“SmartStart” aims to provide early learning to one million three- and four-year-old children by using a social franchise model to create 51,000 early childhood educators by 2026. The central office finds and trains the so-called “SmartStarters” – of which there are currently around 2,300 – then supports them in setting up an enterprise in their local area with government funding. The project gives meaningful work to many South Africans who had previously been unemployed or working in low-income, unskilled jobs, while providing early education to thousands of young children.
Results & Impact
So far, around 2,300 “SmartStarters” are providing quality early learning to over 22,400 children in six out of nine South African provinces. By 2020, they aim to have trained 20,000 SmartStarters who will teach 400,000 children. They plan to reach one million children each year by 2026 with approximately 51,000 SmartStarters.
SmartStart, South Africa Department for Social Development, Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Harambee, DG Murray Trust, Yellowwoods, Hollard Trust, Ilifa Labantwana
SmartStart has created a structured educational program with standardised materials, training, support and monitoring for SmartStarters who set up local franchises. The central organisation holds recruitment days for applicants to be admitted onto a five-day training course. Once they have recruited children and set up a venue, the SmartStarters are given a license, early learning toolkit and membership to a local supportive network of up to 16 SmartStarters. Funded by government stipends and very modest fees for participating families, there are three different program models: a playgroup for at least two three-hour sessions per week; a childminder program of 25 hours per week; and a similar classroom routine held in existing early childhood centres.
Parents and children
Cost & Value
R70m ($5.86 million) was committed by donors up to June 2018, with funds secured for the next four years. They estimate that the fully-scaled franchise would cost about R2b ($168 million) to run.
Launched in 2015
As SmartStart grows, it’s a big challenge to ensure quality and affordability at scale, and to maintain the cohesiveness of the club networks supporting the SmartStarters. It can be a very lonely and difficult job, with SmartStarters reporting that setting up their own micro-enterprises and being responsible for a number of children can be stressful. Meanwhile, many early learning providers struggle to access government early learning stipends, particularly out of centre-based programs, because government implementation has been slow. Also, because SmartStart is going straight to scale instead of running a pilot, its impact on child outcomes is yet to be proven scientifically: a large evaluation is reporting in late 2018 or early 2019.
Social franchise models have been used in many other cases, such as LoveLife in South Africa, a HIV prevention initiative formerly run by the now-CEO of SmartStart. In the early childhood space, SmartStart has learnt from similar projects such as the Kidigo in Kenya and aeioTU in Colombia.
In South Africa, one million three- and four-year-olds are currently missing out on early learning programs, leading to a wide achievement gap in school and later in life.
The nonprofit SmartStart has a bold plan to put that right by 2026: they aim to help 51,000 early educators set up new quality programs around the country using a social franchise model. It will provide early learning to the million kids each year who aren’t being reached.
“In South Africa, most early childhood development programs are very small, with a local response,” said Justine Jowell, Program Design Lead at SmartStart. “They haven’t managed to reach any substantial scale.”
Launched in 2015, SmartStart currently has around 2,300 “SmartStarters” – local franchisees – who are providing early learning to over 22,400 children in six out of nine South African projects. In 2018, they aim to have franchises in all nine provinces, and by 2020 they aim to have trained 20,000 SmartStarters reaching 400,000 children.
SmartStart provides a structured educational program for the franchisees which, with standardised materials, training, support and monitoring, set up local practices with the help of government stipends.
“A few months ago I was practically invisible… and now I am trusted with people’s children”
“That’s the beauty of a social franchise,” said Grace Matlhape, CEO of SmartStart. “What we’ve got is a curriculum that’s been broken down into a routine. If you follow the practice, you will get the quality.”
Importantly, in a country where more than one in four people are out of work, many of the SmartStarters were formally unemployed or working in unskilled programs like street sweeping and cleaning schools.
“For many of them, their lives are transformed,” said Matlhape. “The kind of things you hear are: ‘A few months ago I was practically invisible; no one knew me or paid me much attention, and now I am trusted with people’s children and I can actually see them grow’.”
With the help of Harambee, a nonprofit which helps to connect employers to unemployed young people, SmartStart invites applicants to a recruitment day to assess their suitability for childcare.
“Once we had successful SmartStarters, we looked at some of the characteristics for that: things like grit and resilience, the ability to be creative and, most importantly, engagement and relational skills – because a big focus of our program is language and literacy development,” said Justine Jowell, Program Design Lead at SmartStart.
Usually, around 70% of applicants are admitted to the five-day training program, with those who don’t match the characteristics or have criminal records being rejected. They then need to recruit children and set up a venue in their area, from which point they are given a SmartStart license, an early learning play kit – including resources like a football for motor skills and puzzles for cognitive development – along with membership to a local supportive network of up to 16 SmartStarters. Meanwhile, in order to maintain their license, SmartStarters need to continue to meet certain standards, including regular child attendance and good feedback from parents.
There are three different program models, including a playgroup for at least two three-hour sessions per week, a childminder program including a minimum of 25 hours’ support per week, and a similar classroom routine held in existing early childhood centres.
“Playgroups and childminders struggle to access government stipends for early childhood”
Funding for the SmartStarters predominantly comes from government stipends. The Department of Cooperative Governance & Traditional Affairs’ (CoGTA) Community Work Program (CWP), for example, gives a minimum R8,000 ($675) annual stipend to SmartStarters for running the playgroups. Meanwhile, the Expanded Public Works Program (EPWP) provides some stipends to those providing early learning for more than 15 days per month.
Despite this, getting hold of the stipends can be a challenge due to slow government implementation. “Right now any non-centrally-based program, such as playgroups and childminders, struggle to access government stipends for early childhood,” said Jowell. Currently, 1,392 out of 2,300 SmartStarters receive stipends from government or private agencies.
The franchises also make money from charging very modest fees. These can range from R50 ($4) per month in the poorest communities up to about R400 ($32). Also, in a few very poor provinces, franchises receive fortified porridge to give the children, through a partnership between SmartStart and a food company.
“As an organisation and as a brand, we’re very focused on collaboration and ongoing learning,” said Jowell. “That’s also very difficult when you get to scale: how do you make sure you remain collaborative and supportive?”
This is especially important in a line of work which can be both demanding and isolating. SmartStarters have reported the stress of setting up their own micro-enterprises and being responsible for a number of children. “In any people profession,” Jowell said, “if you’re not able to manage stress in yourself it’s going to impact on your work, but particularly when you’re working with small children, it’s critical.”
SmartStart has chosen to go straight to scale instead of running a pilot, which means that its impact on child outcomes is yet to be proven scientifically. While the educational program is evidence-based, anecdotal evidence is encouraging and SmartStart’s reach is rapidly expanding, its impact will only be fully known when the large evaluation reports in late 2018 or early 2019.
Social franchise models have been used before successfully, including by LoveLife in South Africa, a HIV prevention initiative formerly run by Matlhape before she joined SmartStart. In the early childhood space, SmartStart has learnt from similar projects such as the Kidigo in Kenya and AEIOTU in Colombia.
SmartStart runs on philanthropic money, and a number of donors, including the DG Murray Trust, committed R70m ($5.86m) up to June 2018, with funds secured for the subsequent four financial years. Overall, they estimate that a fully-funded social franchise, providing for the one million young children at a time, would cost about R2 ($168 million) a year.
Once the SmartStart model is fully-scaled, it hopes to become a mechanism for government and others to enable universal access to early learning programs for children in South Africa.
(Picture credit: Flickr/GCIS)