Agastya International: A Success Story for Scaling and Replicating a Social Enterprise

By Birger Stamperdahl, Director of Marketing & Partnerships at Give2Asia

We like success stories at Give2Asia, and one of the bigger success stories we’ve been part of is the Agastya International Foundation. Created in 1999, Agastya has grown to become the largest hands-on science learning program in the world. Now working with millions of children across rural India, the project has attracted international donors and boasts impressive results in its efforts to bring new teaching techniques and more creative practices to India’s education system.

In some communities, India’s educational system is world-class. But as you move out to more rural and poorer communities, the quality of education drops precipitously. Hundreds of millions of disadvantaged children go to village schools where there is a complete absence of educational infrastructure, such as libraries, science labs, books and technology. In addition, often teachers are not properly trained to engage students in ways that are creative, interesting, and fun. Success ends up depending on what you are able to read, and what you are able to repeat during an exam.

Agastya’s approach has been to propagate innovate, hands-on teaching techniques to rural communities. A primary tool in their work is a fleet of mobile science labs with trainers who engage students in experiments and help introduce new teaching methods to rural teachers.

Earlier this month, I had an opportunity to sit down with Agastya’s founder Ramji Ragahavan to discuss how his organization has maintained its success. His observations and experience are helpful in understanding how to scale up a social enterprise and keep it successful.


G2A: Engaging young children in science education across rural India and having a national impact seems like a daunting task especially for an organization just starting out. Do you start out thinking about the 200 million children you wish to reach, or do you start out with a smaller scope and expand?

R. Ragahavan: When we started Agastya, we were not looking at it in terms of transforming education for 200 million children. We said, however, that we have a dream: We want to help catalyze the system so that India becomes a creative nation. We said, whatever we design, let it be such that it can be scaled up. Let’s think big.

With that in mind, we started a 200-acre campus. Now there aren’t that many groups who can start an initiative with a 200-acre campus, but we had that sort of vision because we wanted to do something in ecology. So the design principles in the early years were very much geared towards creating a large footprint, but we were not too specific.

As the years went by, we had to sharpen our pencils and say, “How many children have we reached? How many children can a mobile lab reach? How many children are there in each district? How many children are there in India, and can this be done?”

In the early days I said we should just put a number up on the wall and try to bring our learning methods to 50 million children. And then later on it turned out that 50 million was a quarter of the total target audience, which seemed like a reasonable number to aim for if you want to see second and third-order effects happen.

If you are going to reach 200 million people you’ve got to:

1. Have scalable, replicable programs

2. Create a certain critical mass that is visible. Policymakers have to come and physically see a mobile lab and tens of thousands of children engaging, and learning and getting really curious. Because the mobile labs go around the country and see millions of kids, you’ve got to relate to that image. You’ve got to project that through films, through visits, and so on.

3. Engage the government, because no private initiative is going to let you reach that sort of number in any reasonable timeframe.

G2A: Agastya has become a much larger organization in the last 10 years. You have 400 employees in India. There must be inherent challenges in keeping the momentum and maintaining the level of impact you have in rural communities.

R. Ragahavan: Training the teachers becomes very important, keeping a focus on quality and making sure they are energetic and enthusiastic. Of our total staff, about 250 are engaged in teaching day in and day out. So one of the key challenges for us is replicating this work that we’ve done and to be able to clone those 250, because they are the ones that actually deliver the service.

I keep on mentioning that the most important qualification to join Agastya is the BEE Degree. And most people can’t figure out what it means, except some people say “Is it a Bachelors of Electrical Engineering?” Its actually a bachelors of energy and enthusiasm. We seek people of that ilk.

G2A: I imagine you must also be thoughtful about the kinds of new projects you take on and how and where to expand.

R. Ragahavan: We have had a very strong bias for action. So we’ve tended to follow the principle – at least in the initial years – of “Ready, Fire, Aim”. Now the natural tendency as the numbers increase and as the money increases is to become more cautious. You tend to analyze, you tend to look at all the downsides and pitfalls and so on. All of that is important, because you can’t be a wild dream – you’ve got to have your feet on the ground. But we’ve got to retain our capacity to take risks: Think boldly and act boldly; think differently and act differently. That has been one of the reasons for Agastya’s success.

G2A: So what kinds of questions do you ask yourself as you expand the organization?

R. Ragahavan: When we look at a new project, we are asking the following sorts of questions:
1. Is the context of the new project so different from our existing context that its going to be very difficult to replicate, so that we’re going to have to adapt and adjust like crazy? That’s going to take time and effort. Or is it similar to our existing context, so its much easier to transplant our ideas?

