Innovator Interview: Kidogo Early Years

Calla McCabe

Kidogo is a social enterprise that provides high-quality, affordable early childhood care and education to support the healthy growth and development of young children living in Africa’s urban slums.  We spoke with Sabrina Premji, co-founder and Chief Exploration Officer of Kidogo and Sheela Bowler, Director of Discovery.

Kidogo's goal is to provide a new model for delivering sustainable and scalable care.  Furthermore, the goal is improve upon the limited access to quality early childhood care in informal settlements.  Read about their program below!

Your program is currently located in two slums in Kenya; Kibera and Kangemi, what is it about these slums that led you to open centers there?

When we launched Kidogo, we knew that no number of business plans or strategy decks would validate our model. We needed to get boots on the ground, set up a pilot center, learn from our early customers and iterate our programming based on their feedback. We were opportunistic about our pilot locations. Both Kibera and Kangemi offered good real estate with existing infrastructure, as well as a community with self-identified childcare needs and organizations on the ground that we could partner with and learn from.

Describe a typical day at one of your centers?  What are the differences you encounter at each of your centers?

Our centers offer a daily structure of activities, both individual and group-based, that is customized to the age and ability of the child. The activities are influenced by a play-based approach and ultimately, help improve the school readiness of the child.  Parents drop off their children (age 6 months to 6 years) at around 8am.The day begins with a basic health check. In the event of a sick child, the parent is asked to take the child to the nearest health clinic. This helps reduce the spread of infections at our centers. Once children are settled in, teachers lead their classes through a series of group lessons on math, science and story time, followed by a morning snack (porridge) and bathroom breaks (children walk hand in hand, two-by-two to the bathroom – it’s quite cute!) Group lessons continue until lunchtime – we work with our cook to design weekly meal plans that offer variety, as well as the adequate calories & nutrients for growing children. After children wash up, they head outside for outdoor playtime, followed by naptime. The afternoon is primarily individual playtime where children get to explore their own interests (reading, playing, dramatic arts), with the assistance of their teacher. By 5pm, children are picked up by their parents.  Both centers are similar in terms of the sequencing of events and activities. The biggest difference is pricing (given the difference in economic status & ability to pay at each community) and the age distribution – though both cater to children age 6 months-6 years, Kibera has mainly children 3 years and younger, Kangemi has primarily children age 3+.

How do you develop your custom curriculum? Does it change based on location? Does it change based on developmental disabilities?

When we think about curriculum, we see it as the interaction of a number of key building blocks: teacher training, classroom set-up, the play materials available, the daily schedule of activities & the termly and yearly lesson plans. We recognize that each of these play a critical role in a child’s development & learning – a well-trained caregiver cannot operate without the necessary play materials; a play-based curriculum will not work in a classroom that is structured with only desks & chairs.
We looked at best practices in global early childhood education when developing each of these components, and adapted them to the local context, ensuring they adhered to the Kenya ECD Service Standard Guidelines. We then piloted them (e.g. training modules with our first batch of teachers) and made changes based on their feedback. It’s an ongoing improvement process.  A key thing to note is our curriculum offers a framework for our teachers, but they are really the ones to drive how the curriculum comes to life in their classrooms. In this regard, they are able to shape the curriculum to the specific abilities & talents of their children. They receive on-the-job coaching and mentorship from Kidogo staff as they implement new things in their classroom.

Have you had any experience collaborating with the government? What are some of the obstacles/successes on this front?

We are in early discussions to partner with the Mombasa County government on an early childhood center initiative, following a panel we were on with the Honorable Lewa Tendai at the Governors Annual Policy Conference on the theme of “Rethinking Education”.  At the Conference, Hon Tendai said: “As government, we are not good at implementing programs. We can mobilize funds and provide oversight, but it is social enterprises, like Kidogo, that should be doing the implementation.”  He sees the value of partnerships between the government and civil society agents towards reaching a common goal, but he is an anomaly. Our experience has been that most government members struggle to understand the hybrid (non-profit/for-profit) nature of social enterprises and the mechanisms through which governments and social organizations can work together.

How can policymakers and programs such as Kidogo work better together?

The Kenyan government has done a remarkable job of articulating their vision for early childhood education across the country; however, we find that some of the standards and regulations set, particularly in informal settlements, are far removed from the realities on the ground. There is an opportunity when devising policy frameworks to work with social organizations that have an understanding of how things operate on the ground, so that they reflect the goals of the government, while also representing the realities and needs of the communities.

There is also a dearth of policies and programming for children under the age of 3, assuming children at this age are a parent’s responsibility. The harsh reality is that in the absence of services, young children growing up in low-resource settings are left home alone, or are taken care of by an older sibling who is pulled out of school, while both parents work to put food on the table. It is with these complex problems that social enterprises can test innovative service offerings, and work with governments to scale-up programs that are proven to be effective.

How has your program expanded and developed since its founding?

Since its founding in 2014, Kidogo has established 2 childcare ‘hub’ centers in 2 informal settlements in Nairobi (Kibera & Kangemi), serving nearly 100 kids with holistic early childhood care and education. We are currently in the process of rolling out our micro-franchising project, in partnership with IDEO.org, to improve the quality of existing baby cares across Nairobi’s informal settlements. We see micro-franchising as our root to scale – there are 2.5 million children under the age of 5 living in East Africa’s informal settlements.

What has been the largest problem you have encountered with the development and implementation of this program?

We invest heavily in recruiting certified ECD teachers from the local community and providing them with ongoing training & mentoring. We are building a big organization, but we recognize that our big, hairy, audacious mission is accomplished through the small, daily interactions between our teachers and our children. Our biggest challenge is teacher retention. We work in a sector that is dominated by non-profits who build one-off private schools with external donor funding. They don’t worry about sustainability and can pay their staff more than the market rates we provide for our teachers. The problem is when that donor funding inevitably dries up, those schools will close and the communities will be no better, or even, worse off. It’s the typical development tale.

At Kidogo, we are trying to do development differently. We see ourselves being in these communities for the long haul, serving not only the 100 kids that come to us everyday, but to be around for the next generation, and the generation after that. We pay our teachers market rates with performance-based incentives that come through childcare fees. Though we don’t compete in the same market with these one-off school (usually different age range), we do struggle to retain our teachers when they are poached by these private schools offering 3x their salaries.

What has been the overall impact of the program?

We are in the early days of our pilot project and have begun collecting baseline data on child development indicators and the quality of the caregiving environment, with support from the Aga Khan University.  However, we have many anecdotes of parents whose children no longer cry before coming to school because they love coming to Kidogo; and parents from outside our immediate catchment area who have started to send their children to Kidogo because “they heard it was the best school in Kibera”.  Our centers have also grown tremendously – we saw 100% growth in numbers from the final term of 2014 to the first term in 2015 in Kibera. Our center in Kangemi, which opened in January, has already reached capacity and break-even.

Five years from now, where would you like to see Kidogo?

Five years from now, we hope to have proven the sustainability & impact of our Kidogo model and our focus will be on scaling our hubs & spokes across East Africa. We will also be exploring other growth opportunities at that time and new ways to achieve our mission of unlocking the potential of young children living in poverty. Stay tuned to see us go from Kidogo (small) to kubwa (big)!

See more Early Childhood Development blogs