In a region lacking community mobilization, Carsten Rübsaamen is addressing the education gap in rural areas of Mongolia and Cambodia by rallying local communities and targeting the lack of quality education for youth and young adults. By connecting existing resources, integrating all stakeholders and enabling local entrepreneurs to setup financially sustainable Learning Centers in their communities, Carsten creates a new comprehensive, self-reinforcing process that fosters quality education and community empowerment.
The New Idea
Carsten is pioneering work at the nexus of quality education and community building in rural areas of Mongolia and Cambodia. With a sound business model and a codified replication process, he ensures long-term sustainability of both the finances and the idea itself. Starting out as a simple Scout exchange program between Germany and Mongolia in 2005, Carsten progressively developed what is now Bookbridge, transforming a mere book supply project into a successful market-driven social enterprise. In a highly participatory process, Bookbridge sets up financially sustainable Learning Centers in remote areas that provide infrastructure, learning material, and training courses based on the local needs. The first Learning Center was established in Mongolia in 2009. To date, there are ten centers in Mongolia and Cambodia with a total of 6,850 members that offer premium education tailor-made for the local demand in rural areas.
Bookbridge does not invest primarily in infrastructure like many other organizations, but rather in people and collaborations. The main value added by Carsten’s approach is the comprehensive process it initiates and manages. Bookbridge does not act individually; instead, it uses the existing strengths and skills of community members as well as involving local stakeholders like the government, schools, businesses, and citizen organizations (COs) from the very beginning. Thus, Carsten empowers local actors, fosters entrepreneurial skills, and creates a strong sense of ownership over the centers within the community. Moreover, Carsten applies a peer-to-peer learning approach that values the skills and knowledge of the community members and facilitates a self-reinforcing learning process.
By placing Learning Centers at the center of his model, Carsten creates a way to transform the educational landscape and develops a new understanding of education, entrepreneurial thinking, and rural development. With a process that ensures a replicable grassroots approach, peer-to-peer learning, and financial sustainability, Carsten’s idea combats the lack of focus on education in the region, while promoting the idea that individual and group empowerment is key to a thriving community.
Carsten believes education is a human right and is broadly understood as a crucial precondition for sustainable development, peace, and equality. However, there is a lack of access to education in many parts of the world, especially in rural areas of the Global South. The problems are widespread and include illiteracy, low quality education, and gender inequality. The root causes of these problems are often more diverse, and because they are inherent in the local systems they are not easy to track.
To date, approaches to foster education in remote areas in Mongolia and Cambodia have failed to be effective and sustainable in the long-term. Existing initiatives are often viewed as isolated interventions, failing to collaborate with other stakeholders across sectors. The public sector runs schools and vocational trainings that are community-based, but they often provide low quality education and are not financially sustained. The private sector has set up some for-profit schools mainly in urban areas, but they are limited in reach, lack quality, do not integrate the community, and primarily aim for profit. On the other hand, local initiatives and international COs focus on social goals. These, however, are usually dependent on donations, limited in reach and lack an effective follow-up. By focusing on empty benchmarks like number of schools or libraries opened, number of teaching materials shipped or number of teachers trained, they often don’t take into account how the inputs are being used and converted within the local systems. Furthermore, development interventions during the last decades have created an attitude of expectation for help and handouts in Mongolia and Cambodia, rather than empowering local communities to develop their own future.
Data from past decades shows that many resources and efforts have been misspent due to a lack of understanding of local needs and failed collaboration of key stakeholders. By combining existing resources, facilitating collaboration across sectors, introducing an entrepreneurial approach and empowering local people, Bookbridge is able to break existing silos and create a community-owned educational landscape.
The concept behind Bookbridge Learning Centers is based on the key learnings from existing providers across sectors. Its success lies in collaborating with all stakeholders and combining their strengths. To build long-term sustainable solutions, Carsten believes the approach needs to be community-based, financially sustainable and focused on social impact. Considering these three key factors, Carsten developed a five-step process to set up Learning Centers. At all points of this process, Carsten is using and connecting existing resources in a new and intelligent way, creating win-win situations for all actors involved and establishing a strong sense of local ownership.
