Rishi Nursimulu sat with Investor’s Mag to talk about The Dukesbridge Group, the largest chain of private schools in Mauritius, which has a growing presence in East Africa with two schools in Kenya. A laureate in 1999, Rishi Nursimulu read BSc Economics at the London School of Economics and pursued a career in investment banking (Mergers & Acquisitions) at Merrill Lynch and Barclays Capital in New York, London and Sydney before returning to Mauritius in 2014. He has an Executive MBA from the Wharton Business School (University of Pennsylvania) and has completed his Post-Graduate Diploma in Law (BPP) with a distinction in 2022.
Featured in Investor’s Mag, 23rd Edition, Dec 22 – March 23
You’re an economist, edupreneur, song-writer, Broadway producer, now a law graduate…
…And I love it! I’m a strong believer in being an all-rounder. The fact that you’re good at one thing does not restrict you from being equally good at other things. I always encourage our children not to limit themselves, to keep exploring new avenues and opportunities. We can be good at many things if we have the desire and willingness to push through. In everything I do, I use a combination of skills I’ve acquired from various experiences and that helps significantly.
Can you tell us about Dukebridge’s journey?
Dukesbridge is currently present in 13 locations in Mauritius and accommodates almost 1,500 students. It all began 8 years ago, in 2014, as a preschool with 2 children and 1 teacher in Moka. Within a few months, we were almost full in our first campus. This prompted us to set up other preschool campuses where our students were already traveling from. In 2017, we bought land in Trianon and constructed the first primary school building. Our decision to grow from preschool into primary school was fuelled by the demand from our existing parents. They were happy with what the preschools were offering and valued our commitment towards their children’s education. I still remember the first day our students moved into the Trianon building in January 2018, the Speaker of the Australian Parliament came to visit the school. The following week, we received a video where he talked about his trip to our school in the Australian Parliament in Canberra!
Dukesbridge was then twinned with a school in Australia for the Commonwealth Games 2018 held in Queensland. Our projects and videos became so popular that even Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II took notice and we received a letter about it! Towards the end of 2018, we decided to expand into nursery services through the acquisition of a nursery in Telfair, Moka. In 2019, we started exploring the possibility of going international. We launched Dukesbridge Kenya that year and started a second campus there in 2020.
In 2021, we embarked on a project to write a music album and the title song “Children of all Colours / Zanfan tou kouler” won the prestigious “Disque de l’année” award on Radio Plus. That same year, after months of rigorous due diligence, our application to be formally accredited by the Australian Government as an Australian school, was approved. Dukesbridge became the first school in Africa to receive this prestigious accreditation which is a vote of confidence into all we have been doing. Our students will now graduate with a certificate issued by the Australian Government which is very exciting!
Dukesbridge has increased its presence in Mauritius with the recent opening of a new primary school in Pamplemousses. How did you achieve so much in so little time?
Indeed, we just launched our third primary school in Mon Gout, Pamplemousses. It’s a beautiful building with a massive yard, a swimming pool, a huge library (or what we call the learning lab) and lots of nooks and corners for creative teaching.
How did we achieve so much? Well, nothing great can be achieved without vision, passion and commitment. You really have to love what you do. Then there’s also hard work behind the scenes and it’s easy to give up. When you start something, you roll up your sleeves and apply yourself. For the first couple of years, my wife and I would be working till the early hours of the morning researching the best methods of teaching, devising ways to implement them at school, crafting lesson plans and road-testing them. We relentlessly developed networks with professional coaches in arts, music, drama, dance, karate and so on. I suppose it’s those long hours at the beginning which allowed us to establish a proper scalable platform to expand.
I must humbly admit, although the vision was mine as the founder, the expansion wouldn’t have been possible without the execution of our loyal team who have been with us from the start. These people are now in management positions across our organisation. Over time, we have established a robust internal compliance structure which holds everything together. Each campus has its own campus manager who reports to a Zone Leader. Each of the latter oversees a maximum of 3 campuses. They then report to a central Chief Operations Officer. A few years ago, we implemented an online reporting system for everything that goes on at every campus in real-time. This generates significant synergy throughout the organisation.
You are also planning a new school in Trianon (Ebene) next year? What’s the plan for Mauritius?
As Dukesbridge is a relatively young organisation, the school is growing organically. This year is our first graduating class of Grade 6 at our Trianon campus. We have 1 class of Grade 6 but 6 classes of Grade 1 students. As you can see, the growth will be gradual but steady.
We are thrilled to have been offered the opportunity to build our secondary school right next to our first primary school in Trianon. It’s a great central location which is on the other side of the Ebene cyber city. As it currently stands, based on our discussions with the Ministry of Education, we intend to offer both the Cambridge exams as well as the Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE). We will continue with the balanced approach between the academic and other subjects like performing arts. However, for high school, we will also give students a real-life experience. This includes placements in the real world, life skills and, where possible, students may even do a semester exchange with a school in Australia.
