How to help rural children, 1kg at a time

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 December, 2009, 12:00am

Yu Zhihai, 36, is the founder of 1KG More, a social enterprise that helps rural students. He talks about the challenges of running this type of operation, a new model for public welfare different from the traditional non-governmental organisation.

When did you have the idea for the 1KG programme?

In 2004, a friend of mine visited a poor rural school in Yunnan and told me what he had seen. At that time, I was working as a volunteer for a Beijing-based NGO. He said the educational conditions in rural areas like that were dire, and schools needed almost everything. That summer, I visited some rural areas in Guangxi and Guizhou. The teachers told me what they needed - books, uniforms, even ping-pong bats. Obviously, institutional support is not nearly enough. According to a survey we did later, just 5 per cent of the 400,000 village schools had these types of things. I love backpacking, and it made me think - if every tourist brought something to a country school when they were travelling, even just a book weighing 1kg, it would be a big help. In 2006, I quit my job as an IT technician and established a Beijing-based company to run full-time.

How does 1KG work?

1KG is an online platform. After registering as a member of the website, our volunteers, backpacking tourists travelling nationwide, can conduct tours of schools, report their needs and organise people interested in supporting rural students. We wanted a project that was sustainable and had a low entry threshold to encourage people to get involved. Bringing 1kg of stuff is easier than taking time to teach in a rural school or donating 300,000 yuan (HK$340,000) for a new building. Now we have more than 20,000 registered members. In the past three years, the organisation has launched about 300 tours to more than 800 country schools. Some have been visited more than once.

What is the difference between an NGO and a social enterprise? And why did you opt to establish the latter?

In my experience in the Beijing-based NGO, the environment for NGOs in the mainland is tough. They are not allowed to raise funds and have to wait for donations, which is not always enough. On the one hand they are considered great and selfless, but on the other, they cannot be financially independent. I prefer the social enterprise model as it gives us more options for collecting resources. For example, we can accept donations for some projects, and be paid for services in others.

Is it difficult to run an enterprise like 1KG?

Yes, of course. Fund-raising and looking for profitable projects are always the biggest obstacles for us. We co-operated with a publisher on a book in 2007, but it wasn't a success. Last year, we helped another big company run a promotion in rural areas using our network and resources. The project was profitable, but it wasn't sustainable. Also, volunteers questioned the project, which is understandable when you make money while others work without being paid. We rethought our strategy last year and decided to make some changes. I believe that there are three principles to operating a successful social enterprise. First, correct and up-to-date information on who needs help. Second, a platform people can trust and use easily. Third, use methods that can lower costs for volunteers.

What is the biggest challenge of managing a social enterprise?

We have seven staff, myself included. The office is in Beijing but we work in different places and contact each other online. Managing a social enterprise is the same as running a business: I have to take care of fund-raising, accounting, strategy and human resources. Strategy is the hardest - it is easy to find people who have knowledge and a common goal, but finding practical ways to accomplish it is harder. If you make the wrong decision, you waste resources.

So how do you go about finding the right strategy for 1KG?

For us, the right strategy can't be figured out in the office. We need to visit children in rural areas and find out exactly what they think and need. The first time I took books to a school was in Anhui in 2004. I stayed with the children for a few days, played games with them and talked. If I had not paid such close attention, I would have made big mistakes. With so many members now, we are thinking of rearranging our online work flow. The goal is to make the whole procedure, from a school visit to getting the students what they need, more user-friendly.