Industrial tycoons Faizal and Shabana Kottikollon are on a mission to upgrade Indian’s public education system, one school at a time.

Inequality begins at the school gate. That’s the belief of UAE-based businessman Faizal Kottikollon, founder of KEF Holdings and co-founder of the Faizal and Shabana Foundation (FSF), a private philanthropy focused on education and social development. It’s why, after raising $400m from the sale of his business in 2012, he decided to turn his attention and wealth towards rebuilding India’s underserved public schools in an effort to level the playing field for poorer students.

“Government schools are typically in a bad situation because they haven’t been properly maintained due to a lack of funding,” he explains. “Around 90 per cent of India’s kids go to these schools and that’s where the inequality starts. When they don’t have textbooks, or toilets, when the classrooms leak, you can imagine how that shapes them. It’s a chain reaction.”

In a bid to break that chain, Faizal and his wife, Shabana Faizal, have spent the past seven years studying, financing and delivering school improvement schemes in India, in addition to investing in social development.

Their foundation has donated more than INR340m ($4.5m) for the rehabilitation of schools, based on a model of quickly replacing crumbling classrooms with prefabricated structures.

The buildings are produced by KEF Katerra, a subsidiary of KEF Holdings, and are a fast-track way to revamp learning spaces and improve the condition of the school, without completely starting anew.

FSF has to date supported the renovation of 19 schools in three Indian states, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, and the success of their model has seen it adopted by the Indian government. The practice has played a part in the transformation of nearly 1,000 schools countrywide, with more than 300,000 students benefitting from new classrooms and other facilities.

“What started out as pure philanthropy when we donated to our first school has now become a model for school renovation that is used across the country,” Faizal says.

“One-off philanthropy has its limitations. We want models that can be scaled and continued.”

Faizal Kottikollon, co-founder, Faizal and Shabana Foundation.

Early influences

Growing up in a family of Indian industrialists, Faizal refers to philanthropy as being in his DNA. “From as early as I can remember, I’ve been asking questions like ‘why is the world like this?’ and ‘why are there huge differences between the haves and have-nots?’” he says.

It’s an approach that has shaped the way he and his wife manage their business investments, which, in the UAE, began with the founding of Emirates Techno Casting in 1995. The couple made a personal commitment to ensure their businesses had “social purpose and created an impact”, Faizal says, beginning with their workforce of technicians and engineers

“We didn’t just want to build an assembly plant, we wanted the whole value chain where we would teach the skills to the people here, locally, starting from the scrap business, to the foundry, to machining, to component manufacturing to assembly,” he explains.

In 2006, the couple reinvested $5m from the previous year’s profits to open a staff community centre with a library, gym, cinema and coffee shop, one of the few such facilities of its kind in the country at the time.

“We were seeing a lot in the news about construction workers in the UAE not being looked after,” Faizal recalls. “So, we built the centre because we felt our workforce, which was mostly from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal – and without families – should not have that feeling.”

Realising many of the firm’s workers had limited or no education, the company also created a specialist English syllabus to help employees improve their language skills, alongside other learning opportunities.

“We wanted to help them understand the importance of education because a lot of the workforce had not gone to school,” Shabana says. “But when we gave them education here, they in turn chose to educate their children. In some cases, their kids came to work for us as well.”

When the couple sold Emirates Techno Casting for $400m in 2012, they saw an opportunity to carve out a new path – and one that would bring their giving into sharper focus.

“We discussed between us what we would do next,” recalls Faizal. “We suddenly had a lot of money, but we were still young and so were our four children.  We didn’t want our kids to become spoiled, so we said, ok: let’s focus on our philanthropy.”

image title

Discover more: philanthropist snapshot

Name: Faizal Kottikollon and Shabana Faizal
Nationality: Indian
Residency: Dubai, UAE
Business: KEF Holdings
Philanthropy: Faizal and Shabana Foundation (established in 2007)
Annual giving: The foundation receives at least 10 per cent of KEF Holdings’ annual profits
Total spend to date: $24.8m, disbursed from 2007 to September 2020
Geographic focus: India and the UAE

Cause areas and percentage of budget:

50% Education and youth development

23% Healthcare and wellness
20% Community outreach support4% Humanitarian aid and assistance
2% Regenerative sustainable development1% Art and culture

Old schools, new models

FSF was initially set up in 2007, although only officially incorporated as a foundation in India in 2012. Based in Bangalore, and with a dedicated team of full-time staff, the organisation receives an annual endowment equivalent to 10 per cent of KEF Holdings annual profits.

