99schools in six years
That is the target of Thomas Lundgren, CEO of the funky furniture store chain The One, and his staff who make up The Onederworld – a sustainable village community programme with education at its heart. Starting with one in Kenya and two in India, they are
When eightyear-old Anasa was first given a brand new pencil, she looked at it, sniffed at the red paint on it, and then… threw it away! When her teacher admonished her, Anasa was bewildered. Why would she want to keep a piece of wood, even if it was smooth and painted a pretty colour?
It was the teacher’s turn to be stumped, until someone told her that Anasa and the 20 new pupils in her class at the Pimbiniet school, Narok South District, Kenya, had never seen unused pencils in their life.
In the classroom next door, girls and boys older than Anasa had to be told that the new notebooks they had been given were for writing in – they had never held such books before.
But it shouldn’t have really been a surprise as these children had never had the chance to go to school – until now. Thomas Lundgren’s eyes grow moist and his voice catches as he shares stories of what he’s witnessed in Kenya and India when he and volunteers from his furniture store chain The One – which was rated number 5 by the Great Places To Work Institute this year – set up schools in villages where there were none.
New books, new pencils, as well as the promise of a new life – that’s what The Onederworld offers the children of Pimbiniet, and the Barind community in Rajasthan state, India.
“Clutching their new notebooks tightly to their chests, eyes wide with suppressed excitement, the students file in and take their seats, prepared to take a giant new step in their lives,” says Thomas. For even though many are teenagers, this is the first time they are attending school.
“It was a wonderful moment – one that we are all so proud of,” he says.
Thomas’s quest to help the underprivileged children began
in 2002, when Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was not yet a cool phrase in business circles.
“I was not interested in charity; for me it’s not enough to just give money and sit back,” says Thomas. “I decided to take the advice of a friend, American philanthropist and photographer Bobby Sager, who said, ‘Be selfish; go and help somebody’.
“The idea was not just to teach a needy person to fish, but also how to sell the fish.”
Yet Thomas was still not sure how he wanted to help. Some time later he met social activist and bestselling author Craig Kielburger – co-founder of Free The Children, an international charity working to empower youngsters through education –in London.
“He’d started his company at 12, he was 22 when I met him,” says Thomas. “I was blown away when he discussed with me how to empower people through education. I realised the only way you can transform the lives of the poor in developing countries is through education.”
So that’s what Thomas decided to do, and set himself the nearimpossible goal of establishing up 2,000 schools in the next five years.
“It was just a thought; I hadn’t any idea of the location, dimension or the size of the project,” he says, now wiser for the experience. “It was about educating girls, because if you want change you have to educate girls. They are the backbone of the family, the ones who raise children, especially in developing countries like India, or in Africa. Education is the key to ending the cycle of poverty.”
It took six years before Thomas was able to work out a proper self-sustaining plan to take his idea forward. In 2008, he launched The Onederworld – a sustainable village community programme with education at its heart, for which he teamed up with Free The Children. “We work with villagers on five-year plans towards self-sufficiency through holistic community development,” he says.
There are two parts to their projects. “The priority was getting water near their homes so they don’t have to walk long distances carrying water,” says Thomas. “Otherwise, girls wouldn’t be allowed to go to school because they were the ones who fetched water for their daily needs. The next thing was teaching them about hygiene – as more people die of stomachrelated diseases in Africa. Too many girls were dying in the village. That too had to be integrated into
‘I was not interested in charity. For me, it’s not enough to just give money and then sit back’
the project. We teach them hygiene in schools, and that works.”
At the beginning of the project Thomas decided they would focus on neglected regions in the world where The One employees come from, their manufacturers are based, or just wherever it made sense to help out.
“We concentrate on areas where there is a high incidence of child labour, exploitation of children and minimal opportunities for girls,” he says. “We consult with and involve the local community and get their full participation in implementing longterm plans towards self-sufficiency.”
The Onederworld programme kicked off with the Pimbiniet community in August 2008. Pimbiniet was chosen because Save The Children already had a project running there. Since then, Onederworld has funded the building of nine classrooms of a new primary school, a library, school kitchen and latrine blocks in Pimbiniet besides providing the community with clean running water by drilling a borewell in September 2011. This has
‘Iwant to go to every country our staff come from, so that they get a feeling of giving back’
increased attendance in the school as the children no longer have to walk long distances to fetch water. Anasa and her fellow students have now progressed to the next class.
In 2012, two new Onederworld projects were launched, this time in the Barind community in Rajasthan. This is comprised of two hamlets, Bhilo ki Barind and Solankiyo ki Barind, home to around 300 households. It is an isolated village, and since there is little agriculture, there are no real means of livelihood.
Over the past two years, they have not only seen the establishment of a new fully equipped classroom, but also witnessed several other developments in the village such as a new borewell that gives them access to clean drinking water, and learning more efficient farming techniques. A second classroom is now under construction and will help to educate more students from the community.
Gender-specific toilets are being built in the school to help increase female enrolment. The school has a new well and hand pump, ensuring long-term sustainable access to clean water for the community. Six types of herbs are grown in the school garden, which benefit the school and local community as medicine.
“Now, our big idea is a one-on-one store-village adoption programme where each of The One’s stores will eventually support one village and work with the villagers on holistic community development,” says Thomas. “So, I’ve reconfigured the numbers to 99 schools by 2020 – one for each of our 99 stores. Right now we have one school in Africa and two in India, with buildings with running water, classrooms and a library.”
Thomas is taking his staff with him on his dream. “The entire staff is behind us in this,” he says. “I also wanted our 100-plus suppliers to be involved in this project. So, when you see a little red tag on any item in our store, it means that for every item bought they too give a percentage of the price to the cause. We are now trying to get the customers involved. And we have formed a company that runs the schools so that the donations go to the cause directly.”
What Thomas is insistent about is that The Onederworld should concentrate on quality. “We should know the people we are helping,” he says. “It is not always possible, but if there are 736 students I want to know how many of them continue in school, how many dropped out this year, and if so, why? How many of them go on to high school? Our work should be quantifiable.
“I want to know the breakdown, the number of boys and girls, the percentage in each class, how well they do, everything. Right now in schools in Africa around 10 per cent go on to higher education. We want to aim for 25 per cent in our schools. So we are continuously improving.”
Thomas hopes his staff can go on sabbaticals to the schools. “That way there is a connection between what we are doing here – collecting or donating funds for the schools – and the effect it has on the children there,” he says. “When people ask them ‘Are you the guys who are helping this school?’ it makes them feel good, and that’s what all this is about.
“I next want to go to the Philippines because we have a lot of Filipino staff. I want to go to every country our staff come from so they feel a connection, a feeling of giving back.”
The education of these girls in Rajasthan ensures a better future for all
Bright and clean classrooms in Rajasthan encourage learning
The project is a real family affair: Thomas with his wife and daughters in Pimbiniet
A smart, newly built classroom in Rajasthan
The One family are all lending a helping hand
Hygiene has been improved, as seen by this handwashing station in Pimbiniet
Thomas wants to take his team along with him in his dream