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Jack Ma eyes rural education as key to reducing poverty in China

China's Ma, who founded Alibaba, is renovating boarding school facilities through the Jack Ma Foundation to boost China's education infrastructure.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   21-01-2019

Jack Ma
Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma set up the Jack Ma Foundation to focus on education.

Jack Ma, the founder of China’s ecommerce juggernaut Alibaba, is laser focused on trying to save China’s “left-behind children” by giving them better access to education.

When Ma talks about “left-behind children” he is referring to a phenomenon in China which literally refers to millions of kids who are left in villages with aging relatives while their parents move to cities to look for work.

For the 60 million children left behind, education is a particular issue, according to China’s Ministry of Education. Not unlike the plight mirrored in the interiors of India, these primary school students trek over 5 kilometers on average to get to school, and students in grade seven through ten travel nearly 17.5 kilometers one way just to get to school from home.

“These students walk alone for miles along freezing mountain paths or take a boat to go to school in dangerous weather conditions. These kids should not be commuting between home and school every day,” Ma, a former English teacher said at an event organized by the Jack Ma Foundation on Monday. “They should go to a boarding school.”

During the annual Rural Teacher Initiative award ceremony in Sanya, in the Hainan Province, Ma showcased models of newly renovated boarding school facilities as part of the Jack Ma Foundation’s efforts to lift millions of poor Chinese children out of poverty.

The newly built models come with typical 20-square meter rooms that come with an attached bathroom. The rooms can house up to six students with a designated teacher supervising each room.

An online debate on the plight of rural students was triggered last year by photos of an 8-year-old — whom netizens dubbed “Ice Boy” — arriving at school with swollen hands, and his hair and eyebrows covered in ice after walking for over an hour along treacherous mountain paths to get to school.

The third-grader, who was later identified as Wang Fuman from Ludian county in Southwest China’s Yunnan province, walks 4.5 kilometers on his own every day to get to school, according to his teacher, who took the photo which went viral.

The Jack Ma Foundation currently runs three core programs to support and improve education in rural China:

  • The “Jack Ma Rural Teacher Initiative” which looks to identify and support outstanding teachers in rural areas. Every year, 100 good teachers are selected by the foundation to receive 100,000 RMB. The foundation also helps the teachers get the most from a three-year skills development program. It has awarded prizes to rural teachers in Sanya every year since 2015.
  • The next program is the “Jack Ma Rural Headmaster Initiative” which was launched in 2017. It provides selected headmasters with a purse of 500,000 RMB each to develop leadership and management skills.
  • Lastly, the foundation also helps to renovate and upgrade boarding school facilities in rural regions by providing new beds, classroom furniture, transport vehicles, as well as more nutritious school meals.

Ma, 54, who announced last year that he would be stepping down as chairman of Alibaba in September 2019, plans to devote his time and some of his $40 billion fortune toward philanthropy with a big focus on education.

This wouldn’t surprise keen followers of Ma, who has spoken frequently of education’s importance and some of his shortcomings as a student, including failing China’s national university exam twice.

“I was not considered a good student but I improved, we keep on learning all the time. So I want to devote most my time to this,” Ma told Bloomberg News.

Ma’s parents were Chinese traditional musician-storytellers living in Hangzhou. He started in 1999 as a business-to-business marketplace, backed by $60,000 from 18 co-founders. It now has more than 66,000 full-time employees, according to the company’s latest annual filing.

Alibaba has now morphed into a behemoth and customers use its ecommerce platforms to order products that last year saw package deliveries reach 55 million a day. The company has a market value of about $420 billion, according to Bloomberg

Separately, Ma controls Ant Financial, the online financial platform that runs China’s largest mobile payment system and money-market fund. The business has over 870 million users via payment system Alipay.



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