The art of giv­ing back

Ever since its in­cep­tion in 2000, The Akshaya Pa­tra Foun­da­tion has been shap­ing lives, one meal at a time. Theirs is the world’s largest NGO-run midday meal pro­gram, serv­ing whole­some lunch to over 1.6 mil­lion chil­dren in 13,577 schools across 11 states i


In­ten­tion backed by com­pe­tency is the most im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent of a suc­cess­ful ven­ture, says Ajay Kav­ish­war, The Akshaya Pa­tra Foun­da­tion.

There seems to be an in­tan­gi­ble spirit that drives Akshaya Pa­tra. How would you de­fine it?

We be­gan our jour­ney with the vi­sion, ‘no child in In­dia shall be de­prived of education be­cause of hunger.’ Over a pe­riod, like-minded peo­ple came on board and we grew in strength. They are from var­i­ous walks of life, in­clud­ing—but not re­stricted to—the Gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rates. It was their un­wa­ver­ing sup­port which helped us scale from 1,500 to over 1.6 mil­lion ben­e­fi­cia­ries in a span of 16 years. It was the de­ter­mi­na­tion of these com­pas­sion­ate peo­ple that helped us reach the cu­mu­la­tive two bil­lion meals’ mile­stone last year. To­gether, we have been able to form a strong sys­tem to tire­lessly feed chil­dren, and in do­ing so, pro­vide them an in­cen­tive to come to school.

Akshaya Pa­tra is rooted in a noble vi­sion. How do you en­sure that the var­i­ous stake­hold­ers share the goal?

Our vi­sion be­ing noble, peo­ple read­ily as­so­ciate with it and come on board. We con­sider our­selves for­tu­nate that there is no dearth of peo­ple who can re­late to our cause.

Apart from those with a mis­sion­ary zeal, Akshaya Pa­tra is also run by pro­fes­sion­als. How has rop­ing in of cor­po­rate tal­ent helped?

Ours is a unique ini­tia­tive in the sense that it has both mis­sion­ar­ies and peo­ple from the cor­po­rate world com­ing to­gether for a com­mon cause. In essence, it har­nesses the en­ergy of both worlds.

Ours is an or­ga­ni­za­tion with the heart of an NGO and the mind of a cor­po­rate. In fact, our or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture repli­cates that of a cor­po­rate. There are var­i­ous de­part­ments, such as op­er­a­tions, projects and in­fra­struc­ture, re­source mo­bi­liza­tion, and donor care man­age­ment. Each of these is headed by a per­son with ex­per­tise in the cor­po­rate field.

With the so­cial sec­tor fast emerg­ing as one of the ma­jor sec­tors as far as em­ploy­ment is con­cerned, more and more in­di­vid­u­als are com­ing for­ward to do their bit for so­ci­ety. If non-profits show in­cli­na­tion to pay bet­ter, i.e., meet in­dus­try stan­dards, there is no rea­son we can­not have the best of the cor­po­rate world join­ing the so­cial sec­tor.

One of Akshaya Pa­tra’s strengths has been the PPP model it has adopted. How do you view the power of such part­ner­ships with the gov­ern­ment in tack­ling so­cial is­sues, es­pe­cially in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries like In­dia?

In de­vel­op­ing coun­tries like In­dia, with im­mense di­ver­sity in terms of ge­og­ra­phy, de­mog­ra­phy, lan­guages, etc., there is an ur­gent need to foster pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion to tackle so­cial is­sues. One way to do this is to adopt the pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship model. There are sev­eral ex­am­ples of such suc­cess­ful part­ner­ships in the in­fra­struc­ture sec­tor. That in it­self makes a case for sim­i­lar col­lab­o­ra­tions in the so­cial sec­tor too. The Gov­ern­ment, no doubt, has a cru­cial role to play in na­tion build­ing, but that does not mean civil so­ci­ety should just be a by­stander.

The ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion of pub­lic and pri­vate play­ers has vin­di­cated our be­lief in the ‘giv­ing back to so­ci­ety’ prin­ci­ple. The midday meal pro­gramme is a com­mon plat­form where the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, state gov­ern­ments, non-profits, and in­di­vid­ual and cor­po­rate donors have come to­gether.

Akshaya Pa­tra op­er­ates at the in­ter­sec­tion of op­er­a­tional ef­fi­ciency, lo­gis­tics, and funds flow. How do you en­sure a smooth, un­in­ter­rupted flow vis-a-vis these three as­pects?