The foundation’s investments span from education and training for 5,000 people living in eight villages in Krishnagiri; to emergency relief for those affected by flooding in Kerala, Chennai, Kashmir and Haiti.

Its portfolio also includes a scholarship endowment fund at the University of Sharjah, and a proposed Dhs10m ($2.72m) medical research grant for the UAE’s Al Jalila Foundation.

Most recently, FSF has been helping people affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Between March and August, it spent more than $75,000 in assisting with the repatriation of jobless Indians stranded in the UAE, as well as paying for emergency food relief through grassroots organisations in both countries.

But the foundation’s flagship initiative is – unsurprisingly given the couple’s belief in the power of education – related to school rebuilding. Its first project in this space was in 2013, when FSF embarked on rebuilding a 120-year-old school in the Kozhikode district of Kerala, where Faizal had spent part of his childhood.

After discussions with local officials, who had tried and failed to get a school renovation programme off the ground, the couple stepped in with funding of INR180m ($2.4m) to restore The Government Vocational Higher Secondary School for Girls in Nadakkavu.

They began with commissioning research from the Indian Institute of Management, a Bangalore-based thinktank, to pinpoint the exact gaps and challenges. Next, they leveraged their own company’s prefabricated materials to build a new school off-site before delivering it to Kerala to be, as Faizal says, “assembled like Lego”.

Finally, in addition to the new buildings, the foundation retrained the teachers, gave the girls a uniform, built science labs, overhauled school meals and introduced sports lessons on the school’s newly built pitches.

“When the school opened on that day in May, I remember the state was shocked,” Faizal says. “People had never imagined that these kids, 70 per cent of them living below the poverty line and most coming from a fisherman's colony, could attend a school like that.”


image title image title
Faizal and Shabana Kottikollon believe education is a means to support long-term social change. Photo: supplied.

Community impact

The project marked one of the first examples of a private foundation pairing with the Indian government to renovate a school, says Shabana.

“We worked on many aspects, not just the infrastructure,” she says, adding that the community around the school has also been positively impacted. Local women secured jobs working in the school kitchens, and in a country where there are few safe public spaces for walking, especially for women, the community now has facilities for exercise and yoga.

“It wasn't just one school and a few students,” notes Faizal, “it uplifted the whole community.”

Academic results improved too. From just five A plus passes in the opening year, the school now has more than 67, and an overall 100 per cent pass rate. In the Education World India School Rankings for 2019-20, the school was rated second in India.

Unsurprisingly, admission demand began to rise. From nobody wanting to enrol their children into government schools, suddenly for each of the 1,600 places, there were four requests.

“It wasn’t just poor students signing up,” Faizal says, “it was the children of doctors and engineers. Psychologically, things start to change when a fisherman's kid is sitting next to a doctor's kid.

"I believe we could solve so many problems in this world if we just had decent public education," he adds.

The success of the Nadakkavu school prompted Faizal and Shabana to approach the Indian government to ask if they could support more schools, offering financial backing as well as a plan to scale-up the use of prefabricated modular buildings. The offer was accepted and the Nadakkavu model of school renovation, using pre-fabricated classrooms, was born.

Today, more than 140 schools in Kerala follow the Nadakkavu model, and hundreds more have been influenced in some way. The foundation has provided direct financial support to 16 schools in Kerala, two in Tamil Nadu and one in Bangalore.

The model has also become a venture philanthropy teaching case study for a course at the business school of Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde, demonstrating a route for collaboration between private foundations and government entities in India.

“I believe we could solve so many problems in this world if we just had decent public education.”

Faizal Kottikollon, co-founder, Faizal and Shabana Foundation.

Lives and livelihoods

From schools, Faizal and Shabana turned their attention to rural and community development, targeting eight villages in the Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu.

The district is home to 5,000 people who have benefited from a range of interventions, including an upgraded school, vocational classes in English, computers and tailoring; support in organic farming and modern cattle rearing, better quality housing and improved sanitation.

The foundation began by carrying out an assessment study on the needs of the villagers through a local NGO and then, based on the findings, designed agriculture, education, and sanitation programmes to improve outcomes for the people living there.

