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

Friday - - Making A Difference -

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

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