An editor-turned-educator-turned-entrepreneur, Ritu Malhotra quit her job at Heritage Xperiential School, Gurugram, to fill the gaps in India’s school education system. Her drive was to make her students more than just responsible citizens. She realised that the curriculum-defined knowledge held them back from becoming solution providers and leaders of tomorrow. Looking for solutions, she experimented with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and “it did wonders,” she told Tatsat Chronicle in a video interview from Hamburg, Germany. The co-founder of ARCedtech is attending a nine-month programme of the International Sustainability Academy (ISA), conceptualised to find solutions to some of the greatest challenges for planet Earth.
What led to the idea of Arcedtech? How has your journey been so far?
I am the founder of ARC, which is an education start-up. We are trying to integrate sustainability into our education system by creating books for schools. I have been a user and a creator of books, and somewhere during this experience, I felt that a very important facet was missing from the sphere of education. We were not making the children of today the problem solvers of tomorrow. We were not making them responsible citizens of tomorrow through maths, science, and languages taught in schools. There was an awakening, this compelling desire to bring that into the sphere of education. When I got introduced to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, I knew that was the solution. These goals were tools, be it poverty, gender equality or climate change, to address all global problems. It, thus, became very important that children be made aware of these goals so that they can bring a change in the world.
The idea of ARCedtech was born when I was teaching at Heritage Xperiential School in Gurugram. I tested it on my students with some material and was pleased with the results. I knew that I wanted to do this full-time. I knew I wanted to take this content to each and every child on this planet. Anahita Lee, an author, a friend, and a constant companion on this journey is the brain behind the content we have. Then, there is Anit Gupta, with vast corporate experience, who joined us on this journey as co-founder. It was this passion for doing something meaningful that brought us together, and we just decided to quit everything and do this full-time.
While we were enthusiastic about ARCedtech, the timing could not have been worse. We started the company in 2020 when the pandemic was raging, but our passion made us move ahead. The encouragement of the schools, who found the material that was still in manuscript stage then, and our programme interesting, was crucial. It has been three years now and we have a good presence in schools such as Modern School Barakhamba, DPS, Millennium School, and GEMS International. These schools are using our books along with other schools for underprivileged children.
Tell us about your products.
We have books that are called ‘Be the Change’ books—a series of integrated worksheets to educate, engage and inspire young people to actively support the SDGs. These handbooks for students are a part of the programme that we run in schools. We also give handbooks to teachers for effective teaching and learning of the material. We started out with eight books for Classes 1 to 8. In the following years, we want to add more classes, and this is in demand. When we launched the first eight books, we thought Class 1 children were too young to understand SDGs. This perception changed when schools began using these books and appreciated our work. They demanded books for nursery and kindergarten as well. So, this year, we have books about SDGs for nursery and KG students in the language they understand. We are adding digital content and I am in Germany for this. The digitised content can be made available to a wider audience. We are also trying to enhance and update our content. We are adding content on global citizenship and climate education in a bigger way, perhaps this year or next.
The idea of ARCedtech was born when I was teaching at Heritage Xperiential School in Gurugram. I tested it on my students with some material and was pleased with the results
Our other programmes include the Global Sustainability Awards for schools. The purpose of these awards is to inspire schools to work towards sustainability. Last year, when we ran the first edition of the awards, people from across India came to receive the awards. Participation is free for schools and the process is fair and transparent. The schools that got these awards had interesting stories to tell to the rest of the world.
In addition to creating books, building digital content, and giving sustainability awards, we conduct the All India Sustainability Champions Test (AISCT). The test is held to identify and groom sustainability champions from all over the country and provide a platform for students and teachers to showcase their knowledge and efforts towards a sustainable future. The test is for middle school students.
We also run waste paper programmes in schools, where we collect waste paper and give them products such as pencils and notebooks made from the waste paper collected.
What impact have these books had on students?
We chose children as through them, we can reach their friends, parents, and grandparents, perhaps affecting generations. So far, we have reached 1,00,000 children and 50,000 educators. We have conducted capacity-building workshops for educators to help them inspire children. Our vision is to get this knowledge across to every child on the planet. We also have an international presence. We have reached the Middle East. I am currently in Europe, where I am trying to expand our work.
In addition to creating books, building digital content, and giving sustainability awards, we conduct the AISCT. The test is held to identify and groom sustainability champions
Tell us more about your project in Europe.
I am at the International Sustainability Academy (ISA) in Hamburg, Germany. The ISA is trying to collect the best ideas for sustainability from all over the world—be it renewable energy, education and water conservation, to name a few. The academy has got people from all over the world, working on various projects that are meaningful and truly transformative. I am a part of this programme, where I am representing India. There are two other people from India, and then there are people from about 10 to 12 countries with their own projects. Through the programme, we are trying to get German expertise, as the country is a leader in sustainability, technology, and investment. They are trying to enhance their work through their expertise and our peer network. We are interacting with fellows from other countries and testing our products in each other’s markets for the international viability of products.
What have been the challenges so far?