The scheme, known as the Krishnagiri Development Project (KDP), has to date delivered training to more than 300 farmers in organic techniques, supported by Bangalore University. Close to 100 women have also been taught how to make cloth bags.

“Just recently they received a big commercial order from a buyer in Tamil Nadu, so we are very proud of that,” Shabana says.

The KDP has led to a 225 per cent jump in school enrolment among the residents, according to a third-party impact assessment carried out at the start of 2020, while basic family incomes have increased from INR 33,278 ($443) per month to INR 51,576 ($687).

Shabana acknowledges there have also been some bumps in the road.

“We knew there was a lack of adequate toilets in the villages, that sanitation was a problem, and that there was an issue around the safety of women and children going out at night,” she recalls. “So, we set about building toilets. But just building them wasn’t enough because they didn’t know how to use them. At first, many ended up as storerooms.”

The foundation responded by hiring residents to help build the toilet blocks and also put money into education sessions, which helped to raise awareness and build trust.

“It’s about having the correct mindset and working with local NGOs who really understand the local context,” Shabana says. “We always use local NGOs to partner with us because they have not just the expertise, but also the local languages and the trust of the people.”

“You should do something close to your heart, something that you really care about.”

Shabana Faizal, co-founder, Faizal and Shabana Foundation.

Collaboration not competition

For the Kottikollons, close collaboration with government bodies and NGOs have been key to the success of their education and community interventions.

“Working in partnerships amplifies your impact,” Shabana explains. “It means you can do more and reach more people.”

The couple also favour a pull rather than push approach. Projects are meticulously researched to ensure solutions meet the needs of the beneficiaries, and all interventions are externally assessed and reviewed.

“All philanthropy and social investment should be purpose driven,” says Faizal. “You need to have quantitative and qualitative data to prove that every penny that you're giving is impactful.

“Also, knowing that you’re meeting goals is part of the motivation," he adds. “Take the schools, in 2013, it was one school, now today, it’s hundreds.”

This desire for large-scale impact was also behind the financing of a research and development centre focusing on off-site and modular construction for civil engineering and architecture programmes at the Manipal Institute of Technology in India’s Karnataka state.

The 60,000 sq ft centre, which cost in excess of $1m, opened in early 2020 to train the university’s architect and civil engineering faculties in the application of modular building solutions.

Its goal is to expand the use pre-fabricated buildings as a fast and low-cost response to housing and other infrastructure needs.  

“It’s all about a value chain,” explains Faizal. “We train the professors, they train the post-graduates and then they train the undergraduates, so the knowledge gets passed on. The next thing we want to do is to connect online to people to get the knowledge to them for free, as well as having people coming from other countries to learn there.”

He says the training could be particularly useful for engineers in Syria and Iraq, and other war-torn or disaster-hit countries, where there is a need to rebuild quickly and cost-effectively. For example, following the 2018 flooding in Kerala, the FSF built more than 100 new homes for affected families.

“We were the first on the ground and we built a house in under 12 hours and people could move in that day,” Faizal recalls. “We put up the initially funding but ultimately, it was about giving the government the technology to be able to do it themselves.”

In an era of mega-philanthropy, the Kottikollons prefer to combine smaller donations with knowledge transfers and partnerships.

“One-off philanthropy has its limitations,” Faizal notes. “It’s not that people shouldn’t do it, but for us, we want to create models that can be scaled and continued through various challenges. It’s about educating the government to do things, not just doing it for them.”

Although the FSF is led by a staff director Joseph Sebastian, the Kotikollons are co-directors and remain very involved in the day-to-day running of its operations. The couple’s eldest daughter, Sophiya, is also now working with them, most recently in impact assessment.

Shabana’s message for others seeking to get into philanthropy is to first consider carefully what the family joint values are, and what causes are most interesting. “You should do something close to your heart, something that you really care about,” she says.

For Faizal, this remains tackling inequality in education. “For me, more than all the businesses I’ve run and all the billions of dollars of revenues, what is most overwhelming is hearing kids at our schools talk so confidently about their aspirations,” explains Faizal.

“I remember one girl saying she wanted to be a bio-scientist. I asked her what her father did, and she said he was a bus coolie [porter]. Hearing that made me think, wow: it really is possible to make a difference to other’s lives.” — PA