Children and youth in small towns, however talented, often lag behind because systems and circumstances have been unfair to them. Nainital-based Kiwa Singh’s, Mountain Village Foundation (MVF) aims to tackle that and more. Having worked with Teach For India (TFI) for six years, Kiwa’s journey into the development sector began way before she founded MVF. Realising that village residents lack rozgar (means of employment), the organisation, with its programmes addressing skill and entrepreneurship development, has been helming several initiatives to empower under resourced children and youth who lack access and opportunities.

In conversation with SheThePeople, Kiwa Singh talks about the Mountain Village Foundation, challenges faced by them, how skill development encourages self-sustainability in villages, and why we need more opportunities to amplify women’s voices.

Mountain Village Foundation’s vision

Kiwa, who first worked as a Fellow, a Program Manager and later as a Program Specialist, draws her understanding of the development sector, its needs and ways to tackle pressing problems, from her experience at TFI. It was in 2018 that she decided to move back to her hometown, in Uttarakhand, “with a vision to empower hill communities to become self-sustainable.” Soon after, she started MVF and got it registered as an NGO.  

“During my conversations with people in the villages on what they thought was the most challenging problem, they’d almost always say ‘rozgar’ or a means of employment,” she recalls.

They would say, “You teach our children English and computers and make them like you so they can get jobs”.  

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Prarambh programme

MVF’s Prarambh programme for the youth was started with the aim to offer training, employment opportunities and a means to earn a livelihood. “We chalked out a programme where we would train a group of girls from a village to make high quality, marketable products using the artform ‘Aipan’”. 

Presently, the programme trains youth to learn how to make marketable products using the art form Aipan (Aipan is traditional folk art, specifically made by the women of Uttarakhand), quilling and also photography so they can earn a livelihood through the sale of their products. Kiwa says they will be adding more projects in the coming years. “Seeing the youth bring money home helps the children to aspire to do the same, to learn new skills, to earn a livelihood from that when they are older, and all within their village, without migrating.”

Kiwa reveals there still were more questions that had to be answered. It was from research and conversations that she realised the biggest roadblock in the village areas is employment/access to employment opportunities. “I thought, even if we have provided some form of employment, how much employment could our NGO really generate? The realisation was that this was never going to be enough. And that’s how the theory of change model was born.”

There had to be something more, there had to be a systemic shift. 

Mountain Village Foundation
MVF’s young women displaying their Aipan art-form.

The ‘theory of change’ model

Kiwa executed the theory of change model with an aim to offer employment on the basis of skills development. “I realised if my education and experiences have got me to a place where I can use some of these skills like using the internet, taking pictures of the products, making catalogues, etc., to get a small organisation started, then what is stopping all the village youth from doing that for themselves?”

The talent was never the challenge, it was the lack of opportunity to understand how to take that talent forward, to earn a livelihood.

Little Entrepreneurs Programme

MVF’s second programme named Little Entrepreneurs was born from the thought that the children need the right kind of skills matching up to their potential for them to access employment opportunities. As a skill centric education model, it enables children to develop an entrepreneurial mindset, from a young age, where they understand the real problems in the neighbourhood. The foundation also brings in local entrepreneurs to take encouraging sessions with the kids.  

“Our curriculum is designed in a project-based learning format and in such a manner that while solving these real problems, the children simultaneously pick up soft skills (communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity, etc) and pick-up hard skills (writing, computer, story-telling, photography, making products from waste), so they have the means to succeed in the 21st century.”

Interestingly, the programme’s teaching methodology allows the teacher to be co-partner and facilitator in the learning process and experiences, allowing children to learn through partnerships including testing their ideas. 

“We believe that a skill centric learning environment for children and youth, offering them opportunities to develop and test entrepreneurial ideas is a huge step in becoming self- sustainable and an answer to ‘rozgar’ for many more people.”

Having already tested their pilot project (Little Entrepreneurs) in two low-income schools in villages near Nainital last year, they are now scaling up to reach more children in different areas. Presently, MVF’s initiatives are running in two villages near Nainital. 

Mountain Village Foundation
Kiwa, alongside her programme facilitators and volunteers, works towards building skill development in children who are less privileged in villages.

Challenges 

The major challenge when they started out, she recalls, was to make village residents understand this idea of entrepreneurship. “Parents weren’t sure how activities were adding up to learning since their understanding was limited to classroom academic learning and seeing children write in the notebooks.” 

Kiwa, however, took the simplest approach to overcome this, one step at a time. “Respecting their views and understanding their requirement, we first helped children improve in academics. Simultaneously, we began to create spaces for the parents to see the other talents their children have, like poetry writing, story writing, acting, dancing and gave them a glimpse of how their children can have a future through these skills.” 

Not disregarding the fact that overcoming challenges is still work in progress, Kiwa stands relieved that they have formed meaningful relationships with the parents who are beginning to understand their work. “They understand our purpose when they see their children work on projects to improve their village. For scaling up the children’s program, we believe we need to be within the system to be able to support the maximum number of children. For the youth, it became comparatively easier as they began to earn some money through the sale of their products and could support their families.” 

MVF also aims to set up more skill development hubs in the near future, so the youth can have continuous access to hard skills. 

Generating employment with the right resources

Local residents often have no choice but to migrate to cities because of limited opportunities. Considering she knows the areas and their functioning well, Kiwa suggests, “in order to spur development that ensures that marginalised communities are in a position to create a sustainable living for themselves, skill centric learning within the education system is a must.”

In today’s world, with access to technology, learning can happen from any corner of the world, the possibilities are endless.

She acknowledges how the hotel and tourism industry has been playing a huge role in opening up opportunities for employment and this is something that can further generate more employment. “There have been many inspiring examples of eco-village tourism and that’s one example of leveraging local resource.”

If more avenues can be opened to celebrate what’s local and truly unique to our culture and then make it global, Uttarakhand has huge scope in creating livelihoods. 

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Filling the structural gaps in the education system  

Kiwa feels there needs to be more room for inclusion/awareness around entrepreneurial development as part of our education system, especially in small towns. “That’s the exact gap that MVF aims to bridge through the Little Entrepreneurs program. We aim to build this awareness, understanding, equip teachers with the right skills through training and resources so they can instil entrepreneurial thinking in their students.”  

On women taking entrepreneurial roles in Kumaon

Kiwa recalls some great Kumaoni women personalities like Gaura Devi  (Chipkoo Movement), authors like Shivani (who was the first woman from Kumaon to win worldwide acclaim as a writer) and Basanti Samant, who brought together women to save Kosi river and conserve forests. Referring to how some women have been trailblazers in their fields here, Kiwa analyses that while women have always had a great sense of business and leadership traits, it’s however, platforms and recognition that’s always been lacking in order to push them forward.  

If there are opportunities/platforms for women’s voices to be amplified, we will see many more such examples.

She is certain that if women have opportunities to help widen their view of vital roles they can play and be encouraged to take on those unconventional paths, a lot more women entrepreneurs will be born.

I believe that education that allows for a child’s ideas to be heard and nurtured, gives them the confidence to try, fail and re-try. That’s how entrepreneurship is born.

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