The pandemic was the biggest challenge. Schools were shut down all over the country. Schools were not even receiving fees from parents, so forget about selling books to parents. Working with limited funds and having to do everything ourselves, from creating books to selling them to even making coffee in our home office, we were the office boy, salespeople, and founders. However, when we look back, all of these appear like a joyride.
Though 193 nations have pledged their complete support for the SDGs, money remains a crunch for start-ups like ours. We are still trying to raise funds through various funding opportunities that are available for people working in the field of sustainability, but we have not been able to tap them yet. In fact, the concept of integrating education for sustainable development in school curricula has been hard for us to sell. If you are a Vedantu or a Byju’s and you are promising marks to students, everybody will buy your products. However, if you are trying to tell schools or parents that we are here to make your children better human beings, they do not see much value in it. It is very intangible. It is a difficult path that we have chosen to tread, but it is important for humanity right now. Money is not easy here. There is a lot of hard work involved, but we are prepared for it.
Though 193 nations have pledged their complete support for the SDGs, money remains a crunch for start-ups like ours. We are still trying to raise funds through various funding opportunities
Where do you see your venture five years from now?
The long-term vision is to get this content across to each and every child across the world, as this content is not just relevant to India. This is a global project and the whole purpose of the SDG goals is the partnership of all countries around the world. In the next four to five years, we hope to be in over 1,000 schools in India and over 500 schools around the world in various languages.
Going forward, once we have covered all age brackets of the school market, we will enter the higher education segment, as we see a requirement there. We will perhaps also train people in the corporate world about sustainability because all jobs have this requirement today.
First, we need funds to enhance our work. The funds may come from corporate houses under corporate social responsibility (CSR), an investor or the government. Currently, we are only able to scale it up to a certain extent given our limited capabilities. Though we are a for-profit company, there is an impact we are creating so I would like government and private organisations to understand the value of education for sustainable development and invest in children and in making them better human beings.
How do you plan to scale up your efforts further?
We are working with the Delhi government for the Deshbhakti curriculum, which aims to instil a spirit of patriotism and nationhood in every child studying in government schools. We are the knowledge partners for the primary programme of the curriculum. It has been a fantastic experience because working at the ground level has its own rewards, which no amount of money can bring to you. That is the segment we really want to impact, and we will need government support to do that because these are government schools and we have to go via the government.
Support from the Centre will also help us scale up. Like, in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, if education about SDGs can be made mandatory, then it will have a far-reaching impact. The schools will then ask for this content rather than us going and educating them about it.
What more can we do to make the SDGs part of our life?
Before the localisation of SDGs comes the levelling. The content on SDGs has to be delivered to the right audience in a language one understands. When we did our books in English, we also did them in Hindi, for both private and government schools.
This whole journey of sustainability is about collaboration. Our first level of partnerships or endorsements has been with the green organisations of India, such as TERI and Earth Day Network. They have been very supportive of the work that we are doing and have lent their name to us for various things that we do.
We are open to collaborations across India. Right now, I am working with my peers in Germany and it has been an enriching experience. They are bringing in their own adaptation, customisation, and localisation. Somebody from Senegal will be able to adapt our idea and customise it for her country. So I have to join hands with this person and give my content to them to customise it for their needs.
We are learning from each other. In Senegal, they have a concept called Fab Labs, short for fabrication lab, in their schools. The country is largely a farming community. In every school, they have a Fab Lab, where students step into a garden with conditions similar to what they have on their farmlands. In this garden, they learn to deal with conditions like soil erosion and other problems and ways to tackle these. We can also have something similar, where students can sit in one room, gain knowledge, and can step out into the natural environment and implement these ideas.
The stories from Neev were more compelling. The students talked about quality education. They had case studies from their school, where lives had transformed through quality education
How do you make the content interesting to children?
Our books are activity-based. We have tried to integrate art and computer science into them. The books cover various subjects with enjoyable activities. We also do activities with schools. Like, there is a newsletter we bring out. We try to bring schools from diverse sections of society together. The last newsletter was brought out by three schools—one was Neev, which is a school for the underprivileged in Gurugram, the other was a school from Indonesia, an international school, and the third was a private school, Mount Abu Public School in Delhi. Students of these three schools came together and brought out a newsletter on ‘quality education’. They chose one theme and did articles on it. We had meetings where student volunteers shared stories. The best stories in the last newsletter came from Neev.
One would believe that the schools that are exposed to an international audience, have students from affluent sections of society and speak better English will perhaps perform better, but it was not the case here. The stories from Neev were more compelling. The students talked about quality education. They had case studies from their school, where lives had transformed through quality education.
What are the problem areas that need to be addressed?
I believe sex education is one big area we need to open up about. It starts with the menstrual well-being of girls and goes up to reproduction. We have to provide the children with the knowledge in every possible way so that they are able to take care of themselves. They will then make informed decisions. Mental health is the second big issue we must address. So many students I have worked with are either suffering from anxiety or depression. It is everywhere and parents are completely unaware of it. Thus, schools have a major responsibility to tackle these issues. They should at least be able to talk about it openly.