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Dr. Madhav Chavan - Pratham

Dr. Madhav Chavan

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How do you fight illiteracy on a country-wide basis? In India, they started with pre-schoolers in one village at a time. Pratham, a non-profit organization, was co-founded in Mumbai by Dr Chavan and UNICEF to provide pre-school education for children. Today, the organization has chapters globally that work in many different ways to improve the future of children worldwide. Russ interviews Dr. Madhav Chavan, co-founder and CEO-president of Pratham.

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Russ: This is The BusinessMakers show, heard on the radio and seen online at It's guest time on the show and I have a very special guest, Dr. Madhav Chavan, the Founder and CEO of Pratham; Madhav, welcome to TheBusinessMakers Show.

Madhav: Good to see you again Russ.

Russ: You bet. We had a Pratham representative, Maria Garadia on one of our seg, on one of our vignettes probably about 2 months ago. She was fantastic and introduced our show to your world, the world of Pratham, but tell us about Pratham.

Madhav: This will be our twentieth yearstarted in Mumbai, it was a that was initiated by Unicef, which was - which is now captured in our motto, our vision statement if you will: Every child in school and learning well. At that point, everybody believed that children - not all children were going to school and bringing them to school was important, but I added this little learning well bit saying that, you know, people keep talking about these quality of learning in public schools is not very good, and that's where we started. And it led to a massive amount of on scale work in the city of Mumbai.

We started - we grew to about 3,000 preschool centers, things that were unheard of in the, uh, not-for-profit world. Not-for-profit was supposed to do small, boutique work which is supposed to be models which then governments would or would not take up. And so we started going on scale, um, and then a lot of the corporate leaders - India was just staring to liberalize its economy and many of the corporate business men, industrialists, could see that education was likely to be an obstacle in our growth if we didn't pay attention to it at the right time. And so many of them started believing that this model was right, of bringing government, business and the civil society together to solve the problems of education.

Russ: Now when you said earlier on, you said centers, are - were there actual physical buildings where you did this at?

Madhav: No there were - there never - even today, we don't build schools we don't run schools, what we do is act as a supplement, as a compliment if you will, to the existing school system to make the public investment more productive. So these preschools centers that we're talking about were actually set up in communities and we said look, whatever space the community can provide is good enough for us, it doesn't have to be the ideal place that us citizens - upper class, middle class - think of. And then we said let there be a young woman in the slum who's not necessarily highly educated or trained but who's good with kids let's train her a little bit and let her play with the kids; the whole idea is to get the kids to be school-ready. And that model took off very fast.

Russ: And what - what age kids?

Madhav: 3 to 5, 3 to 5.

Russ: 3 to 5? Wow.

Madhav: That was the first thing we started and there was a reason for that. So when that went to scale, uh, the municipal system, the school system started to say hey, you guys work on scale? Otherwise, they felt that, you know, these not-for-profit types, they do work with a hundred kids and with all the resources and then they tell us how to do - deal with a million kids and that problem of scaling a lot of people don't get and that's where your resources - human, capital financial - everything starts you know, becoming the limiting factor.

Russ: Completely different formula.

Madhav: Absolutely. And so, once we started that, other cities - people in other cities - business leaders, uh, ex-civil servants - they started saying we want to do it too. So without our planning it there was a spontaneous application of what we were doing around India. By 2002, uh, we were not satisfied with the earlier methods, techniques we found that children were not learning to read. So we innovated a learning to read technique that's really indigenous. That may sound like funny, you know, because in this country all children are taught reading, but the bad news is in the rest of the developing world, in India definitely, reading is not taught as a separate skill. So

Russ: So in these kind of - these kind of neighborhood things that you had going, they were helping them prepare to go to public school, but they were not specifically targeting reading?

Madhav: No, not at that time because first of all, we didn't know how to do it, and it was not expected, we did not think about it the school curriculum didn't expect it, but once we got there, the municipal authority, the government authority started saying why don't you work with us. We started working inside the school and found that remediation was a major problem. Kids were going up in third, fourth, fifth grades not knowing enough literacy, numeracy and so we started a program of remedial education. Again, now the volunteers from the slums, the same young ladies, slightly more educated, started going to the school, volunteering for 2 hours and the teacher would point out a group of 10, 15, 20 kids who did not know literacy and said why don't you help them.

