The cost of a two-year MBA program at a top-tier MBA school in India (think IIMs and XLRI) will burn 14 lakhs in your wallet. For Tier 2 MBA schools, the cost plummets to a range between 3 and 5 lakhs. The cost drops further to the tune of 1.5 lakhs for the long tail of Tier 3 business schools.

What if I told you that a no-frills MBA program has been created for potential entrepreneurs in the BOP (Bottom of Pyramid) and it only costs a jaw-dropping Rs. 16,000? It gets better. It’s a part-time program – seven 5-day training modules over a 6 month period. And the faculty travels to whichever village or town the MBA cohort resides at. The folks behind this program formally incorporated themselves as TREES (Training Resources for Enabling Enterprises Society) – registered as a society in Kerala. The program being piloted for the past few years is called CREAM (Certificate in Rural Entrepreneurship, Administration and Management). The “R” in their acronym betrays initial beginnings in villages but pilot programs have been conducted in both villages and towns.


The year was 2008. Bablu Ganguly of Timbaktu Collective realized that NGO’s had been adopting a failing strategy of protecting the farmers from the government and the markets. Instead, Bablu internalized that the right strategy was for the farmers to engage with the markets on a position of strength. Small farmers, operating individually, were making less money than even farm labourers benefiting from the MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employee Guarantee Act) social program (100 days of guaranteed employment, Rs. 150 for a 4 hour working day). The position of strength would come by having the farmers organize themselves as a group and start new rural businesses that would sell directly to the markets. Bablu had also come to believe that NGO’s starting businesses wasn’t such a hot idea especially considering the non-profit DNA of NGO’s. So he steered the farmers’ to create and co-own a new business entity (Adisakthi Dharni). An IRMA graduate started helping the farmers on the ‘business side’ of things but when his stint ended, they were unable to hire a replacement due to escalating salaries of IRMA graduates. That’s when Bablu turned to his long-time friend, Ranjeet Ranade, and asked whether he could teach the farmers business and marketing fundamentals.

Churning the Milk

Ranjeet, after acquiring an MBA degree from New York University and a stint with Cambridge Technology Partners, had returned to India in 2000 and started a training and consulting practice (ETC Partners) focusing on financial services and project management. Ranjeet understood the Timbaktu context very well (as Asha volunteer he had interacted with Bablu/Timbaktu for years). He brainstormed with his friends on what a crash course in business management for rural entrepreneurs could look like. The result, after iterating and piloting the program across 4 different states and multiple state and NGO bodies over a 2 year period, is CREAM. The content of a 2-year MBA program condensed into 34 days! To be precise – it is 34 studying/working days staggered over a six-month duration! The photostream below provides a glimpse on how this program is conducted in a traveling/village environment. The post continues below the photostream.



Program Design Considerations

CREAM has been designed with four broad themes in mind.

  • Affordability: Cost needed to be reasonable for participants (bottom of pyramid)
  • Accessibility: Instead of village dwellers needing to travel (high cost to them), it needed to be a traveling program – the faculty would travel to the participants’ location. To minimize disruption to their primary livelihood and maximize absorption (another design goal), the program content is split into seven modules, each module of 5-days duration delivered over six consecutive months
  • Absorption: Since the participant demographic would have a fairly low literacy level, CREAM has been structured with a strong emphasis on practice (made possible by staggering the delivery), bilingual delivery (faculty teaches in English and the translator repeats/emphasizes in the local vernacular), and effective faculty with strong experience
  • Relevance: Focus on small businesses – real-world examples, illustrations and case studies all center around small businesses that participants can relate (or aspire) to.

The content has been designed to weave the following seven important business concepts throughout the program:

  • Profits and profitability
  • Business viability
  • Managing risk
  • Opportunity cost
  • Working capital management
  • Forecasting
  • Planning & tracking

(The TREE Society story continues here in Part 2)