Micro-entrepreneurs and Math

Our last post focussed on literacy levels and the availability of schools in a few focus states. This post is anecdotal in nature and contains some observations about the various ways in which the lack of a quality education hinders micro-entrepreneurs from developing necessary business skills and attaining their full potential ; the next post will share some quantitative data on the quality of education available to children currently.

While interacting with adult learners at the Cream training programmes offered by Tree Society to rural micro-entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed that they struggle with basic math and/or with the application of basic math. Yet, the adults undergoing CREAM training are not illiterate; all of them have attended school for at least a few years, most are 10th or 12th pass, and some are graduates from a local college.


There are those who know the calculations – can manage division, decimals, percentages etc. – but struggle to apply these in real-life situations.

[  A simple example : The owner of a small business may know what percentage is and even how to convert a percentage to a value; i.e. he knows that 10% of 200 = 20

But he may struggle when faced with a question in words. ‘A business sold goods worth Rs. 4000 this month. It expects a 10% increase in sale value next month. What will be the value of total sales next month ?’ ]

I have also noticed another phenomenon – even when they learn how to apply a formula and use it, any change in the structure of the problem or in the way they need to apply a formula leaves them slightly confused as algebraic manipulation is a skill not taught to them. For example, even if they understand a formula for profitability and its application, they are unable to rearrange and apply the formula to a problem where desired profitability and costs are known, but selling price and revenue are to be calculated.

Then there are some adults who seem to have learnt hardly any Math beyond counting and addition in childhood. They struggle with sums that involve simple division and cannot interpret decimals or fractions correctly. They are fazed by basic calculations such as margin or profit %, growth rate etc. As a result, the micro – businesses they run are inefficient and fail in adopting well-established processes such as setting the right selling price for their product, or estimating the right amount of raw material based on a sales forecast, or making a reasonably accurate sales estimate in the first place. The experience of teaching this set of micro-entrepreneurs made me start wondering about the state of primary education in our country and the implications on the supposed demographic dividend (or liability) for our future.

In fact, as data from Pratham’s ASER survey shows, it’s no surprise that so many of the adult learners struggled with division; even today, only 25% of children in class V can solve a division problem, and this proportion rises to only 46% of students in class VIII (wait for our next post for more information and some interesting infographics on this).

  • Zenobia Driver


  1. Rahul J May 14, 2014 at 4:42 am - Reply

    That is an extremely scary state of affairs – to have a substandard concept of literacy in which people fall short of application. The world over, educational models are also criticized for not providing students skill sets which are essential such as how to pay taxes, get a loan, budgeting, how to manage savings etc. Those are probably more important to the average Joe than trigonometry. I guess that is the case in India as well, as highlighted in this post. I believe that rather than having abstract problems students should be thought math with real-world models.

    • escapevelocityblog May 15, 2014 at 4:50 am - Reply

      Hi Rahul,
      An interesting comment, and one worth thinking about. I hadn’t actually focussed on that angle, my concern was more that if adults don’t know basic Math (division, % etc.), they cannot do basic transactions efficiently.
      For instance, no matter how their curriculum was restructured, they’d never be able to convert the interest rate into x Rs. per month and would have to blindly believe wjat the bank employee (or the money lender) told them.

Leave A Comment