Philanthropy’s role enhancing early childhood education in Sub-Saharan Africa


Vignesh Shankar


Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, faces significant challenges in providing access to quality early childhood education (ECE). Governments in the region have historically focused on building new schools and increasing enrollments, rather than on the quality of ECE imparted. While this is understandable given the historically low enrollment rates in some nations, enhancing the caliber of ECE provision demands equal attention. Philanthropy can play a potentially catalytic role in this endeavor.

What’s the current state of ECE provision in the region?

Many countries in SSA have large urban and low-income populations aged 3 to 6 years. Despite a rise in pre-primary enrollments in most of these nations, learning outcomes remain poor. Rote-based learning, a limited focus on and understanding of quality learning, and a scarcity of skilled practitioners trained in good ECE pedagogy are among the main reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem, causing learning losses across all levels of education.

To what extent is the private sector involved?

Figure 1

Figure 1

The private sector already plays a key role in ECE provision in the region (See Figure 1). One in three students in pre-primary education are already in private institutions. Since many standalone pre-primary centers are not tied to existing primary schools and may be unregistered, the actual share of private enrolments is likely 20 per cent higher than official figures.

What are the prevalent models of private education in SSA?

Standalone pre-primary centers, which are not connected to primary or K-12 schools, are typically run by informal private providers as ECE is still not consistently within the formal education system. Similarly, many K-12 schools, which provide at least one year of pre-primary education, are “mom-and-pop” establishments run by informal providers. A survey of 1,000 schools in five SSA cities found that 56per cent were unregistered, and only one-third had been operating for at least five years. Besides these core models, supplementary education classes and ed-tech offerings represent ancillary models.

How’s the private ECE sector currently faring?

Private providers face scale and sustainability challenges. For many pre-primary centers, limited catchment sizes due to parents’ preference for proximity pose profitability hurdles. While some successful chains exist, they are insufficient to address the extensive unmet demand. Low-cost K-12 schools also struggle to demonstrate scale and profitability, and mid-priced schools are concentrated primarily in major cities. Despite several promising early-stage ed-tech startups, achieving financial returns and scale has proven difficult. Remote learning solutions are often inaccessible to low-income households.

So, is there any point in supporting private ECE?

Government schools alone cannot meet the escalating demand for quality ECE as the number of children grows. Expanding and enhancing ECE provision requires a multi-faceted approach, and supporting private-sector engagement is a key component. Despite challenges, the private ECE sector is expanding and may already be the mainstay for low-mid income households in urban and peri-urban areas. Viewing the private sector as a complementary force, given its potential to create additional capacity where government schools fall short, is vital. Fresh perspectives, innovative methods, and additional resources contributed by the private sector can uplift ECE quality in the region.

There is a pressing need for dedicated facilitation to resolve broader business model challenges and strengthen the private ECE space in the region, with philanthropy assuming a central facilitative role in gathering insights, investigating the road to financial sustainability, and supporting multi-year endeavors.

Some private providers have already demonstrated significant impact in the region, and can offer valuable lessons. For example, Kidogo and SmartStart have improved learning outcomes for 14,000 children in Kenya and 100,000 children in South Africa, respectively. Elsewhere, in India, FSG‘s Program to Improve Private Early Education has improved learning outcomes for around 102,000 children by working with private providers.

What’s the way forward?

There is a pressing need for dedicated facilitation to resolve broader business model challenges and strengthen the private ECE space in the region, with philanthropy assuming a central facilitative role in gathering insights, investigating the road to financial sustainability, and supporting multi-year endeavors. Facilitators must approach this with a nuanced understanding of the unique circumstances in each country, adopting a systems approach to understand the barriers and drivers for key stakeholders, as follows:

Households: Philanthropy can spearhead comprehensive research endeavors to evaluate parents’ perspectives on ECE and their educational aspirations for their children. Understanding their preferences for ECE providers, especially in urban and peri-urban areas, can illuminate their needs. Assessing their awareness of quality education and willingness to invest in it is key.

Practitioners: Philanthropic organizations can fund initiatives to assess ECE practitioners’ understanding of quality education and support needs. Philanthropy can also play a pivotal role in enhancing learning for teachers and students by supporting training.

Institutions: Philanthropic support can be instrumental in evaluating the financial health and business goals of ECE providers. Understanding the competitive landscape and potential for collaboration will aid in identifying pathways for improvement, with philanthropic organizations providing the necessary financial resources and expertise. Identifying high-quality content providers and exploring their interactions with private ECE providers can lead to valuable partnerships that enhance ECE quality. Philanthropy can actively promote and facilitate such collaboration, acting as a bridge between stakeholders.

Customizing this approach to each country can identify viable business models aligning with local needs. For example, countries like Kenya, Ghana, and Liberia, with high Gross Enrolment Ratios (GERs) and moderate private sector involvement in ECE (as per official figures)11, may be fertile ground for business models that can enhance ECE quality. Others like Uganda, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali, with a low but growing GER and relatively higher private sector involvement, may offer private providers significant potential for improving quality and expanding capacity to meet the rising enrolments.

While these considerations form a comprehensive strategic framework, testing this approach on the ground and involving stakeholders directly can yield more accurate insights into barriers and drivers, leading to the selection of suitable business models that match local needs and aspirations.

Vignesh Shankar is a Director at FSG, a global mission-driven consulting firm that partners with foundations and corporations to create equitable systems change.

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