STONEHAM — In a conference room of the India-based nonprofit Akshaya Patra Foundation, Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande patiently explains the meaning of social innovation.
“It is the application of business strategies to solve social problems,” says Deshpande, who heads the foundation’s US offices. The crux of that strategy is optimizing resources to reach more people and drive down costs in the process. Using this approach, with aggressive fund-raising and Indian government funding, Deshpande has figured out how to feed a meal to a child in India, where he was born and raised, for $15 a year.
Last week, Deshpande, 63, an Andover resident, and an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and philanthropist, joined Bill Clinton at Akshaya Patra’s Jaipur kitchen in northern India, one of almost two dozen kitchens, some very high tech, that deliver meals to 1.3 million children. The visit was part of the former president’s Clinton Global Initiative Asia tour to showcase seven nonprofits. In a statement afterward, Clinton said, “The lunches served are not only healthy meals for kids, they are also tools that help to get more children into the classroom.”
The name Akshaya Patra comes from Hindu mythology: Akshaya Patra is a vessel with an inexhaustible food supply. One of the organization’s basic tenets is that free midday meals are an incentive for children who have little to eat at home to come to school. Since the program’s inception in 2000, school drop-out rates have decreased significantly. “One educated person in the family can lift the family out of poverty, break the cycle,” Deshpande says.
The Indian Supreme Court mandated in 2001 that all government schools provide midday meals, a program whose success has been patchy at best. With limited funding and overcrowding, many schools do not offer meals and those that do may not meet hygiene and safety standards.
Deshpande was raised in a middle-class family and is no stranger to the travails of the poor. His father’s job as labor commissioner was to protect the rights of the disadvantaged. According to custom, his family fed students in need.
He is a founder, founding investor, or chairman of many tech companies, including Sycamore Networks in Chelmsford, Tejas Networks, and Cascade Communications. He is a member of the MIT Corporation and with his wife, Jaishree, donated funding to the institute’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation.
In 2007, Deshpande, Jaishree, and a third donor, Ravindra Chamaria, made a commitment to CGI to grow Akshaya Patra, which brought the organization visibility and big donors like US Caterpillar Inc. It took time to convince the Indian offices of Akshaya Patra to spend time and resources to raise money. “Indian nonprofits are not good at fund-raising,” Deshpande says. “In the beginning, the people in Akshaya Patra, India, could not understand how some of the money donated to feed a child could be used to fund-raise.”
The organization’s goal is to reach 5 million children by 2020. Whether it can do that is a question. Poor infrastructure, corruption, and changing Indian government policy are the biggest hurdles. Recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a supporter of Akshaya
Patra and the midday meal program, but that could change.
“Nonprofit laws in India are complicated,” says Nitya Ghotge, founder-director of Anthra, an Indian nonprofit that empowers rural women through training in livestock management. “Trusts, religious institutions, and nonprofits are all clubbed together under the same laws. And if a nonprofit’s objectives are not in sync with those of the government, it is even more complicated.” Akshaya Patra has not been as successful in spreading its message as it would like. Most Indians still are not aware of the role food can play in education.
One mother understands this. Lakshmi Venkatesh’s two daughters attend a school where Akshaya Patra provides meals. “I am assured my girls will get one nutritious meal a day,” Venkatesh says on the phone. “I have to work and often don’t have the time or the resources to cook. I might not be able to offer a guest food, but I know my girls will be fed well in school.”
The logistics of what Akshaya Patra does are staggering. Over 20 highly mechanized kitchens, 10 of which have been certified by the International Food Safety Management System (a first for a nonprofit) are spread across India to cook and distribute meals. There are machines to measure rice and water; to make 60,000 rounds of the Indian bread chapati in an hour; to cook curries. Specially designed vans, with grids for gigantic food containers, deliver meals to schools by 1 p.m. Van routes are optimized to avoid delivery delays, an important consideration in a country notorious for its heavy traffic.
“Technology and compassion, together, can make magic,” Deshpande says.Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at email@example.com.