Carsten integrates the beneficiaries into the core of the solution. He uses the “Scout” network to initially identify the location, key partners, and a local entrepreneur, soon to become the Head of the Learning Center. Scouting is a value-based educational movement of young people, girls and boys, who are active in 150 countries around the world, especially in rural areas where about 2/3 of its members are based, and with a strong commitment to playing a constructive role in society. Since the Scouts are institutionally school-based in rural areas of the Global South, there is already a strong connection with the existing school system. Aiming to further ensure the support and participation of all stakeholders, the selected local entrepreneur conducts a survey on local needs and brings together all interested actors in a stakeholder conference.
To be financially autonomous in the long-term, the Learning Centers are set up as social enterprises. Local management, in collaboration with peers from the Capability Program, develop specific business models for each center. Managers from Swiss/German companies, who participate in this professional development leadership program, provide entrepreneurial know-how and conceptualize the marketing and financing strategy, working with the local entrepreneur (Head of Learning Center). Seed funding to set up the Learning Center averages 20,000 Euros, which is provided as an interest-free loan by three parties: Bookbridge, the local government, and a local investor, who is recruited by the Head of Learning Center. The main source of revenue of the center is fee-based courses offered in addition to its free services (i.e. library, learning activities for children, and some free language courses), which only require a marginal membership fee. The fee-based courses have a locals-teaching-locals approach and target community members who are willing and able to pay a small fee because they see a concrete value add in the training delivered.
The implementation of the business model and the actual setup of the Learning Center are led by the local entrepreneur and accompanied by peers, namely the European professionals attending the Capability Program. During the first two years of operation, the quality of the services is closely monitored and improved by trainings and mentorship for teachers. Furthermore, the basic curriculum (English courses and courses on career development) is expanded according to the local demand, e.g. offering courses on rice growing and local business development. The underlying principle is to build on the knowledge and skills of community members, and thus trainings are conducted with a peer-to-peer approach, fostering empowerment of local staff. After two years, the Learning Centers are fully managed by local stakeholders while they continue to actively participate in the Bookbridge network.
Carsten offers a standardized and well-recorded process, which allows efficient replication. Most remarkably, and unlike other interventions, the replication in different environments does not carry the risk of losing the grassroots approach, since the integration of existing solutions, the participation of key stakeholders, and ownership by the local community are inherent to the design of the process. To reach full coverage in Mongolia, Cambodia and beyond, Carsten has setup a dedicated team, experienced in operations and scaling.
Carsten’s work has been acknowledged locally and internationally. In Mongolia, Uuganaa Gantumur, the local manager was recognized as “Woman of the Year” by the governor of her province in 2012, and for her work as a social entrepreneur in the field of education and community building. Convinced by the development of the existing Learning Centers, the Minister of Education now aims to build Learning Centers in all 21 provinces of Mongolia by 2014 and signed an agreement with Bookbridge in this respect. On an international level, Carsten has received several awards, most notably by the World Organization of the Scout Movement in both 2010 and 2012 for his innovative approach and achievements in community development. The success of Bookbridge has been recognized beyond the borders of Mongolia and Cambodia; currently, governments in fourteen additional countries have expressed their interest to partner with Bookbridge and implement Learning Centers.
Carsten was born in Germany in 1981 and started his own business at 15, as a web-designer for small organizations. Within three years he managed a portfolio of 80 customers, which allowed him to hire two employees. After his studies he did an internship in Sri Lanka, where he discovered his ability and desire to build bridges across cultures. In 2006, Carsten founded his own consultancy company, Rübsaamen Management Consultants. After getting his PhD in Technology and Innovation Management, Carsten went on a Venture Road Trip with his friend, traveling through US and interviewing startups with the aim to screen different opportunities in order to launch an enterprise. Various opportunities to participate in for profit startups came, but Carsten felt a strong altruistic desire to do something meaningful and impact-driven.
The idea of Bookbridge was born during a Scout trip to Mongolia. From initially collecting a few books for a specific school, Carsten managed to create hype in southern Germany; he collected 13,000 books within three months. Driven by his vision to foster educational balance worldwide, Carsten used the momentum and developed his business model to set up Learning Centers in the Southern Hemisphere. Applying his ability to see opportunities, join forces and build bridges between people and organizations, Carsten improved Bookbridge’s model and transformed it into a sustainable organization.