2. What’s the availability of local human resources in that area? As I said, the teachers are the key, so are there enough people with the BEE qualification that we can then train and develop?

3. How supportive is the government? Is the local government interested in our program? Will they support it over a number of years?

4. Can we find local parties to partly fund these programs, so that there is local equity and local buy-in for the programs?

These are the sorts of criteria one looks at in terms of taking on projects incrementally and replicating the model. We’ve executed perhaps 200 projects over the past several years, of which 55% have been successfully rolled out, and the majority of the rest are in different stages of being rolled out. So we’ve had a high success ratio and this will only happen if are willing to try things out and enjoy the process of doing that. That’s critical.

G2A: And what are the next steps for Agastya’s expansion?

R. Ragahavan: India has 25 or 26 states, and we have been working full-time in two states and peripherally in three-to-four more. Our sense is that we should be moving to another five or six states over the next couple of years so that we are much more visible on a national basis, and doing it geographically so that we are also in the North, East and West, and the center of India: maybe we’ll select a state from each region.

G2A: What are the signs that you’ve reached a pinnacle or reached your potential as an organization?

R. Ragahavan: If the people at the top get satisfied, if they say, “Ah, we were a one-man outfit and now we are 400, and we are recognized nationally and we have some name internationally. We are it, and we’ve made it”; then that’s the beginning of decline. There has got to be a continuous hunger – a restlessness – and a dissatisfaction of where you are. You have to feel that this just isn’t it, and that there is a lot more that can be done.

Fortunately for us, in the context that we are in – in India – the needs are huge and we can make no claim that we are anywhere near fulfilling the needs of our target audience. So retain the hunger, and retain the drive, and retain the energy and enthusiasm to take on new projects and make sure that they work effectively.

G2A: What about measuring the impact of Agastya’s work. What are the ways in which you do this?

R. Ragahavan: Measuring the impact of our work is not easy. Our mission is to spark curiosity, and as somebody asked me once, “How do you measure curiosity?” We use a whole bunch of different metrics. Some that are more input-oriented and some that are more output-oriented.

Some examples of input-oriented measures are:

- How many children have we touched: I think the number today is 5 million, which is quite a lot but still a long way from our 50 million goal. We’ve reached 5 million children, maybe about 150,000 teachers.

- We’ve built an infrastructure because as we were building this we said we have to have about 30-40 mobile labs. We have now about 45 mobile labs, 27 or 28 mini-science centers. The campus is a truly impressive place. People have come from all over the world and said that it is fantastic.

So at a physical level, we are very visible and fully engaged with communities. And those are all inputs that go into it, and they are terribly important. They are particularly important if you assume that the quality of the input you are providing is highly appreciated, relevant, and meaningful.

And then there are output measures. What impact are you having directly on children? We interview children all the time, and we get the following sorts of responses: “The impact Agastya has had on me is that I’m no longer afraid to speak. So how do you measure that?” This is something that a girl called Uma told me a few years ago. And I validated that with her teachers, and they said yes indeed, she’s a different person all together. So about six months ago I went back to my head of the campus and I asked, “So what’s Uma doing?” It turns out that she got 87% at school. She became the first girl to join engineering college from her village. Her example inspired many other classmates of hers to also join college. And we are now helping her with her college tuition fees.

Like Uma, there have been hundreds of cases of children who have been exposed to Agastya, who went through some kind of inner behavioral transformation, and that improvement in motivation led to higher grades, and higher levels of aspiration going into college.

Then we’ve had examples of village children who have actually made it to the final round of the Intel National Science Fair competitions in India. And they’ve come from Agastya. In fact, Agastya has been the one organization to send the most number of poor rural students to participate in these competitions. In 2008, two children from Agastya won awards.

One of our other goals is to prod the system to change. There what you are really looking for is government – senior government officials and policymakers – saying, “You know, what Agastya is doing really makes sense. Let’s adopt that model” or “Let’s give Agastya a bigger canvas to paint on so that more people can benefit from Agastya’s learning methods.” Getting the system to break out of its inertia and lethargy.

There what we’ve seen is that the government of Karnataka has adopted our program wholesale. They are going into a very large expansion, creating a whole ecosystem for hands-on science education unlike anything any other state in the country has done in India – perhaps many other parts of the world. So that’s quite unprecedented.

Secondly, the President’s national education knowledge commission came and saw our work. They were looking for out-of-the-box ideas. They went back and said, “You know, we really must find ways of enabling Agastya to expand its model nationwide.”

So systemic breakout, influencing policymakers, infiltrating your doctrine are critical objectives, and as I’ve said I think that is happening at different levels, at different speeds in different parts of India.