How a Gift Economy Powers Education in Rural Nepal

In recent months, I have worked a lot with currencies, as I’m involved with Dropis, a team of developers, researchers, and designers dedicated to creating a currency for the sharing economy. So, when I came across “Love is our Currency,” a TEDx talk by Manjil Rana, cofounder and president of Maya Universe Academy, my curiosity was piqued:

I was impressed with the video, and their gift economy model was exciting. The founders aimed to create a self-sustaining system to support quality education for children in Nepal’s rural areas. Impressive. Right after watching the talk, I got in touch with Manjil and asked to meet him in Kathmandù to get more details.

As the Maya (meaning “love” in Nepali) Universe Academy proves, love for your community and passion for solving real community problems can be new forms of currency—a new means of exchange that generate impressive changes for good.

Entrepreneurship in a Country with Systemic Crises

I landed in Nepal, eager to see the country and meet these amazing people. By the end of the first day, I hadn’t met with Manjil, as he was needed at Damauli School. But over the phone, he put me in contact with Prabesh KC, his cofounder.

I met Prabesh over a cup of tea, along with Prayas Cheetri, Maya’s IT person. They were in Kathmandu to buy some machinery for the production of juices and jams. The fruit for these products came from the lush banana and orange plantations the communities created at the various sites that now make up the Maya Universe.

Prabesh, me and Prayas in Kathmandu.

The chat with Prabesh and Prayas confirmed my impressions: Nepal is a wonderful country, but plagued by enormous social and political problems. A weak democracy, born after years of civil war, was recently threatened by the inability of parties to agree on a shared vision and the political climate is still unstable. The distance between the Nepalese people and the government is abysmal.

The first thing Prabesh told me was that quality education -- both elementary and higher -- is limited, if not absent, in Nepal. That was why he and Manjil spent most of their lives as students abroad, mainly in India.

At the end of their studies in anthropology (Manjil) and social business (Prabesh), the two felt very little excitement about creating a traditional business, or in working abroad for a corporation. Instead, they were aware of the enormous problems facing education in their country and decided to devote their themselves to finding a solution.

They resolved to challenge the government by showing that the quality of education provided to children, especially in rural areas of Nepal, was so low that they can do better with little or no resources.

Manjil owned a piece of land in the county of Damauli. It was here that Manjil, Prabesh, and Yoon from Korea began, literally, from inside a tent.

The very first “classroom” during a monsoon rain.

From Loans to Self-sustaining Social Enterprise

In the beginning, the school survived only through the support of friends, but soon infrastructure and more organization was needed. Incredibly enough, the guys were able to obtain bank loans to support their project by using family property as collateral. Although this helped the team to leave the tents and build better facilities, it strained family relationships.

These events instigated the entrepreneurial mindset of the team. From the very beginning, Maya Universe Academy started experimenting diverse models with the aim of making the effort self-sustaining.

Since the most accessible resource they had was land, they started with growing bananas and oranges and breeding pigs, chickens, and ducks.

In communities where schools were established, it did not take long for the villagers to understand the value of the project, and soon they began contributing -- especially those whose children were attending the new schools.

These skills and labor exchanges are at the core of the project. This gift economy sustains the enterprise.

One of the current school buildings.

Explaining the Economic Model

Admittance at Maya Schools is effectively free, which makes them the first free private schools recognized by the government of Nepal.

In exchange for the children’s admittance, the parents work two days per month in operations. They contribute to the production process (eg: farming), or just help with facility construction and other needs.

As production is still not mature enough to make the full monthly bank loan payment (though it covers most needs), Maya asks volunteers visiting the schools to pay approximately $200 per month for food and shelter. This is the only money coming into Maya for now. The aim of the team is to eliminate the need for this funding source, which should be possible when production ramps up.

The founders’ vision is to avoid NGO funding, as it is not always transparent, and to operate solely on a self-sustaining model. These educational communities should be strong enough to hold their own in the long term, and create skilled and educated workers. This system repurposes the often under-utilized skills of the villagers, who are farmers, ranchers, and foremen, to ensure a very basic need: a good education for children who will eventually become key players in local development.

The Impacts of Maya on Communities

Today, the project educates more than 80 children, from six to 11 years old, in three villages (Damauli, Sagarmatha, Syanja). Word of mouth spreads very quickly, and numerous requests have been made for Maya to open new schools.

The quality of education Maya provides is more respected than the government-backed schools. Older children coming from government-backed schools must start in a lower-grade class in order to catch up.

The impact of the Maya schools is so positive that the local government schools have increased the quality of education out of fear of losing students to Maya.

Manijl and Prabesh with some students and foreign teachers.

Looking Out for Love

Discussing the future of Maya with the cofounders, it became clearer to me how projects like Open Source Ecology will be important in the future. For example, an open source approach could be used by Maya to build the jam and juice canning machines. This would be a more cost-effective solution than buying pre-made industrial machinery, but is still not feasible due to cost.

The daily life of Maya consists of experimenting with new ways to create wealth, and this reminded me a lot of the lean approach of hackers, which emphasizes continuous experimentation and iterative design. Both are key to the “changemaker” movement. I referred to this in a recent Shareable article.

What Can be Learned from Maya

When I arrived in Nepal, I was hoping to learn how a local community creates wealth and a more meaningful life. By the time I left Nepal, I had a lot of ideas and inspiration.

I’ve learned that gift economies could have a big positive impact on local communities. Maya’s work suggests that supporting social enterprises with the production of tangible wealth (like agricultural products) can work, and even teach the “rich” West a lesson. Those who wonder how to make sense of their lives and skills can take a cue from these men in Nepal who created something important to help their community.

Volunteering in one of Maya schools is not only an enriching experience, but could teach you a lot about how to organize sharing projects in your own community. Nepal is not the only country in crisis; we should all evaluate new economic models, and focus on our own communities.

Follow me on @meedabyte, and get in touch if you want more information about Maya.

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