Most schools in rural India can’t afford basic supplies like desks, and most of the students attending them can’t afford backpacks. The Bombay-based nonprofit Aarambh worked with designers to come up with an ingenious solution to both problems: Their simple stencil transforms old cardboard boxes into a convertible desk and school bag.
"In the villages of India life is very difficult for children," says Shobha Murthy, the nonprofit's founder. "They walk miles to reach the nearest school. The concept of carrying school bags, wearing shoes or a school uniform are distant dreams because most families are landless laborers who barely earn $1 for 10 hours of work. Kids have to carry their books in their arms, and it was an urgent need to find them a way to carry their books."
They needed desks just as much—students usually sit on the floor hunched over books for hours—but the organization couldn't afford to make two different products. The result, Help Desk, folds quickly from one thing to the other; at the end of the day, a few simple moves turn the desk back into a bag to carry books home. The design ended up costing only about 20 cents to make since it's made from used cardboard.
"Looking back, I think the solution was right in front of our eyes," says Sanuree Gomes, an art director from an agency called DDB Mudra, which came up with the design. "We wanted a material that was not only strong, but flexible and economical. We had just received a shipment at our office, and we had boxes lying all around us."
The designers prototyped a few different variations to test with the students, looking for a solution that would be ergonomically correct as a desk and also easy to build. So far, the final design has been given to 10,000 students at 600 schools.
The students are fans. "The children love the bags and take good care of them," says Murthy. "They are very lightweight and sit easily on the back."
The desk-bags don't last forever, especially since cardboard doesn't stand up well to the rain. But the team is working on developing a low-cost material that can be coated on the surface to help it repel water. Right now, they only last about six months to a year. But anytime they need to be replaced, it's simple to make again.