Simple, yet brilliant, innovations in overcoming the unique obstacles to early learning in Africa

Less than 12% of African children currently have access to early childhood care and education services



AFRICA’s working urban mothers face a big question - what to do with their children while they are away at work. 

For those who can’t afford much their options are often limited to leaving their children at home unattended; pulling an older sibling out of school to help care for the younger ones; or leaving them at a care centre for a small fee. 

However, increasingly there are solutions out there which can also play vital roles in poverty alleviation, human development and equity.

In Kenya, an organisation called Kidogo found that parents are able, and willing, to pay between 50-80 KES per day (less than $1) for improved early childhood care and education services. Following this they’ve embarked on a project to build 2-3 self-sustainable early learning hubs which provide healthy growth and development for young children.

Bearing in mind that 85% of the human brain develops by the age of five, early childhood development centres and projects like this are critical since the first eight years of a child’s life are considered to be the decisive period for successful learning. 

Yet despite being so critical, Unesco has appalling statistics which show that less than 12% of African children currently have access to early childhood care and education services. 

The projects don’t always have to be complex and costly. 

Buddy Reading

In western Kenya for example, the National Book Development Council has launched a project called “Buddy Reading”. Here, grade six students act as mentors and have been trained to read with grade 1 and 2 students - the buddies - in small, informal, after school sessions held 2-4 times a week. The reading - both out loud and done together - takes place in English, Swahili, and the mother tongue, Ekugusii. A fantastic way to also ensuring that local dialects are not lost through the education system. 

Developing multilingual proficiency from a young age is a real advantage - particularly in African countries where the commonly spoken language at home isn’t what’s being used at school. In Senegal, for example, most children speak Wolof or other local languages at home, and are introduced to French in school. 

To deal with this issue, an initiative of the International Society of Linguistics (SIL), the EMiLe Project, is working to change the way that Senegalese children learn French, and to create bilingual classrooms complete with bilingual learning material in local languages and French. To ease the young children smoothly into the learning environment, students begin their education in their local language and French is introduced slowly over time.

This is similar to the Robert and Yeranda Nkosi Foundation (ROYNF) project in Uganda which is trying to raise learning outcomes by developing a language appropriate participative learning model. This project targets Lumasaaba language speakers, but is transferable to other languages as well.

Text Memorisation

The FDK (Federation Dimbaya Kanyalen) project in Senegal has a different  approach, seeking to increase literacy rates by introducing and implementing the SARENA (Stratégie Active pour la Réusite d’une Ecole Novatrice) approach. This is designed for French speaking students in their first two years of primary school and features word shape and text memorisation. It also gets parents involved in their children’s learning through providing mobile phones which will link parents to teachers. 

Training in early childhood development for teachers, within institutions, is key and certain groups and projects have focused on this route, coming up with unique approaches.

In Kenya, the Madrasa Resource Center, Kenya (MRCK) is a classroom and community-level intervention which focuses on improving teaching and learning practices and teachers’ tools for literacy assessment and supporting and encouraging parents’ participation in reading with and for their children. Training which can help individuals to teach reading at the pre-school level, with children as young as 3! 

In Uganda, the Early Learning Enhancement Project (ELEP) seeks to raise learning outcomes by engaging with the community education stakeholders and coming up with context-specific strategies, training events and learning innovations which address the realities of each individual project school. These have helped to draw out issues related to training and coaching of lower primary literacy teachers as well as the challenges in language barriers. 

The inclusion of early childhood development in major international development initiatives can be traced back to the 1990 ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the creation of the Education for All movement, which established that learning begins at birth. 

These initiatives, supported by the African philanthropic organisation - TrustAfrica - are fundamental in bringing the importance of early childhood development to the attention of African policymakers. Through developing and financing these, and future partners, through an early learning innovations fund, the organisation continues to build the capacity of these “smaller” projects and initiatives, providing a crucial foundation for a more productive and secure future.

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