And so for 2 hours they were withdrawn and then brought back into the class. That model got replicated in other places as well. So we do it on a large scale so nobody can say, you know, you do it with 10 kids and tell us - everything we do at least starts with a hundred thousand kids. If that can be done, then nobody can complain. Then so we also have to deal with the constraints because in faraway villages and tribal areas of India, you don't have any educated people, so how do you work with local resources and raise those human resources to a point where they think they can do it themselves.

So that's been the story from 2002, we took off and we started 2 major programs. When we innovated the learning to read program, uh, an assessment tool was developed, a very simple one, um, which even a less educated person can use. You have a little learning - assessment tool that you can take to a village and the village mother can see that my kid can't do the simple things, then she's going to say let's do something about it. And if there's a local volunteer who says I can help, then you can put together, uh, a solution with the school, the village head, the parents and the children and say okay, let's do something. And that is the basis of one but assessment tool became the basis of what we call the annual Status of Education Report.

So we do it annually, about 30,000 volunteers are mobilized every year over the last 9 years, this is the 9th year. They go to about 16, 17,000 sample villages and go to about 330,000 houses, test about 650,000 kids and we bring out the report every January. So that is one big flagship program of Pratham, which brings out see, what is happening today in - in the Indian schools. It's a broad one. And the other side of it is it's not enough to find out the problem, the ASER - Annual Status of Education Report - says 97% kids are enrolled in school; they say so, their parents say so but only 50% who go to, uh, fifth grade can read reasonable fluently even a grade 2 paragraph; so that's the big problem. About 40% only can solve a long division sum, even in - in fifth grade.

Russ: Not good.

Madhav: So - yeah, not good and so when Obama talks about, you know, India is moving ahead, no sorry, there's a part of India that's moving ahead and the rest is lagging behind. So - but that's - that's pointing out the problem. What's the solution? So the solution is our campaign called Read India.

Russ: Read India. And how do you do this?

Madhav: Well the simplest way to describe it is there's one trained Pratham full time person, a young person probably aged 21, 22 who's not had a first job yet, finished maybe graduation or is still going to college, it's not necessary to go to college everyday. Uh, and then you - he has been observed or she has been observed being a good volunteer, an enthusiastic one, is picked up and say would you like to work full time? They say yes, they are put through some training of 20, 30 days, practicing, understanding why children can't - can't read, how to teach them and so on and so forth - our methodology. Then this person starts going to a - is assigned to a set of 20 villages.

Russ: But this is not - is this a paid mission?

Madhav: Yes, it is a paid person because it's hard work and it's 24x7, they really can't relax. As a first job they're really enthusiastic and they can make a difference and all that. So they go - it's not a very highly paid job but it's a little higher - it's a little more than minimum wages. So they go to the village and gather the volunteers together and say let's see how many children can read and if they can't then let's work together to make sure that they learn to read and explain to them what is to be done. And then volunteers sort of are assigned to each group to do very specific, simple activities.

Russ: Local volunteers?

Madhav: Local, very local - nobody coming from outside - who are trained barely for maybe 3 or 4 hours. Not even trained, oriented, and see - and the one full time person is there to make sure everybody is going. It's really fun and games; it's nothing - no rocket science really.

So anyway, that's how Read India works and when we did this recently, to complete the story - so we've been doing this, the idea, the theory of change as they call it, is to demonstrate on a large scale so that somebody else will catch this at a higher level; to go to the government and see - say that this works.

So in the state of Bejar a civil servant saw this and said if you guys can do it, why can't my teachers too? The size of the project was over 18,000 kids and they saw 70% improvement. So we took this to the Chief Minister, the highest elected official in India in the state, who's known as a very proactive person, he listened and he said okay, let's do it all over the state; which means that we were working with something like a hundred thousand kids and suddenly this went to a million kids - not a hundred thousand, we working with over 15,000 and it went to scale. Of course there's still many, many, many obstacles but that is the way Pratham likes to work.

Russ: Wow. You - you must be proud of the progress.

Madhav: Oh I have fun. It's like playing a game, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you play and say wow, it was a good game.

Russ: Yeah, well - well you're making a huge impact. Do you have any idea how many people - children - you've improved their intellect and ability to read and therefore learn?

Madhav: Oh, you can compute that we, uh, reach at least a million and a half, two million children every year. And the long term con-impact may have been over 40 million children.

Russ: All right, cool.

Madhav: I feel every - good everyday there's nothing to feel bad about.

Russ: All right, good. Well Madhav, I really appreciate you sharing your story with me and I appreciate what you're doing.

Madhav: Thank you.

Russ: Thank you very much. And that wraps up my discussion with Dr. Madhav Chavan, the Founder of Pratham. And this is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at

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