Learn more about Haroon Yasin and Orenda in Episode 4 of our podcast, Powering the Movement, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you get the podcasts you love.
When educational entrepreneur Haroon Yasin prepared to attend school at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada, he realized he was leaving many of his friends in Pakistan behind.
Yasin grew up playing in the streets with children who lived in Islamabad slums and, without the opportunity to receive an education, they didn’t have much of a choice but to work low-paying jobs that trapped them in cycles of poverty.
Yasin later dropped out of university and returned to Islamabad, where he encountered children picking garbage out of trash cans to earn money. This was a turning point for the teen, and it pushed him to dedicate his life to fight the notion that children who had been "born into the wrong household" shouldn’t receive a quality education.
Haroon Yasin, co-founder and CEO of Orenda, an educational tech company that creates content for children, poses for a portrait at their office in Islamabad, Pakistan on Nov. 14, 2019.
By the age of 18, Yasin opened and ran schools in slums for poor or homeless children who lived on the street. Eventually, he completed a degree from Georgetown University in Qatar and later co-founded the organization Orenda in 2015.
Yasin's work earned him one of the five finalist nominations for the Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award in 2019. Launched in 2018, the Cisco Youth Leadership Award celebrates and supports the work of incredible young activists around the world who have dedicated their lives to ending extreme poverty.
Yasin qualified for the award because, through Orenda, he's using education to help address the unfair boundaries that children face due to their family’s economic situation.
"The social class that you're born in determines the kind of school that you get to go to, and the kind of school that you get to go to in turn determines the kind of social class that you're going to remain in for the rest of your life," he told Global Citizen.
Orenda aims to bring innovative education access to underserved communities around the world that are difficult to reach. The organization is engaging students through its mobile app Taleemabad, with a "gamified, localized curriculum" that is individualized for each student and delivered through an adaptive platform.
Children watch videos on the Taleembabad app at the Saya School in Islamabad, Pakistan on Nov. 14, 2019.
Yasin is determined to make children fall in love with learning by making it fun. Orenda converts Pakistan’s national curriculum into an animated, digital format. First, students watch a cartoon video on Taleemabad and then they play a game that tests them on what they learned.
"If you've ever been a part of a classroom where there's a teacher who walks in and you look forward to having that teacher in front of you every single day," Yasin said, "that's what Teleemabad does for 130,000 children all across Pakistan."
As of 2018, 22.5 million children in Pakistan were not in school, making it home to the second-highest number of out-of-school children in the world — most of them girls.
The school dropout rate is 44% in primary school and 40% in secondary school, and according to the country’s education department, it’s due to poverty, lack of interest, and lack of schools. Even when children stay in public schools, they often cannot read a single sentence by fifth grade, according to Yasin.
Haroon Yasin roams the streets of Bheka Saiyidaan, a slum where he built his first school, in Islamabad, Pakistan on Nov. 14, 2019.
Children who are homeless are especially vulnerable. An estimated 1.5 million children under the age of 18 live on the streets in Pakistan and according to one report by the Ministry of Human Rights, 70% of the children sampled who live in slums are out of school.
Children who are homeless are also at a high risk of sexual abuse, street violence, psychological trauma, drug addiction, and communicable diseases.
"I spent a large part of the last eight years traveling the slums and villages all across Pakistan, feeling that education has to change," Yasin said. "It must change to build the next generation of leaders."
Some of the most underperforming government schools in remote areas across Pakistan are testing Taleemabad and seeing results.
The app has been found to reduce dropouts by 70%, according to Yasin. Children who start using the app notice performance improvements up to 50% within two weeks.
Children in non-traditional learning environments who use Taleemabad are also thriving, he adds.
Yasin describes how one cancer hospital had noticed that children who started receiving chemotherapy often had to drop out of school.
But when a child who was admitted to the hospital introduced their peers to Taleemabad, Yasin said, the app spread throughout the entire ward. Now there’s a special Taleemabad room within the hospital where children go every night to watch educational cartoons. When the children return to school, he adds, they jump ahead in class.
Orenda’s mobile app Taleemabad is expected to reach 1 million children across multiple countries in upcoming years, and has already earned recognition from education advocates Queen Elizabeth II and Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai.
Yasin also won the 2020 Waislitz Global Citizen Award in August and plans to use the $100,000 prize to produce educational content for higher grades, build Taleemabad broadcasting capacity to be available year-round, and expand the app’s mobile reach to teach 1.3 million at-risk children through a range of digital platforms.
"I want every underserved child to have the opportunity of world-class education at their fingertips, regardless of their ability to pay," Yasin said. "Regardless of where they are born and which religion they belong to, what socio-economic strata they belong to."
Haroon Yasin plays with students at the Saya School in Islamabad, Pakistan on Nov. 14, 2019.
You can find out more about the 2020 Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award here. Applications are open until Sept. 20, 2020.
Editor's note: This piece was originally published on Nov. 22, 2019. With millions of children out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Taleemabad has been especially impactful in 2020. The Pakistani government now broadcasts Taleemabad shows on national television, reaching more than 54 million people across the country. According to Yasin, Orenda has had 600% more traffic on the app since the start of the pandemic.