Despite hosting several bright students, smaller Indian cities and towns lack infrastructure and quality education providers. YourStory takes a look at how startups are working towards solving these issues in Tier II and III India.Debolina Biswas
“Any kind of growth requires hunger. And rural India has a lot of hunger for growth,” says Dinesh Badagandi, Founder of TZP (TareZameenPar).
Dinesh is a serial entrepreneur who developed a mobile planetarium to create “excitement and curiosity among students of Karnataka’s villages”. He is one of several entrepreneurs working hard to bridge the gap between rural and urban students at various levels with the help of technology.
Indian metro cities are already familiar with edtech startups with the likes of UpGrad and BYJU’s. According to a report by KPMG and Google, the Indian edtech market is pegged to touch $1.96 billion by 2021.
It is no wonder then that last year, Reliance Industries acquired a majority stake worth $180 million in Embibe, an artificial intelligence (AI) edtech platform that is based in Bengaluru.
However, the need for innovative edtech solutions is far greater in Tier II and III markets.
YourStory takes a closer look at startups taking advantage of this nascent rural market that still lacks quality education avenues.
“A major section of our society lives in rural areas, and it is quite important to have edtech startups in these parts. India still lacks quality education at grassroot level (that is, in our villages) and educating through technology is a better and feasible option,” says 23-year-old Anil Pradhan.
“Despite studying in an English medium school in Odisha, I was denied admission in Bhopal’s Carmel Convent because of my average English-speaking skills,” Anil recalls.
This was his first encounter with the gap between the quality of education available in rural and urban India.
During his third year of engineering, Anil started IPSFRI (International Public School For Rural Innovation) in Baral. Although it follows the same syllabus and curriculum as the Odisha’s Board of Secondary Education in Odisha, it employs innovation and technology in its methodology.
“Educating students on innovation and technology in rural areas is difficult as study material isn’t available in their language. And that's where we found a solution - we designed a digital platform for kids, where they have access to STEM-based subjects in their own language (Odia),” adds Anil.
IPSFRI has provisions from kindergarten to Class VI. For students of higher classes, Anil arranges for after-school classes. It focuses mostly on skill development and STEM education than depending on ‘bookish language’.
“ISFRI has classes called ‘Tod, phod, and jod’ (dismantle, break, and join), where students dismantle things like old computer monitors and refrigerators to build something new,” said Anil, in a previous conversation with YourStory.
Similarly, to bring innovation in geometry classes, Anil introduced 3D printers so that students can understand shapes and measure sides.
What’s more interesting is that the startup does not charge students from below the poverty line (BPL) families.
If Anil’s school is changing education at the grassroot level, others are improving ‘practical’ implementations that are inaccessible to students in these areas. Take Bengaluru-based TZP, for example, which is igniting curiosity among students of non-metro cities.
“The mobile planetarium provides a platform for immersive learning. It is helping create excitement and curiosity among village students to pursue science,” says Dinesh.
So far, TZP has covered five lakh students in Karnataka alone. The startup plans to set up another six mobile planetariums by this July. “We hope to educate 5,000 students each day by then,” adds the founder.
At present, the startup is working with L&T Infotech under its CSR initiative, and has also covered students in schools in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala.
Access to educational initiatives at grassroots level aside, non-metro cities also lack quality coaching. As a result, lakhs of students migrate to cities like Kota, Visakhapatnam, and Hyderabad every year in search of such facilities. But, not everyone has the means to do so.
To solve this gap and to give back to society is Rajan Singh, an IIT-graduate-turned-IPS officer, through his edtech startup, ConceptOwl.
The startup offers coaching programmes that are a combination of offline and online education. Here, the class teacher is replaced by a facilitator or classroom manager. A pre-recorded video allows effective structuring and scripting for the teaching process.
Rajan, also a Wharton graduate, always wanted to be an entrepreneur. In 2016, he started a ‘teacherless’ online-in-classroom educational platform to help students of Tier II and III areas prepare for entrance exams.
“Having grown up in a small town, I have personally witnessed the poor quality of education, especially in science in Tier II, III and IV areas. I don’t believe things have changed dramatically,” he says.
ConceptOwl recently rolled out dual-teacher programmes in 12 schools across Kerala, including Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Ernakulam, and Kasaragod. The startup is in the process of launching up to 10 more by July.
Interestingly, edtech startups from non-metros are increasingly getting noticed by startups in metro cities.
Since inception, ConceptOwl has raised Rs 3.5 crore, and its principal investor is SunTech Business Solution, a Bengaluru-based software company. “We are in talks to raise another larger round of funding,” says Rajan. Anil's IPSFRI received help from online furniture platform Pepperfry in the form of free furniture for the school.
And investors are not shying away from these startups that give small towns the education they deserve. Aarthi Ramasubramanian, Senior Investment Manager, Gray Matters Capital edLABS says:
“We see a lot of innovative ideas from entrepreneurs in Tier II and III cities. This combined with their hunger for success and frugality, makes them great investment candidates. Being gender lens impact investors, we at Gray Matters Capital take into consideration the impact our capital can make before we choose a startup."
As part of edLABS initiative, Gray Matters Capital has recently funded Cuttack-based ThinkZone. The startup encourages women micro-entrepreneurs ot impart tech-driven primary education to undeserved town of Odisha.
"With a lean structure, it makes it easier to expand their solutions to other resource-strapped geographies or even efficiently expand outside India - making the impact more meaningful. We hope to benefit nearly two million students in the next five years with ThinkZone," Aarthi adds.
Dinesh of TZP believes that while the metro markets are overcrowded, it is now time for people to “look back to rural areas for reverse migration.”
Unsurprisingly, STEM education is continuing to be the focus for these startups, even in rural India.
However, “The A in STEAM, that is Arts, remains highly deprioritised and I don’t see that changing quickly. I think it is going to take some time for Arts to find its rightful place but initiatives like Ashoka University may change things over time,” Rajan says.