A school with a social vision of creating socially responsible citizens, Vajra Academy is one of its kind in the education industry of Nepal. It’s a Green School that has a clear vision in contributing to environmental conservation and is situated in a beautiful semi-urban location in Jharuwarasi near the Bajrabarahi Temple. In a conversation with Mr. Udit Bhatta, the principal of Vajra academy and one of the directors of the school’s governing council:
1. Tell us about your journey of starting your venture. When did it start?
Vajra Academy was conceptualized 5 years prior to its establishment in 2007 by two visionaries- Mr. Ramkaji Paudel and Drs. Maarten Olthof. We underwent research to look for suitable places that were closer to nature and matched our curriculum.
We did feasibility studies where we researched about different existing schools in and near Kathmandu. During the 5-year ideation phase, we looked up at the infrastructural aspect of schools to come up with the best designs, infrastructure, and technology to incorporate in the school.
2. How did you raise funds for your company?
Vajra Academy’s history starts from Vajra Foundation which had already worked for about a decade in the education sector and solar power. The NGO model wasn’t self-sustainable so that’s when they ideated a project that could sustain on its own and also continue to contribute to social projects. As such, 75% of the investment was done by Vajra Foundation and 25% by the two founders. The funding is around 6 crores till date including solar and biogas installments.
3. What is the social problem that you are trying to solve?
We’re trying to change the mindset of students where we encourage them to learn about environmental issues and life skills rather than getting distinctions in SLC. Our main aim is to shift away from the pressure of scoring good grades and infuse practical learning.
4. What challenges did you face while starting the company and what are the challenges the Academy is facing in the present?
Everyone looked for a school where their children would score high marks in SLC. We weren’t promoting ourselves as a school that promised this because our focus was entirely different. We wanted to educate children with practical knowledge and make them socially responsible. Also, our school is based on Steiner education system. But, the local people didn’t understand this so we had difficulty setting ourselves apart. Our location is also far from the city so it was difficult to get students to enroll.
In the first year, we only had 6 students. Then, we revised our fee structure as the earlier fee structure was considered really high and also provided scholarships to the local people. Slowly, people started noticing that we were engaging our students in practical activities in and around the community which garnered interest among them. Accordingly, we took some interested parents to the Netherlands teaming up with foreign organizations to help them get acquainted with the Steiner based education system.
A lot of people do not want to join the education industry, especially as a teacher because, for most, the pay isn’t really good given the time they spend in the school. So, we had difficulty finding good young teachers whose values aligned with ours. Thus, we hosted an intensive training session for the teachers and our team to ensure that our vision was delivered.
5. How is the curriculum different from the curriculum at other schools of Nepal?
We follow the national curriculum framework with the addition of Green Studies. This subject educates students to solve environment-related problems using the technologies we equip them with. Students also learn kitchen and gardening on our farm as a part of their co-curricular activities. Besides, we engage students in learning different subjects using nature and the surrounding of the school as a learning resource. The location of our school, therefore, is an instrumental part of the learning we try to promote. One of the major reasons for locating our school in Bajrabarahi, Jharuwarasi is because it’s on a south-facing slope which would not block the sunlight in any way. Secondly, with a forest nearby that is protected by the community, students are able to learn in a fresh and green environment.
6. What are the different green initiatives that Vajra Academy has taken up?
We utilize solar energy for all the food that is cooked in our kitchen. We have installed a solar steam kitchen system which is the first of its kind in Nepal. We have a cow farm and utilize the dung to produce biogas which is also used by the kitchen to make food for 300 students every day.
Secondly, we classify our green studies learning into 5 elements: land, air, water, fire, and sky. So we focus our curriculum on these elements integrating nature wherever it can be done. Thirdly, we have plastic reduction initiatives that we started along with the students. We host eco-festival campaigns in the community and encourage students to ideate on eco-friendly ways to celebrate different festivals.
We are a poly-bag free zone. We couldn’t be a complete plastic free zone because we were compelled to use some plastics in one way or another. So, we started an initiative where we tie plastic waste into a rope and plan to make a world record event of the longest plastic rope encircling the 28 meters of Ring Road. We’ve collaborated with different schools since 2015 to make this happen and similar campaigns are done in Gujarat, New York, and Sri Lanka.
There’s also a concert that we host called eco-concert where we have a band called Green Heart from America perform with solar-powered instruments. They raise awareness about the environment through their meaningful songs.
7. Can you tell us about the legal, human resource and growth stage of your school?
Vajra Academy is registered as a private trust non-profit entity. We reached the breakeven point in 2015. So, we can say we’re in the growth stage. We are focused on developing our process and the quality of learning and want to increase sections and classes so, we’re also planning for further construction. We started with about 20 staff and we currently have about 49 staff- 25 teachers and 24 non-teaching staff.
8. Who are your target customers?
Vajra Academy had been established to target students from middle-class families which is also communicated through our fee structure. However, we’re not limited to them. We also cater to students from the lower class and higher class families. We provide need-based scholarships and 25% of our students are currently receiving it. We are able to do this by allocating a certain amount from 4 full-paying students to generate 1 scholarship quota. Additionally, we don’t have extensive and tough entrance tests so it’s easier for students to get admitted. This also complements our vision of having a diverse group of students and inclusion for all.
We have 70 residential students out of 315 students in total. Each class has 30 students and 25 students for preschool.
9. What is the business model that Vajra Academy runs upon to maintain sustainability?
We are working in a profit-making model but we haven’t distributed the profits as of now since we’re injecting it back into the school to make it even better.
10. What are the key needs of your company?
We’re looking for experienced people to look after our Marketing. Also, we’re thinking about having a development and research wing to help us analyze our impact and make substantial data-based evidence for other schools to replicate.
11. What are the future plans of the school?
The future plan of Vajra Academy is to make the curriculum more dynamic and to integrate newer technologies and learning techniques for learning efficiency. We are also looking for collaboration with other schools in integrating the environment conservation framework into the curriculum. In the long run, we would like to partner with more schools and start our own franchise.
12. Do you consider yourself as a Social Entrepreneur?
Vajra Academy is indeed a social enterprise because we’re not just transforming the education system of Nepal but also nurturing students to become responsible leaders of tomorrow.
13. Do you measure the impact of your product/service? If not, what are your thoughts about impact measurement?
Yes, we measure the impact that our school has been making in society. Firstly, we have seen really good SLC results even though our main emphasis is in learning and not grades. We had admitted a few dyslexic and differently abled students who scored quite well in their SLC results too. As of now, 4 batches have passed out with good results and some even had the best results in the local area.
Secondly, our students are equipped with different skills like cooking, swimming, and volunteering in social works. We were even awarded as Changemaker School in 2016 by the Global Ashoka Foundation making us the first school in Nepal to receive such recognition. We are proud to say that we are one of the 260 schools over the world to have won the title of ‘ChangeMakers’.
Finally, I had written a small research report myself on how many tons of Carbon dioxide we saved from being emitted. So, there is a proper measure put in place to measure our impact periodically as well.
Originally published on blincventures.com