Ampersand was established in 2004 by Rustom Kerawalla, Founder – Chairman of the group. Since then, this company has made its presence felt beyond education — in healthcare and social welfare.
Kerawalla talks about the latest venture of his Rs 1,000 crore group. What started as a school management services provider, has forayed into the healthcare segment as well through assisted, affordable telemedicine clinics — Ashvin Care.
In an interview with Jescilia Karayamparambil and R N Bhaskar, Kerawalla talks about Ashvin Care and the way forward for it.
Tell us the journey of the Ampersand group
Ampersand Group started its first school in 2004. I was new to the sector and started as a franchisee group. By 2006, we had around three schools. (The relationship with the franchise didn’t move too well.) That is when VIBGYOR was born. We got into education on our own. We focused on how we could scale up without compromising on quality. Since then, year-on-year, we have been growing. Today, there are around 40 schools.
We build capabilities to develop products in-house— right from our own construction to designing our own curriculum, to our own platform. So, that we could deliver quality and live up to the promise made to the parents.
Unlike most other educational institutes, we set up a corporate structure in our institution.
The system in the process of developing the curriculum and delivering the curriculum was the most critical. So, other than ramping up the numbers, there were structures we put in place. It did pretty well.
Tell us about Ampersand Group’s association with the governments.
About two and a half years back, we realised that we could do a lot more. While the VIBGYOR group of schools continued to grow, we wanted to ensure that our systems benefit others as well.
The largest organisations that are running schools are the governments. This is when we started approaching governments with our systems.
It is during this time, we realised that governments were prioritising vocational training in schools. Thus, we acquired a majority of stakes in a couple of companies who were into vocational education. This is how the journey in vocational education started.
Initially, the government started using our systems and processes in the K-12 sector. We started the vocational systems (for governments) which we did not have in VIBGYOR before. Of course, technology and curriculum were there with us. So, it was not difficult for us to get into that.
As part of the evolution, we entered into livelihood generation as well. We realised that vocational training did not necessarily ensure a job or provide a livelihood. So, we tried to handhold the students. This is how the whole gamut evolved.
During one of our interactions with the tribal department, we realised the health of the student is a major concern. This was during that time we got an opportunity to invest in a Singapore-based company.
There were a lot of synergies even though education and health are different topics. Both were basic requirements, and there were synergies between them. For the backward and marginalised communities, along with education, health is a part of the overall bouquet.
This is how we entered into the remote healthcare sector. This is the same time the government gave the sector that extra thrust.
After pandemic hit India, did remote learning become more and more critical?
I always believed that education needed to be blended and further leveraged through technology.
Two years ago on a pilot basis, we introduced a system in a VIBGYOR school, in Malad (remote learning). I received a lot of flak from parents and teachers and was forced to withdraw it then.
But today, we had to roll out these systems due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This allowed us to start things from where we had left.
When the right time came, parents, teachers and children adapted to this change.
Even when the physical school reopens, there will be heavy use of technology. There will be a significant change in the way institutions will function.
How many skills do you offer?
Today, we offer 12 of the 15 skills that are listed in the National Skills Qualifications Framework (NSQF).
We are not averse in taking on more. But, we are also developing skills training in the technical and higher education space. It is not just as per NSQF of 1 to 4 grade, but from the 4th grade to 8th grade onwards — at least in the mechanical space.
What is your vision for primary healthcare centres, Ashvin Care?
One is the digital and technological framework and the other is the physical part of the centre — whether it is primary healthcare centres (PHCs), sub-primary healthcare centres or community clinics. At this point of time, the focus is entirely on PHCs.
We are working with some governments — Mauritius and Uganda — to develop the digital and technological framework in e-healthcare. India is already in the process to develop the framework.
I believe that in the case of education and health, there is a need to have a central registry. So, a person’s data can be accessed from anywhere — whether it is PHCs, community clinics or hospitals.
We received a positive response for a few of the projects in West Bengal and Punjab. So, in these projects, we developed village-level nodes. The anchor of these village-level nodes is healthcare, education and food. Then, we add other vocations which will depend on the geography.
Who pays for the services?
In a couple of places, we have modelled it in such a way that the patient pays subsidised prices (remaining cost is incurred by the government). The entire cost cannot be absorbed by an individual in such remote locations.
The cost at which we are offering healthcare is lower than what the government is spending. This will allow the government to get the job done at a cheaper cost. It will be a win-win situation for all.
Have you looked at an association with insurance for your PHCs?
Not at present, but we will definitely look at it positively. There is a need to realise that the PHC is an investment. This is mainly because people in remote locations do not have access to primary health care. So, health issues spiral up and this becomes a burden for the secondary healthcare sector. By the time healthcare is provided it is too late.
How will these PHCs operate?
These PHCs will be owned and operated by entrepreneurs. The results will also be better and a lot of the funding will come from the schemes that they are entitled to, and which they are not using due to lack of awareness. For instance subsidised loans from the government at rates as low as 2 per cent.
We handhold these entrepreneurs to set up the PHCs — from applying for low-interest loans to accessing other forms of subsidiaries.
The capital cost for the health centre will be under Rs 7 lakh provided it is rented. In case of developing their own infrastructure that will cost additional Rs 7 lakh.
What turnover are you looking at with this PHC model? How many centres are you looking at?
The target for the next two-three years collectively is USD one billion. I strongly feel education and health will have an equal contribution.
For the first year, we are looking at setting up 1,000 centres. The centres should break even in the first year of its operations.
How much will the group invest in this business?
The group has allocated initial investment of Rs 50 crore for this project. But a large part of investments will be put in by an entrepreneur for technology.
What will be the strength of your in-house staff for PHCs?
We estimate that there will be a need for one doctor for every two and a half PHCs. These ratios will change as time passes.
Is your group considering to get listed?
We are preparing to get listed. My team is given the target to get listed by 2022. We may or may not get listed, but we are trying to keep that option open.
How many students do you bring out every year?
We have a total strength of 50,000 odd students. Around 2,500 students will be clearing grade 10 or grade 12 from VIBGYOR. However, the number of students in the lower grades is disproportionately higher. When it comes to government-owned schools, we get around 150,000 students annually.
How has COVID-19 and going digital hurt your margins?
We have managed to survive. We had a considerable number of parents who have been good with us. We have been good to some parents who have been in need too. In addition, the flexibility provided by banks and, at times, deferring salaries paid to our staff helped us survive. Life is not that normal but we survived.