Profile – Ed Forrest – CEO at Educate For Life
I can’t help wondering how Ed Forrest manages to be so relentlessly upbeat. The co-founder and CEO of tiny health and education charity Educate For Life has certainly witnessed enough hardship, and experienced plenty of frustration, in the eight years since he started it in rural Rajasthan. I’ll list a small sample here, though I could go on and on. A child – one of many – whose digestive system was so unused to nourishing food they would vomit when given lentils for the first time. A heavily pregnant woman paying the equivalent of six months’ salary to travel to visit an unlicensed practitioner for ‘antenatal care’ that’s fake at best, downright dangerous at worst. A fourteen-year-old pupil who doesn’t come to school for a few days, and is later found to have died from a respiratory infection (though causes of death are often guessed at – there are no autopsies.) Local government officials who steadfastly refuse to believe the charity’s findings that over sixty percent of the area’s children are officially malnourished.
And all this is before you even get to the educational provision that could ultimately be these people’s way out of experiences like these.
The Hunar Ghar school and health centre in rural Rajasthan was set up by Forrest and co-founder, British-born Dr Akshay Patel, in 2007, when both were just twenty three. In the seven years since the building opened its doors, the organisation has made hugely impressive inroads into tackling many of these issues sensitively and effectively. Ed tells me about their ‘Safe Motherhood’ programme which provides local women with previously non-existent support through pregnancy and childbirth; their bi-monthly mobile clinic which gives people unprecedented access to care as well as feeding invaluable data back to the government; and his personal passion – the school – which currently educates two hundred and fifty children “…using all-local staff and the government curriculum, showing just what is possible with enough energy and will to succeed.”
But I can’t help being struck by how endlessly frustrating some of it must be to deal with – don’t you just end up wanting to scream and shout at the fake doctors or the disbelieving government officials? “The best thing I can do is remain calm, and remember there’s usually good intention there. It seems more useful to put my energy into finding ways round things than getting frustrated by them. I mean, poverty doesn’t exist in isolation, it just doesn’t happen in the same way in places that are really well run, and, well, have a lot more money. I think a lot of people forget that.”
I start to realise that this guy isn’t exactly easily fazed. He may have more than a whiff of the unmistakably English, don-ish eccentric about him – with his round glasses, wacky jumper, and infectious enthusiasm which meant that I came away from our interview with a buzzing head full of a huge number of impressive, reeled-off statistics. But he also has a peculiarly British tenacity, and he has it by the bucketload.
It is this unbridled determination, I start to realise, that must have enabled a twenty-three year old graduate, fresh out of a biology degree from University College London, to establish, build and run a health and education charity with such a huge number of potential stumbling blocks, in a place so far from his middle-class Somerset roots.
Why India specifically then, I ask? He replies in what I’ve realised is his usual frenetic pace, as if the words can’t fall out of his mouth quickly enough: “Just as you don’t know when you’re going to meet special people in your life, you don’t know when you’re going to encounter special situations as well. Going to India created a kind of fulcrum in my life – I knew how important my own education had been to me, and at that time, ten years ago, there was just this really, really big need to address the quality of schools in rural India.“
So far, so idealistic. But he soon realised that purely addressing educational issues was pointless if children’s healthcare needs weren’t being satisfactorily met. Educate For Life are justifiably proud of their focus on helping the ‘whole’ child, on understanding that none of the issues their two hundred and fifty children face operate in isolation: “We want to take care of people’s primary needs and create healthy, happy, buzzy little children…which is obviously what everyone wants, it can just be difficult to get there”.
His passion becomes even more obvious when he describes his decision to move to the area where he and Patel had realised they wanted to establish their initiative: “For the three years we were planning and building the school I’d go back and forth, back and forth between the UK and India, working nights in a factory to get some cash together, then go back to India,” he says matter-of-factly, “I just thought, well, I’m never going to understand what it’s like to be there, but if I spend time there and learn the language (Ed speaks fluent Hindi) I thought I could begin to understand some of the difficulties people face and see the myriad of different experiences people have.”
And so it was that a west country scholarship boy moved into a cattle shed for the first four months (before a villager took pity on him and invited Ed to live in his family home), constructing a much-needed new school stone by stone, cooking on a solar stove that he’d made himself “..out of a cardboard box and some tin foil”. It conjures up quite a mental image – given that he doesn’t exactly blend into the background in the UK, I can’t imagine his presence in Rajasthan going unnoticed, especially when trying to set up an organisation which would have an enormous impact in such a remote area.
I ask what the future holds for Educate For Life. The charity have just taken on a new fundraising officer, and London-based Ed’s able to spend much less time in India these days as the quality of the local staff he’s taken on mean the organisation has become more able to run itself. “If I’d left a year ago, the whole thing would have fallen apart, but it’s getting to a potentially much more self-sufficient point now, which is really exciting.”
As he and his brightly patterned jumper toddle off to another meeting, though, it feels virtually impossible to imagine Educate For Life without its original driving force.