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Difference Maker

Rohini Nilekani pours her wealth into getting books to India's poorest children

When she found herself suddenly wealthy, the Indian philanthropist founded Pratham Books, a nonprofit publisher that uses innovative ways to put low-cost books in the hands of millions of kids.

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Still, she says, everything that Pratham Books does aims to "democratize" reading.

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Pratham Books is able to price its books so low partly because it's a nonprofit, subsidized by capital from Nilekani and other donors. Nilekani is unapologetic about this and says that while financial sustainability is a goal, Pratham Books's first priority is social impact.

But Pratham Books also keeps its costs low through continuous innovation. One of its biggest recent successes has been story cards, sheets of laminated paper folded to make a story and priced at only 2.5 rupees (about 4 cents). Children who can't afford books can share and trade these easy-to-read, easy-to-store cards. Ten million have been sold already.

Pratham Books is also trying out "sachet" books in retail stores across India – tiny, cheap books targeted at poor rural customers.

"We are constantly trying out new things," Nilekani says. "Some work, some fail, but because we don't have to worry about the financial bottom line, we can take risks."

Pratham Books's biggest challenge is distribution. Recognizing that it can't possibly cover the whole of India alone, Pratham teams up with both government and private organizations. In 2008-09, it partnered with the government of the state of Bihar, one of the largest and poorest states in India. The state gave more than 70,000 government schools budgets to buy books.

Kamal Jha works in the nonprofit sector and helped the Bihar government obtain the books. "We chose Pratham Books because even the poorest child can relate to them. They are simple and colorful, with Indian authors and local themes," he says. "Later we needed Urdu books for Muslim children, and Pratham was one of the very few publishers which supplied them."

Mr. Jha recalls how Nilekani drove for hours through one of the remotest districts of Bihar to visit a school run by her great-grandfather and established by Mohandas Gandhi in 1917.

"It showed how keen she was to do something in Bihar, and her family commitment to philanthropy," he says. "Corporate donations always come with so many conditions. This kind of enthusiasm means so much more."

Pratham Books is also teaching the teachers. Its new pilot program, currently operating in 45 schools, partners with small private schools, giving them what it calls a "Library in a Classroom," which includes books, activities, and training for teachers.

Pratham Books also teams with large consumer brands, whose distribution networks reach into every corner of India. Unilever, the consumer-goods giant, sends salesladies door to door selling soap. Pratham Books persuaded Unilever to send Pratham Books along, too.

Children's author Subhadra Sen Gupta has published her books with many top publishers, including Penguin and Puffin. Yet her books with Pratham Books are especially meaningful, she says, because of its reach.

"I have done sessions with children in government schools who usually only see textbooks, and I love the way their world opens up with Pratham Books," she says. "My books being published in so many languages is a miracle, because no [other] Indian publisher will do that for you."

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