#Mamapreneurs: Social childcare for Nairobi slum kids

How one startup is using ‘hub & spoke model’ to provide affordable high quality learning services for children in Kenyan slums

In poverty-stricken slums, parents have to go look for food and tend to their young ones at the same time. This means mothers often leave babies and under-fives unattended. Sometimes they pull an older child out of school to look after the youngest ones.

Other “affluent” mothers, who can afford approximately $0.5-payment-a-day, have the luxury of leaving their young ones in a congested, unsanitary, unsafe and hazardous local makeshift baby care centres. Here, injuries, infections, retarded growth and other risks become the order of the day. Sometimes the kids are even stolen in the process by traffickers.

So, when edupreneurs Afzal Habib and Sabrina Premji introduced Kidogo two years ago, it was God-send to mothers and their young ones.

“Kidogo is a social enterprise that provides high-quality, affordable early childhood care education to families living in East Africa’s informal settlements. We imagine a world where all children, regardless of where or in what circumstances they were born, have the opportunity to reach their full potential,” Sabrina Premji, the startup’s co-founder, tells IDG Connect.

The startup designs and operates a network of ECD centres using a social model they call “hub & spoke” to provide young children in informal settlements with a safe learning environment, nutritious meals and play-based curriculum through well-trained care givers from the local community.

“The ‘secret sauce’ is our hub & spoke model,” Premji explains. “While we had originally thought about just doing a Social Franchising program (i.e., spokes), our initial market research showed that local baby care operators were unwilling to participate in a program without a local presence or brand.  More importantly, they had no idea how to create a quality childcare environment in their own centres as they had never been exposed to a quality environment.  As a result, our hubs serve two purposes – to put Kidogo’s brand ‘on the map’ in the community with a local presence, and secondly to serve as a model or centre of excellence that our spokes can visit and learn from within their own community.”

With over half of the world’s out-of-school children (33 million) currently living in Africa according to UNICEF [PDF], the startup provides hope for the slum dwellers. Despite working in these complex environments of low earners, Kidogo has laid down both infrastructural and technological foundations towards its success.


Strong technological foundations

The startup uses a smart phone app and SMS based tools for monitoring and evaluation purposes. In the process this also serves to coach and mentor the care givers in its network.

“We are using a smart-phone app to support the administration and reporting processes at our centre, helping our team to quickly and effectively input, review, and share data about the operations at our centres to head office including enrolment levels, financial information, and quality metrics,” Premji explains.

“For coaching and mentoring our caregivers, we have been using SMS-based tools to provide supplementary information to parents and teachers in our network to improve their capacity and knowledge. These messages reinforce key training topics, and provide helpful practical tips for caring for the children. This ensures children are well supported not just in our centres but also at home.”


The #Mamapreneurs hash tag

Instead of competing with the poorly institutionalised unsafe care giving centres already started by women in the slums, Kidogo integrates them into the startup’s network by offering training and mentorship. These women become “#mamapreneurs, which translates to women entrepreneurs in the local tongue as the co-founder explains:

“#Mamapreneurs are local women who are hand-picked by Kidogo to help us spread our programs throughout the community through a social franchising program.  These women are selected because they are interested in or already running a local childcare micro-business, and have the passion and drive to provide a quality service within that centre. In partnering with Kidogo, they are provided with training, ongoing mentorship services, and a package of tools and guides that can help them to start or grow their childcare micro-business.  In exchange, they commit to focus on providing quality care (regularly monitored by Kidogo) and sharing data with the organisation to ensure we are making an impact on the community.”

The co-founder is confident that the startup is moving to the right direction.

“Since launching in 2014, we have opened two ‘hub’ centres [one in Kibera and another in Kangemi – the biggest slums in Nairobi] that collectively serve approximately 150 children every day. We have also employed 12 ECD teachers.  In addition, we launched our spokes pilot program last year with five mamapreneurs that serve an additional 150 children through their childcare centres,” Premji informs us. 

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How the idea came about

The co-founder had a personal slum experience that led to the startup’s idea and inception, on the outskirts of Nairobi. Premji was working with community health workers and leaders on a nutrition project where she visited what was referred to as a ‘baby care centres’.  During this visit, she uncovered the issue of the hundreds of unlicensed childcare centres in the informal settlements that were caring for children while their mothers were at work. As a scientist she knew that the first five years (and specifically the first 1000 days) is a vital period in the development of young children, including cognitive, physical, and psycho-social skills.

She discovered that these centre were of very poor quality with unsafe and unsanitary environments and limited nutrition and stimulation for the children. This was hindering their development. Without quality care, she realised that in the early years these children were having trouble succeeding in school and later in life, often leading to the continued intergenerational cycle of poverty. From then, the co-founder set the stage for her obsession of helping slum children.

“We believe the challenges of these communities, particularly with regards to childcare and pre-school education are unique and require a different approach than other parts of the population. While we did launch our first centre in Kibra in 2014, our focus is not specifically here. We hope to scale-up Kidogo in the coming years to all informal settlements around Nairobi and then into other major cities across the region including Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, and Kampala,” Premji tells us. 


Funding the startup

Kidogo was designed to be a financially sustainable social business and as such has two key funding streams as the co-founder explains:

“First, is revenue - we charge modest childcare fees to parents who bring their children to our hub centres, generating revenues that cover most (if not all) of the costs of running those centres. In addition, our #mamapreneurs are asked to make contributions towards the cost of the program, though new revenue streams are being explored currently. Second is grants – Kidogo has been fortunate to receive support from strategic partners (including Grand Challenges Canada, Amplify, SPRING, and others) who helped us launch our centre and fund our head-office operations as we grow.”

The majority of parents in these slums are the very low income earners casual labourers that make up the 60% of Kenyans. Yet the startup has noted that in these poverty-stricken segments of society quality is more important than cost.

“Both of our hubs are current filled to capacity and have waiting lists despite being slightly more expensive than nearby options, suggesting that parents are willing to pay for quality when it is important to them,” observed Premji.

“We believe that they [poor parents] should be treated as customers [rather than passive beneficiaries] as that empowers them to make spending decisions based on their priorities and ensures they buy-in to the services we provide.  In order to make our services affordable for this segment, we do in-depth analysis of alternative options parents have (our competitors) and try to price competitively. In addition, we try to introduce flexible payment terms (per-term, monthly, daily) that allow parents to pay how and when they are best able to do so.”


A raft of challenges

The startup has faced with a lot of challenges, most pressing of these being management of the trade-off between financial sustainability and impact. This involves evaluating the financial implications of a decision to ensure they are being as cost-effective and efficient as possible.

“We’d love to improve the nutrition of the meals we serve at our centres by adding a glass of milk each day.  However, the cost of serving milk to each child daily can be expensive, and there is not necessarily a willingness amongst parents to pay for the additional costs.  We could find a donor or sponsor for milk, but this option is not a sustainable or scalable solution. This is just one small example, but we face these types of trade-offs every day in our work.”


International Accolades

The startup has received international accolades in its status as a social enterprise and also as a female-led innovation. It has been named Champion of Play-Based Learning (by the LEGO Foundation and Ashoka), has received a SEED Award (awarded by the UN) for female led company, “Ready to Scale” award at Women Deliver Conference 2016 and Member of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) among many others.

“In the short-term, we are focusing on proving out the hub & spoke model and growing our footprint within Nairobi, and then into key cities across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.  This means that over the six to 12 months we are focused on refining our programs, services and our business model to ensure we are well positioned to grow in the coming years,” Premji concludes.

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