Con­sid­er­ing the scale at which we op­er­ate, there is no ques­tion­ing the fact that these three as­pects need to be given due im­por­tance, which is why we have put cer­tain mea­sures in place. Stan­dard­iza­tion of recipes, for in­stance, helps main­tain qual­ity, and en­sures nu­tri­tion and good taste, while the FIFO (first in-first out) method helps en­sure that all per­ish­able items are used ef­fi­ciently. Right from sup­plier qual­ity man­age­ment sys­tems for sup­plier se­lec­tion to route op­ti­miza­tion—to en­sure that de­liv­ery vans reach school in time with pip­ing hot meals— mea­sures are taken at ev­ery stage to en­sure that chil­dren get nu­tri­tious meals ev­ery school day.

All our kitchens use a tool­kit to en­sure that the food safety and man­age­ment sys­tem (FSMS) rules are com­plied with, and hy­giene is main­tained. We meet the high­est stan­dards of safety and ef­fi­ciency—the ISO 22000 cer­ti­fi­ca­tion should vouch for the same.

We make it a point to uti­lize funds re­ceived in the form of do­na­tions in the most ef­fi­cient man­ner and

Ours is a unique ini­tia­tive in the sense that it has both mis­sion­ar­ies and peo­ple from the cor­po­rate world com­ing to­gether for a com­mon cause.

com­mu­ni­cate the [de­tails] to any­one in­ter­ested. The break-up of funds re­ceived and funds uti­lized is made avail­able on our web­site and in our an­nual re­port.

Em­brac­ing technology and an in­no­va­tion­cen­tric cul­ture have been game chang­ers vis-a-vis your growth—be it state-of-the-art kitchens, lo­gis­tics, and so on. How have these helped you scale?

Feed­ing over 1.6 mil­lion chil­dren ev­ery school day is not an easy task. It is the cu­mu­la­tive re­sult of in­no­va­tive technology, smart en­gi­neer­ing, and good man­age­ment. We be­lieve in lev­er­ag­ing technology to make the best pos­si­ble use of re­sources and reach as many chil­dren as pos­si­ble. Some of our state-of-the-art cen­tral­ized kitchens are equipped to pre­pare meals for 100,000 chil­dren at a time in just un­der four hours.

These cen­tral­ized kitchens have served as a blue­print for the ex­pan­sion of the pro­gram, which has helped us reach over a mil­lion chil­dren in 27 lo­ca­tions across 11 states. Technology and ex­pe­ri­ence gar­nered over a long pe­riod have put us in a bet­ter po­si­tion in the pur­suit of our mis­sion to reach five mil­lion chil­dren by 2020.

Trans­parency and qual­ity of­ten tend to be elu­sive in ven­tures of such a hu­mon­gous scale. How do you en­sure these are not com­pro­mised?

We are of the firm be­lief that trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity are key to trust and re­li­a­bil­ity, and there­fore, we make it a point to en­sure that we do not fall short in this re­gard. While the an­nual re­port, au­dit re­ports, in­ter­nal and third-party eval­u­a­tion re­ports, and im­pact stud­ies help us en­sure trans­parency, ad­her­ence to FSMS, stan­dard­ized recipes, ben­e­fi­ciary feed­back, and use of best raw ma­te­rial help us in guar­an­tee­ing qual­ity. We also com­ply with IFRS and In­dian Ac­count­ing Stan­dards.

How do you mar­ket Brand Akshaya Pa­tra? Is mar­ket­ing a strate­gic im­per­a­tive for a not-for-profit ven­ture?

Yes, it def­i­nitely is. It is not just im­por­tant to do some­thing good, but equally im­por­tant to com­mu­ni­cate it to oth­ers. There are many who wish to do their bit for so­ci­ety, but do not know where to be­gin. It is im­por­tant to reach out to these peo­ple with the cause you are pur­su­ing. That makes mar­ket­ing im­por­tant for a non-profit ven­ture.

Brand­ing helps de­ter­mine how we are per­ceived as a non-profit—that is why due im­por­tance is at­tached to this as­pect. Be­ing the largest NGO-run school lunch pro­gram in the world makes our ini­tia­tive a brand in it­self. Our brand com­mu­ni­ca­tion wing cre­atively com­mu­ni­cates the cause to the tar­get-based au­di­ence by run­ning cam­paigns such as ‘In­dia Ke Hunger Ki Ba­jao’ and ‘Back to School’, and or­ga­niz­ing events like ‘Chords of Giv­ing’ and ‘Outride Hunger’. We also use so­cial me­dia to reach out to those in­ter­ested in our cause.

Akshaya Pa­tra finds place among Har­vard Busi­ness School case stud­ies. What is the big man­age­ment take­away from your story?

We be­lieve that the big man­age­ment take­away from our story would be that in­ten­tion backed by com­pe­tency is the most im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent of a suc­cess­ful ven­ture. ■

In­ten­tion backed by com­pe­tency is the most im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent of a suc­cess­ful ven­ture.

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