Our ambition is to see our secondary school become a hub for East Africa. We want to have children from the African continent join our secondary school in Mauritius because in many of those countries, children are in Boarding school already. It makes sense for Kenyans, for instance, to come here to Mauritius where it’s a nicer, safer environment for their boarding experience. That’s why our African strategy has started with preschools and primary schools there.
How do you explain the paradox of seeing the government spending more money to provide quality education though the demand is increasing for private institutions?
Mauritians rightly view education as a passport to changing their future. I’m the product of generations working extremely hard and ploughing everything they have into the pursuit of education for their children. I’m not surprised that Mauritians who can now afford to send their children to private schools would choose to do so. However, the vast majority still can’t afford private schools and public school remains their only avenue. These children, like everyone else, are precious. I salute the Government’s effort to invest in upgrading its facilities and systems for them.
Quality education can’t ever be a wasted investment. Ultimately, the country needs diversity in its educational offering. This is expressly spelt out in our properly codified constitution. Parents should be given the opportunity to explore and decide upon what they feel best fits their aspirations for their children: state schools, international schools, alternative schools… Dukesbridge, for instance, does not put emphasis on examinations but focuses on “teaching happiness” in line with the Australian philosophy of learning through creativity and fun. Evidence has shown that one can achieve the same outcome without a rat-race pressure of achieving top grades. In Finland, which is regarded as a real success story in Education, there is no standardised test or homework until the end of secondary school. Many parents have chosen our school as they don’t believe that an exam should define their child and his/her whole future in life.
Dukebridge also has a presence in Nairobi in Kenya. Why Kenya? What are the prospects and the challenges you are facing there?
In early 2019, I was part of a roundtable with the First Assistant Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade. She had visited Dukesbridge a couple of days before and liked the school very much. At that roundtable, she planted the seed of expanding into East Africa in our mind. Since there is an Australian High Commission in Nairobi and they were eager to facilitate, we undertook an exploratory trip in Kenya shortly after. The EDB also has a representative office in Nairobi which helped us. To expand on the continent, it made sense to have a base in Kenya given the direct flights from Mauritius.
During our first trip, we noticed the significant gap in the market: most of the international schools are at least 5 times more expensive than the IB schools in Mauritius. We were pleasantly amazed with the local teachers, who are so dedicated that they would travel 2-3 hours to come to school every morning, and their energy with the children is admirable. We were approached by an existing preschool whose management loved our philosophy and we entered into a joint-venture. The school was rebranded and this was the start of Dukesbridge Kenya. We sent some of our key management team from Mauritius to Kenya to help with the transition and, during this time, our Head of Business Development came across another opportunity and in 2020, a second campus was set up in Gigiri right next to the American embassy.
Developing an international strategy is not without its challenges. There is of course the physical constraint, and you have to trust the people on the ground to a large extent. Thankfully, we have developed an excellent rapport with our partner in Kenya and they’re like family to us. The Kenyan team also maintains daily reporting with our leaders in Mauritius. We are hoping to have teacher exchanges in the coming months as well. We did have a setback because Covid-19 hit literally the month after the launch and schools were closed for most of 2020 and 2021. Fortunately, our online homeschooling programme was very comprehensive and it allowed children to continue their learning during the pandemic.
The prospects in Kenya are huge for Dukesbridge. Kenyans love the Australian approach to education, there is no lack of good teachers and we are already anchored in strategic locations. Our vision is to grow into a full-fledged primary school in Nairobi and then invite the students to pursue their secondary schooling in Mauritius. In Kenya, it is cultural for children to attend boarding secondary schools during term time. We firmly believe that Mauritius can offer a safe, attractive alternative for them. Especially as they are familiar with the Dukesbridge brand in their home country and Mauritius is only a 4-hour flight away.
Do you intend to further expand your presence on the continent? What’s the outlook for private schools on the continent?
Whilst we are excited about Dukesbridge’s expansion in Africa, our priority right now is to focus on building our secondary school here in Mauritius and establishing a solid teaching staff who are fully trained by our Australian accreditors. Once this is done, the expansion will resume on the continent. Overall, private schooling is on the rise in Africa. There is now a greater supply of private schools on the continent, especially affordable ones which help bridge the gap to a certain extent. We have no doubt that Dukesbridge will play a pivotal role in the education landscape of Africa.
We are also looking beyond secondary school. It’s early days but the fact that Dukesbridge is accredited by the Australian Government means that our students now have more of a direct route into Australian universities. We will soon be discussing the possibility of collaborating with one in particular… and who knows? Maybe in the future we will have our own university campus here in Mauritius. Watch this space.
Will Dukesbridge require investors for its next steps?
We have been approached by a couple of private equity players in recent years. Some corporates have also indicated their appetite to work with us on specific projects. We are considering all options at the moment. We may not know what the future holds but one thing is sure: the best is yet to come for Dukesbridge!