Our First Project: Trials & Triumphs
This is a post on our experience building our first container based facility and all the related project highs and lows. This first project was a classroom for the DDU-GKY Skill Training program under the Ministry of Rural Development.
In early 2015, we were on the lookout for different applications of container infrastructure in the development sector in India. We decided to start with the medical sector and our founder Nikhil spent time visiting laparoscopic Surgery Camps under the NRHM in Himachal, and other medical camps in Rajasthan.
We had also decided to work with a friend running an architecture firm, who happened to speak to a fellow Columbia alumni working under the Ministry of Rural Development about us.
This led to a meeting, and he explained that infrastructure was indeed a pain point under their skill training program, DDU-GKY which has the most stringent evaluation process in the country on the infrastructure being used to conduct their program.
About the program
- It requires ‘training partners’ which are private companies (Known as PIAs / Project Implementation Agencies) to conduct training as per the DDU-GKY curriculum, using a strict set of standard operating procedures, and maintaining a standardized MIS reporting structure.
- The Ministry of Rural Development funds the program, and essentially runs the program
- Due diligence for matching program parameters is done by National institute of Rural Development (NIRD) in the South and NABARD Consulting Agency (NABCONS) in North India.
- The government releases target numbers for the number of kids to be trained (‘mobilized’) in cities/towns across the country, and each training center which is set up by the PIA has a target number of kids to train.
- The PIA is paid per individual it trains, and the payment is only fully made once 90% of a batch is placed and has been in their job for a certain period of time.
We hoped to tackle various program issues using our mobile infrastructure. These problems were:
- The PIAs have difficulty finding buildings in more remote areas which matched DDU-GKY criteria for ceiling height, ventilation space, toilets per student etc. There are significant search costs involved, and a new center took very long to set up
- There is also the expense agencies have to make on renovating buildings they find to fit program criteria, which is a sunk cost once they fulfill their training quota and change locations
- After a center is set up, the regional due diligence agency, NABCONS or NIRD has to come do an evaluation and approve the classroom for use. This means the PIA can end up spending more than a months rent, waiting for the center to be approved before training can start
- A latent problem we noticed: Once training starts, and the center is failing to mobilize as many kids as projected, or is facing a higher demand for training than anticipated, they’re constrained by the building they’re operating out of. Basically, they cannot add/reduce the number of classrooms subject to demand.
We proposed a standardized, container based classroom which would match all DDU-GKY criteria and could be moved anywhere. This posed several advantages for a PIA. Namely:
- They would only have to search for land to rent to place their classrooms, instead of spending weeks search for a suitable building
- They could avoid renovation costs, which would be a sunk cost for them
- Since the classrooms would be standardized, we could work together with the Ministry to get the design pre-approved so that they did not have to spend time waiting for an approval once a classroom was up. This would also save significant costs for all agencies involved!
- They could add/remove classroom as per the demand they were facing in a particular location, thus increasing program profitability
We proceeded to get the classroom designed by Common Ground Practice, a Delhi based architecture firm. This design was projected to be a model which could be quickly replicated.
Containers are slightly expensive to transport so to decrease this cost for the clients, the architect suggested we build an expandable container design, which would be one container which opens horizontally once reaching its site, and we build the rest of the structure with prefabricated panels.
The container itself only took about a week to fabricate, while the panels took longer since we decided to use an eco-friendly board for the exterior, which we had to transport from Kolkata.
The installation took significantly longer than anticipated, as with any pilot field project. This started with multiple problems with our transporter, negotiating their prices up till the minute of departure, waking up to find out our container never made it out of the yard, overloading our container before it was placed on a truck so that it swung wildly and almost crushed one of our founders between two containers (!!!) and then finally reaching the project site, only to face our biggest obstacle, a 4 foot deep, 3 foot wide sewage drain surrounding the project site.
Drain is Bane!
This is where my co-founder Akshat and I came up with a new motto, "Drain is bane". A drain covered the entire entrance to our facility, and the cement drain cover collapsed under the weight of the crane as it was entering the facility. This meant the truck and the crane could not enter the facility, because the drain was deep/wide enough to cause them to capsize. We proceeded to spend the entire remainder of the day filling the drain with bricks/cement blocks till it was safe to drive over.
However, our transporter refused to take the container over the brick filled ditch as he still felt it was still unsafe. So we had to devise a complex maneuver where the crane entered the facility, did a 180 degree turn, came back out just up till the drain, picked the container up off the truck and then placed it onto the site after doing another 180 degree turn.
It was after this experience that we decided to come up with a comprehensive list of site checks, all of which have to be met before delivery/installation.
The moment we finished building the classroom, we were ecstatic that it all fit together! There were some issues with panel height/container alignment and leveling that took a few more visits to sort out, but the classroom itself was operational, including the bathrooms and this year, 120 individuals will receive skill training in our eco-friendly classroom facility.
Our experience told us that even though a panel-based design which fit into a single container was a very good idea on paper, in reality it was very expensive to install, difficult to manage, and required large scale manufacturing capability in order to fit precisely down to a few millimeters. The total cost of making the classrooms in three containers would also have been much cheaper, as our specialized panels were expensive to make.
Additionally, since some of the green materials we used had to be transported from across the country, their carbon footprint was huge!
Scaling the Project
This project has an immense possibility of scale. We have now figured out the project investment, the price point at which the PIAs can comfortably pay rent for the classroom, and have calculated that a classroom can give a 25% year on year ROI over a five-year period! There are 123 companies working under this program all over India, and this project could yield comfortable returns for investors, while building eco friendly infrastructure and training young adults from communities that would otherwise be unreachable for PIAs.
However, though our team has a solid classroom design ready to scale, we’ve hit a problem with the Ministry. The program guideline document states that ‘Mobile Centers are not permitted under the DDU-GKY program’. Even though our containers are not mobile (they are not on wheels, and are movable but not mobile) and we are currently offering only classrooms and not full centers, this guideline has to be changed in order for us to scale the program from next year.
The classroom is supposed to be under review as a pilot stage design for a year, after which NABCONS has to approve it as a scalable design. This will also be a problem for us since we no longer plan to use our first design and will be using a different one next time.
This is something Aadhan is working on day in and day out. We hope that the project can achieve scale once the pilot period ends, which would be really exciting for us and would help us achieve our goal of recycling container at scale.
Have any questions about this project? Feel free to email me herer: firstname.lastname@example.org