Pramodh Rai

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It goes by the name of Jugnuu, which is Hindi for “firefly”. The rationale is simple: “We want to light up people’s lives,” says its Singaporean co-founder Pramodh Rai.

The social enterprise aims to leverage technology for good, by developing a lowcost mobile phone solution to help the 30 million elementary schoolchildren in India practise their English.

Jugnuu puts through automated, algorithm-based calls to students’ phones three to five times a week, for up to eight minutes each time. Instructions are in the local language, and students are tested on English vocabulary, comprehension, syntax and grammar.

Rai, 29, a software engineer, focused on India due to strong family ties there, giving him a familiarity with the country. His co-founders, business consultant Priya Andleigh and software engineer Ankita Gupta, are from India but based in Singapore.

Set up in August 2015, Jugnuu had emerged tops in the Singapore International Foundation’s Young Social Entrepreneurs (YSE) programme the year before. The programme aims to inspire, equip and enable youth of different nationalities to embark on social enterprises in Singapore and beyond.

That experience gave them clarity to refine their vision and product, Rai says. The programme included a study trip to Mumbai, where he and his co-founders did a market study of potential users and spoke to consultants, investors and fellow entrepreneurs. He adds: “YSE helped us adopt a more structured approach. We met many brilliant minds from around the world, such as the team from (global nonprofit) Ashoka Foundation. This allowed us to draw insights to fine-tune our business plan. Meeting other youth also inspired us. We’re very grateful the programme has given us a supportive platform to achieve our goals.”

Since then, Jugnuu has run two campaigns in New Delhi with 1,500 students taking part. The results have been very positive, with students on the phone for about nine minutes per call.

Jugnuu’s success has been partly due to its informal partnership with non-profit Teach For India (TFI). The chief executive officer and chief technology officer at TFI had been so impressed with the product that they connected Rai and his team to other members to take the conversation forward. Jugnuu now collaborates with about 40 teachers from TFI.

Says Rai: “TFI already has a strong culture of trying out new ways of teaching in its classrooms by passionate teachers who foster innovative approaches. By attracting those teachers, we benefited from this atmosphere. As we continue our efforts, some teachers help us to coordinate internally at TFI, helping us to grow in Delhi.

“Working with TFI has been inspiring, with several moments when we were collectively touched by the drive of TFI teachers towards helping their students. Our common goal of helping students learn better motivated both sides to overcome timezone and geographical barriers to get things done.”

Dhruv Gupta, a TFI Fellow based in Delhi, says their successful collaboration has been impactful. “Rai and the team are incredibly flexible and adaptive, and keep (their) purpose of helping the children at the centre of everything. These students are definitely going to use this access and exposure (to English) positively (which will in turn) develop leadership within their communities.”

Jugnuu is keeping its programmes in India for now, with plans for Bangalore and Mumbai next. But things may change as its good work is recognised. In March 2016, the team received a call from the United States’ State Department, asking if they had the resources to offer English lessons to Syrian refugees living in Jordan and Lebanon.

Rai says the proposal is still on the cards, as he and his team have to figure out how to create an Arabic version of Jugnuu. Yet he remains upbeat.

“If this takes off, it would be a validation of the work that we do. Working with the State Department to help refugees would prove Jugnuu’s ability to help not just students in India, but also in other parts of the world.” Rai and his Jugnuu co-founders have clearly shown that, by harnessing the power of networks, a world of possibilities opens with inspirational cascading effects.