Student Entrepreneurs Run Nepal’s First Free Private Schools

With huge school drop-out rates and half a million young workers leaving for low-skilled labour abroad, Nepal’s education system is in dire straits. Five youngsters who studied abroad came back to turn the tide.

You can be pretty sure you’re talking to a social entrepreneur when they start their story by saying: "I used to be one of the kids that I was going to serve. In Surya Karki’s case, that meant poor and without enough resources for a quality education. He was lucky enough to secure a scholarship at United World Colleges (UWC), and decided to return to his homeland of Nepal “to give back to the society that I took from.”

Fellow Nepali and UWC graduate Manjil Rana meanwhile had a similar desire to change things for the better in his country. The two met through relatives and before long identified what they believed was the most pressing problem facing their nation: a lack of quality schools. Without long careers in education or big pots of funding, but with a determination to create real opportunities for the kids they once were themselves, they started teaching from within a tent. It was 2011, and Maya Universe Academy was born.

Two years on, Karki, Rana and three friends have opened three private schools in rural Nepal, where 142 children aged 4 to 14 receive quality education. For free. Parents are required to contribute—not by paying fees but by giving knowledge and time instead, explains Karki. “Parents give us two days per month of voluntary work. As we operate in rural areas largely relying on agriculture, we run a school farm alongside each of our schools. "Most of our parents are farmers who have a wealth of knowledge about agriculture and nature. They work on the school farm and we sell the produce to generate an income.”

In addition, the farm offers both students and parents and opportunity to learn. “We use the farm as a classroom”, says Karki. The children learn valuable agricultural skills and when the farm work is done, parents are invited to sit at the back of the classroom to listen in. There are sessions on diversifying crops, microfinance and sustainability.

Karki is just 22 but speaks with the confidence of a seasoned social entrepreneur: "We don’t believe money is power, but we are convinced that knowledge is power. This way, we empower the whole community." 

He says the statistics were simply too important to ignore. A recent UNESCO report showed that only seven out of ten children enrolled in grade 1 in Nepal’s schools reach grade 5, and more than half of them quit school before reaching the lower secondary level. The issue is largely one of quality, says Karki. “There are government schools in rural areas, but teachers are often not qualified and only come in to get paid. They have no interest in really educating children and helping them develop. All we ever did when I was in primary school was fight and play around. There was very little teaching going on.”

As the first completely free private education institution in Nepal, Maya Universe Academy is “challenging the government by showing that the quality of education provided to rural children is abysmal and that we can do better with little or no resources.” The school’s educational philosophy is based around ‘holistic learning’ and places an emphasis on increasing students’ imagination, social responsibility and creative passion.

A youth-led movement for change, the ‘Mayans’ (as they call themselves) resort to using their own local and global networks for support. They invite volunteers from around the world to come and give guest lectures and run social enterprises which make bracelets and sell them overseas via the internet to generate additional income.

Karki is currently in the U.S. to complete his college degree and drum up support for Maya. He is determined to return as soon as possible, to complete his vision to have one school and one Maya farm in each of the 75 districts in Nepal by 2020. Oh, and he would like to one day become Nepal’s Prime Minister, too.

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Surya Karki is one of seven finalists in the Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Awards, who will be featured on Virgin.com in the coming weeks. Learn about the other finalists at changemakers.com/sustliving, where you can also share your own project.