I was working with Staples Inc and decided to start our venture from the same village where I had lived for 4 years. It took us almost a year to get off the ground but we have been able to successfully build a chain of low-cost rural preschools now which have impacted more than 1000 families till now.

  1. When did you start? How has been the journey so far?

We started in the year 2015 when we conducted detailed ground research and started running tuitions for kids from the age of 10 to 18 years in various villages. We continued this till over the next one and a half years to gauge the problem first hand and create awareness among the villages.

We launched the first pilot in the year 2017 beginning with just 6 kids. Since then we have taken this project to 5 different villages and are currently expanding in the nearby areas. In these 3 years, we have been able to make an impact on over 1000 families across these 5 villages.

  1. How did you fund your startup? Also, list out if you have raised any funding so far.

The funding to date has been done through the savings we had gathered through my professional career. We have had got an approval of utilizing Rs 15 Lacs for setting up 10 schools under the Standup India scheme but have not utilized it yet. We intend to do it as soon as the pandemic is over.

  1. How has the business scaled in the last one year? Please support with numbers, if possible.

Over the past year, we have scaled from 3 schools to 6 and have closed down one school which was unviable. From a strength of 125 children, we have gone to a strength of 200 kids studying across these 5 schools now.

  1. How do you differentiate from your competitors?

While efforts in all areas are necessary to have our dreams fulfilled, our research threw up a unique problem hidden away from many research studies and an area that has been ignored for a long time.

75% of our children still reside in rural India. And a revolution of the nature we envision would need this rural India to rise. A closer look at our education infrastructure and policies reveals that the children in rural India normally start their education at the age of 5 or 6 years while a child in an urban area started it at the age of 2-3 years. When both of them start their primary education, the Urban Child has a critical 3-year head start after attending a pre-primary education program.

The curriculum and assessment methods used for children in rural areas are not different from urban area schools. And because we don’t have different boards for rural and urban areas, both these sets of students have to cross the finish line together. As the curriculum picks pace, the combination of all the unsolved problems of the Indian Education system listed earlier strikes the rural kids harder for they already lag behind by 3 years of schooling and education. This child from the rural areas thus falls into a vortex of pressure – failure – lack of motivation – pressure – failure – lack of motivation and finally loses his way in this conundrum.

The government can do only as much, for it is constrained of resources and has to deal with critical problems like malnutrition and stunting for this age group through their vast network of Aganwaddis (early childhood care centers). Education for this age group is still not on the priority list. And let us be honest with only 1% of the education budget allocated to Aganwaddis, it would never be.

Parents in rural India thus currently have no option of pre-schooling their children except for sending them to private schools where the cost of transportation is higher than the cost of education. Merely 10% of them who can afford to send their children to private schools while the rest are completely devoid of an early childhood Education Program.

The Pilot phase is now over and the project shall be expanded to all the districts of Punjab (Indian State in the North) in the next 5 years (Phase II) thus covering more than 500 villages and small towns. We intend to follow a cluster strategy where we shall identify suitable 10-12 villages within a radius of 15-20 Kms and appoint a cluster head who shall be responsible for identifying locations, developing, and running them. Every district would have some 7 to 10 such clusters.

Punjab has 22 districts and the almost the same number of districts is there in the adjoining states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. During this phase, the base shall be shifted to the city of “Chandigarh” and a simultaneous pilot would be started in the state of Haryana as well as Himachal. Subsequently (Phase III) the expansion of this model will follow through to these 2 states. To cover the whole of the 3 states completely, an estimated time of 10-12 years would be required. These 3 states would together give an opportunity to open up more than 2000 pre-schools with an enrollment of approximately 100,000 children.

During this phase, the yearly revenue shall inch towards an estimate of Rs 700 million. The total investment by the end of this phase is estimated to be approximately Rs 300 million and a working capital requirement of approximately Rs 40 million. The target of profitability would be to earn Rs 150 million per annum by the end of this phase.

Differentiation

  • Low Cost – With a focus to impart quality education at 15% of the urban private school cost, Locus has created centers that are complete frills-free but output focused.
  • Community Driven and Focused – Every center is focused on a village community and the children and teachers all come from the same. The child spends more time in school than traveling from home to school and vice versa. This also helps, in turn, reduce the overall cost of education of a child.
  • Well Researched Curriculum – The latest developments in neuroscience are being closely tracked by the expert team at Locus, and the curriculum is regularly updated which brings these researches to the classroom practice.
  • Pedagogy – Neuro-education as a discipline follows a pedagogy that combines the psychological understanding of a child with his brain development. This discipline demands a very low pupil-teacher ratio (PTR). With a PTR of 20:1, the locus team gives an utmost focus on individual education and learning.
  • Teacher Training – Locus is building a training culture where every on-field teacher has 1 full day of training for 6 days of work. This translates into 250 hours of annual training for the Locus teachers.
  • Assessment – The Locus team uses a skill-based international assessment method to continuously evaluate its students and recalibrate the curriculum according to personal needs.
  • Technology – Technology is the backbone of the whole of our research, development, and delivery method. We have recently introduced smart classes whose impact has been phenomenal. Simultaneously we tied up within for their mobile gaming solution for personalized learning. All this technology has been sourced at an extremely low cost which fits into the business model of Locus.

7. What impact has your product/service created in society?

With a low-cost pre-primary education, we induce a learning momentum within a child that it carries with him/her to their next class. Whether the children join a government or a private school, this momentum has enough capacity to pull the child through her initial years of education without building too much pressure on them. This result has been vindicated by many studies including the 2007 paper by Caroline Arnold (Is Everybody ready?) and the 2003 paper by ArdianaJarmillo and Alain Mingat which studied data from 133 countries.

