The inspiring story of Faizal Kottikollon and Shabana Faizal

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Vartha Bharati | 30-12-2020 | 10:02:00

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Faizal and Shabana Foundation has been at the fore of changing the infrastructure of educational institutions in Southern Indian states for some time now. Founded in 2007, by UAE-based businessman Faizal Kottikollon, founder of KEF Holdings, and his wife Shabana Faizal, the 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.

Shabana hails from Mangaluru in Karnataka state of India. She is the only daughter of prominent businessman and socio religious leader Late B Ahmed Haji Mohiudeen who founded the prestigious BA Group of Businesses in Thumbay near Mangaluru.

Faizal believes inequality begins at the school gate and this belief of his decision 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, around 90 percent 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.” Faizal said in his recent interview to website —

To help their cause they’ve brought into play KEF Katerra, a subsidiary of KEF Holdings to fast-track way to revamp learning spaces and improve the condition of the school, without completely starting anew.

The foundation has till date contributed to the renovation of 19 schools in three south Indian states – Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The renovation model of the foundation has been so successful that the Indian government the model to renovate other schools. 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 told during the interview.

Faizal believes philanthropy is in his DNA as he was brought up in a family of Indian industrialists. He recalls asking questions like “Why is the world like this? And why are there huge differences between the have and have-nots?”

The approach has shaped the way he and his wife manage their business investments. The couple made a personal commitment to ensure their businesses had “social purpose and created an impact”, Faizal says.

“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.

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 organization receives an annual endowment equivalent to 10 percent 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 organizations 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 program off the ground, the couple stepped in with the 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 percent of them living below the poverty line and most coming from 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.” a fisherman’s colony, could attend a school like that.”

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.
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 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 told
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.”
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 to tackle 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.”

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