In Nepal, A Private School That Costs One Dollar

Samata school students
Samata school students
Rajan Parajuli

KATHMANDU — Uttam Sanjel, founder of Samata School, stands before the morning assembly. Samata means "equal for all." Today he wants to talk about a story from one of his students, whose mother celebrated the birth of a son over a daughter.

"After five girls, my mom finally had a boy. She named him "Holy life water." But our life has become more difficult. Why is it happening? It's all because of lack of education. You have to tell your family and neighbors that sons and daughters are equal."

They then sing a song called, "Mother is Great, Love Her, Respect Her," and class begins.

In Nepal, government-run schools are criticized for providing inadequate education — yet private schools are very expensive, making them out of reach for the poor. "Private education is definitely costly and government-run schools are terrible. In between this, there is big vacuum which gets bigger every day," says Sanjel.

A private school in Nepal can cost more than $15 a month, but Sanjel's Samata Schools are just one dollar per month. You could call it an alternative private school for the poor.

Anita Shrestha lives in a tiny room with her two daughters and husband. “My parents told me, "girls don't need to study. They are born to take care of the house." So they sent my brothers to school — but not me.”

Trading in Bollywood dreams

But Anita wanted her own daughters to get an education, so when she heard about the private school that cost just a dollar, she sent them both there.

"In other private schools they charge up to $30 a month. In Samata schools it's one dollar. Sometimes, if I can’t pay they don’t charge me at all. I feel like that school is for the poor people like us."

Her eldest daughter Karuna is now in grade 10 and loves to read. "Usually I can’t afford to buy books so I borrow them from my friends. I want to be a well-read person. I want to become a doctor."

When Sanjel first came up with the idea of his bamboo one-dollar school, he too had no money and was an unemployed actor who dreamed of becoming a Bollywood star.

“I didn't have money to buy buildings. I really wanted to show people my idea. Everybody has bamboo at home, so I started collecting bamboo. Now we have constructed the schools with the material that has become its trademark — and call them ‘Bamboo Schools.""

Sanjel has built similar schools in 19 districts throughout the country, with more than 30,000 children studying in them. The one-dollar fee from the pupils covers just 10% of his costs; he has to do fundraising for the rest.

"We get donations from around Nepal, as well as from other places. But even then, sometimes it is hard to pay the teachers’ salaries. My own home is in the bank as a deposit. The world is full of kind-hearted people and many of them have come personally to give me donations."

Last year, all his students across the country passed the school-leaving exam with an average mark of 80.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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