According to Nobel Laureate economist, James Heckman, “Early interventions for disadvantaged children are more economically efficient and produce higher returns than remedial programs. High-quality early childhood education can offer one of the highest returns of investment (Upto $9 for every Dollar spent). These savings come in the form of fewer students dropping out or getting involved in crime and more completing their high school and college and earning higher salaries in their careers.

The project thus intends to attack at the core of the problem of Indian Education i.e. to reduce the dropout rate and thus increasing the average school years per person. The increased number of years in school has a direct impact on the earning capacity of a person (which is well researched and documented) and thus the probability of these children pulling their family out of the low-income cycle increases multifold.

  1. What have been the key challenges so far?

Most of the initial challenges from cost reduction, fee elasticity, curriculum customization, Anganwadi’s revolt against our centers, recruitment, etc have been surmounted and a lot of processes created around them.

The only challenge which we are still working to resolve is an extremely high trust deficit in the NRI population of Punjab. Every village has approximately 10-12% of empty houses. This NRI population owns almost 80% of these empty houses. But they are not willing to rent these houses even if it means keeping them locked for 5-10 years in a row. The reason for this has been that historically, the friends and Family of many NRIs have taken over the empty properties and the property dispute takes away a lot from them.

Because of this, our probability of finding a suitable location for preschool has reduced and we are trying to resolve this challenge.

  1. How did you overcome/handle the problems/challenges faced?

The three more important things which I have learned from my over 14 years of professional career has helped me overcome any problem or challenge I have faced till now (in the order of priority) –

1. People – Building a business is not an individual skill, it’s a team game. And the team is as strong as its weakest member. A carefully selected team shall ensure that the business idea is not only implemented as envisioned but would be the only difference between you and your closest competitor.

2. Execution – A great plan on paper is worth nothing until it’s implemented as envisioned. Great execution can even make an elephant dance. 

3. An eye for Detail – Steve Job’s eye for detail is a legend now and I cannot stress any more than it has been by the great man himself. A social entrepreneur’s responsibility towards the success of the project is much higher than a business entrepreneur for a lot of lives may depend upon him/her. An entrepreneur’s detail-orientation would not only ensure that all the weak areas are rectified, but could turn out to be a life-saving skill in many cases.

With more than 14 years of experience in operations and with fortune 100 firms like Staples, I have not only learned but imbibed these 3 skills. This has given me the confidence to take on one of the least tackled and the most severe problem which is currently faced by the Indian Education System.

  1. How did you build your team and how do you ensure they are aligned to the vision?

The two co-founders, I and Preeti are partners in personal life too. We not only have very complementary skills but also understand the problem in depth. Preeti’s upbringing in a humble background and her struggle to get herself educated is the strength that keeps this team going. The most important component of our team is the school leaders.

Interestingly Punjab has a relatively high literacy rate for women in rural areas i.e. 66% but there are almost negligible opportunities for them in the villages to utilize their knowledge and skills. We, therefore, focus on building our team comprising of women of the village in which we are operating. The school leaders we have are not only graduates but Postgraduates. Some of them have had prior teaching experience in private schools before their marriage.

Because all these women had gone through the same problem which we are trying to resolve, they are able to connect better to our vision and mission.

  1. How has COVID 19 affected your business and what measures are you taking to tackle the situation?

Because we are working in rural areas and with the bottom of the pyramid, the effect of COVID 19 has been relatively higher as parents are not able to afford even a fee of Rs 350 now. But we also believe that as the dust starts to settle, our school would stand to gain more students as parents would not be able to afford the high fee schools in which they were sending their kids till now. Also as our schools work in a closely-knit community, the parents would also be carefree sending their kids to a school within the village than sending them out of the village.

  1. What keeps you going?

When we started off, the first year was really tough as there was no visibility of our impact, but soon, the word spread and we started gaining more students. Parents started getting back to us with a lot of stories as to how their kids are better at learning than their other private school kids. We soon started getting feedback from the government schools that our kids were making other kids perform better and the teachers were now able to engage the class better. Feedbacks like these keep us going day after day and month after month.

  1. What are your future plans?

The Pilot phase is now over and the project shall be expanded to all the districts of Punjab (Indian State in the North) in the next 5 years (Phase II) thus covering more than 500 villages and small towns. We intend to follow a cluster strategy where we shall identify suitable 10-12 villages within a radius of 15-20 Kms and appoint a cluster head who shall be responsible for identifying locations, developing, and running them. Every district would have some 7 to 10 such clusters.

Punjab has 22 districts and almost the same number of districts is there in the adjoining states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. During this phase, the base shall be shifted to the city of “Chandigarh” and a simultaneous pilot would be started in the state of Haryana as well as Himachal. Subsequently (Phase III) the expansion of this model will follow through to these 2 states. To cover the whole of the 3 states completely, an estimated time of 10-12 years would be required. These 3 states would together give an opportunity to open up more than 2000 pre-schools with an enrollment of approximately 100,000 children.

During this phase, the yearly revenue shall inch towards an estimate of Rs 700 million. The total investment by the end of this phase is estimated to be approximately Rs 300 million and a working capital requirement of approximately Rs 40 million. The target of profitability would be to earn Rs 150 million per annum by the end of this phase.

  1. Message for the Young Entrepreneurs.

Youngsters have a lot of desires for we are a society with heavy consumerism. I only wish to reiterate a fact shared with me by a fellow entrepreneur. In reality, EMI means “Entrepreneurship MaarneKaa Injection”.

Whatever you do in your life, try not to get caught in the EMI spiral for it would make it impossible for you to even think of starting something of your own. And don’t wait for an idea to come or money to be in the Pocket. Just do what you can, where you are, and with what you have!

We thank Mr. Manish Saini for taking some time out for the interview and sharing his experience with us.