Throughout the twenty years in which I have been working with social entrepreneurs, non-profits and activists, nothing has inspired me like the Akshaya Patra Foundation, based in Bangalore, India.
In less than 12 years, Akshaya Patra has grown to become one of the world’s largest and most effective NGO’s. Started in 2001 in Bangalore, Akshaya Patra provides school lunch, or a midday meal, to 1.5 million children daily across India – nearly 330 million meals cooked, delivered and eaten every year. Its meteoric rise – and the collaboration of government, donors and communities in that rise, is a story that I hope many NGO’s and social entrepreneurs can tell in the next decades.
As a former Board member, I am most interested in the ability of this organization to scale, because this has the greatest ramifications for social entrepreneurs everywhere. We tend to celebrate the social entrepreneur with the new idea but do not expect them to achieve the same level of impact as we do of the private companies we invest in. But if we are truly to call these individuals and their organizations “entrepreneurs” then we must hold out the same expectations for them – of reaching a scale and achieving an impact that reverberates through society.
India has nearly 130 million children of school age. And of that, about 100 million are enrolled in school. And as one would expect, the schools are of varying quality. However India’s public and private sectors agree that the availability of a nutritious midday meal is critical to driving attendance of boys and girls, improving cognitive abilities and providing children with the energy to learn in the classroom. Thus India has a fairly sophisticated set of policies, enforced by India’s Supreme Court, that require schools to provide a school lunch to their students, and that NGO’s could be the provider along with government agencies. And while multiple agencies have received contracts to provide a midday meal, almost none of them focused solely on the midday meal. Any good entrepreneur knows the importance of focus. In addition, many of these agencies were education providers, but relatively inexperienced in the areas of food, supply chain and nutrition. In many ways, Akshaya Patra has succeeded because of its ability to stay focused on the midday meal, but to attack the complexities of the problem head on.
The roots of its success lie in its beginnings. Akshaya Patra was started by two distinct groups of professionals who were able to integrate their multidisciplinary perspectives. The first group was the leadership of ISKCON, a faith-based group in India. These leaders were trained as engineers and worked in the private sector before their religious service. They brought a tradition of service to people, and experience cooking for thousands of people at a time at their temples. The second group consisted of senior executives at Infosys and other Indian technology companies. They have spent the last thirty years solving complex global problems for many of the world’s largest companies. When the two groups came together, they decided to focus on addressing a specific challenge in India that has cascading effects. And they decided to focus on scalability from the start.
They brought the best thinking in manufacturing, supply chain, innovation and logistics management to create a central kitchen model whereby food is centrally cooked and delivered by truck to local schools. The kitchen’s, many of which are ISO-9000 certified, are really food factories, capable of cooking food daily for up to 200,000 people each. Food preparation begins at 3:00am and the food makes its way through a modern conveyer process until it’s loaded onto specially-built trucks around 7:00am that can deliver food to government (public) schools using a hub-and-spoke routing system.
The cost – is just $0.08 per meal per child – or about $28 per year.
The ability to constantly maintain a quality product, to provide it at scale, and at a low price are traits we would expect of the most successful companies in the world. How does Akshaya Patra do it? In addition to the process outlined above, it also constantly innovates – including using data analytics, cooking using clean energies and constantly improving ingredients to have healthier food – while keeping the cost the same. It hires the best talent available – experts from India’s best schools and companies, and pays them a comfortable wage. And it maintains strong corporate governance with boards, auditors and others joining in.
And it has spent a lot of time thinking about the model for scale. It turned out that the changes in India’s demographics and geography meant that the central kitchen model could work in most of India – regardless of the romanticism of India being a nation of villages. It also turned out that many large companies and wealthy families would pay for the construction of kitchens in their communities. And it turns out that India’s growing middle class is more than willing to donate Rs. 1200 a year ($28) to feed a child. And most importantly, India’s central and state governments have shown an unwavering commitment to funding the midday meal program – providing cash, land, rice and lentils to Akshaya Patra and other NGO’s providing school lunch. The government support accounts for about 40% of the funds, with the rest coming from private sources.
For the near future, the biggest challenge facing Akshaya Patra and India around the midday meal program will be scale. While Akshaya Patra reaches 1.5 million children daily, that still only reaches 1% of the children of school age in India. The organization is striving to reach 5 million by 2020. This would be astounding for an NGO, but would only be 3% of Indian school children. Indian policy makers, philanthropists and NGO’s have not yet decided how to scale the concept around Akshaya Patra – of a centralized kitchen using best-in-class production systems, processes and supply chain. This will entail significant training across India. It will also require a significant funding commitment by government and private donors. And it will require a third-party organization that can continue to monitor quality so the health of the children remains a priority.
As we celebrate the breakthrough innovations of social entrepreneurs everywhere, let us also keep one eye on their progress, knowing that there are NGO’s that can scale quickly when the right talent, policy and model can come together.
Senior Advisor, Northeastern University