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News & Press: Founder Story

Afzal & Sabrina on their vision to provide quality daycare for less than $1 a day

24 July 2019  
Kidogo | Kenya | 3 ECD Centres and ~50 Mamapreneurs

Background

Afzal and I are both first-generation Canadians, born and raised in Toronto (woohoo, Raptors!) to parents who grew up in Tanzania

In 2010, I was selected for a fellowship that placed 18 young professionals around the world with agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network. I was placed in Mombasa, Kenya on maternal & child health. It was a strange “full circle” moment – Mombasa is where my Mom used to spend her summers growing up and I ended up living in the same apartment complex as my great-grandmother!

After my 9-month placement, which was my first foray into field work and my first time on the African continent, I called my parents and told them I loved it so much I didn’t want to come home. I moved to Nairobi and worked at the Aga Khan University on primary health care initiatives.

In December 2011, I accompanied one of my colleagues to an informal settlement just outside of Nairobi The community members kept mentioning the word “babycare” and we finally got to see one. We walked through the informal settlement (slum), got to an unmarked property, took our shoes off at the gate and opened the door. I was struck by the smell – of urine and feces, there was no sanitation at all. It was completely dark - I couldn’t see anything so I started to walk slowly forward into the room and I felt my foot hit something. I looked down and it was a little baby. I instinctively leaned forward to pick her up and I saw babies all around me – perhaps, 15-20, all awake but completely silent – it was an eerie feeling. The children had learned not to cry anymore because they didn’t receive any attention, or in some cases they were given alcohol or a sleeping pill to keep them hushed through the day. For a lot of working mothers, it was either this make-shift daycare or leaving their infant home alone or with an older sibling who had been pulled out of school.

I left the informal settlement, and I made a phone call to Afzal to tell him what I saw. I was crying at how unjust it was and finally when I said, “and mothers pay for this”, Afzal stopped me mid-sentence to say, “What? They pay?” His business sense was tingling and we had a discussion about how there is an existing market, the issue is quality. We ended that conversation with one single question “How can we provide a higher quality childcare option at roughly the same price point that mothers were currently paying, about $1 per day?”

Afzal’s story

Afzal received the call while in his cushy office at the Boston Consulting Group in Toronto. He had been there for almost 2 years and was starting to get the itch. The word “social entrepreneurship” was just coming up and Afzal knew he wanted to get involved at some point. But when offered a prestigious job at BCG right out of University, Afzal figured it made sense to get the skills and credibility of a top management consulting company as a starting point. On accepting BCG’s offer, he made his mom promise that after 2 years in the job, she would remind him to get out and remember his purpose. His purpose in life was never “to make rich people richer”. Afzal received that “time to get out” call from his mom just a few days before Sabrina called him crying saying she had almost stepped on a baby.

I came to Canada for Christmas in December 2011 and Afzal and I began dating. At some point or another, we would take a napkin and begin drawing out business models for this idea we had. After 2 wonderful weeks together, I flew back to Nairobi.

2012-2013

We used these years to understand the issue better. We learned that this was more than just a childcare issue – if kids were not getting a good foundation to life, they were never going reach their full potential, and East Africa as an economy, as a society would never reach its full potential. We were always troubled that our parents had to leave East Africa to have a better life for their families.

We understood the scale and impact of the problem – there were 3500 ‘babycares’ in Nairobi’s informal settlements with new ones opening every day. We met hundreds of working mothers who used the centres, as well as babycare operators. We were using our evenings and weekends to visit babycares and understand the problem better while working full time - you can imagine 2 young “mzungus” walking around Mlolongo, Baba Dogo and Kibera asking about childcare!

We did a global benchmarking study off the side of our desks to see how other countries were tackling this issue – we figured if it was a problem in the slums of Nairobi, it had to be a problem in the slums of India and Colombia and elsewhere, as well. For the most part, we came across single, one-off childcare centres that were funded entirely by donations. There were a handful of organizations trying new things but no one had really “cracked that code”. For us, that meant quality (focused on the development of the child), sustainability (did not rely entirely on donor funds, which can be fickle and unpredictable) and scalability (it could reach more than a few dozen children).

In 2013, we decided this was it – we needed to do something. But we didn’t have any money. So Afzal went back to BCG for 6 months – he left his expensive downtown apartment, moved in with his parents and saved every penny.

In January 2014, he officially left his job at BCG, said goodbye to a 6-figure salary, and I left graduate school and we registered our organization: Kidogo.

Kidogo means “small” in Swahili and we decided on the name after hearing the African proverb “chanzo cha makubwa ni kidogo” which means “all great things start small”

Model

In our lean testing with babycare operators, when asked if they would join a network that would train them and give them tools to improve the quality of their daycare at a small fee (essentially, a social franchising model), they largely said “no”. They didn’t see anything wrong with their centres – meanwhile, we were seeing open cookstoves, 25 babies packed in a small room, no sanitation, no stimulation and were puzzled that they didn’t see that there was something wrong. We realized that daycare operators didn’t have an example of what good quality looked like. High-quality centres located in richer areas of Nairobi were unachievable and out of reach.

So, we pivoted our exclusively social franchising model to a “hub & spoke” model where we would set up a few best-practice Early Childhood Centres to show the community what “good” looks like within that context.

Our first Early Childhood Hub opened in Kibera in September 2014 and our second in Kangemi in January 2015. The centre renovations and salaries of our first few staff were catered for with Afzal’s $15K of savings. And then our first grant landed from Grand Challenges Canada.

In mid-2015, we went back to our idea of franchising and began a pilot with 5 daycare operators (what we were calling Mamapreneurs).

Now

We currently have a network of 3 Early Childhood Hubs that operate as Centres of Excellence and training centres, and ~50 Mamapreneurs serving some 1800 children every single day across Nairobi. We give mothers “peace of mind” at work while ensuring their young children get the best start to life, so that they may break out of the inter-generational cycle of poverty.

Our ambition is to be the leading network of high-quality, affordable childcare services across East Africa.

A few reflections

  • One of the most challenging parts of running the organization is the tension between quality and sustainability. Every decision we make prioritizes one over the other (e.g. caregiver to child ratio – you can optimize for sustainability and have more children, or can optimize for quality and have fewer kids per caregiver at the expense of the profitability of the centre).
  • The other challenge we face is balancing our desire to grow and scale with the delicate intricacies of building trust in the community, which inevitably takes time and patience. It’s an interesting tension.
  • One of my most memorable days was getting the results from our follow-up study where we saw how Kidogo kids who had graduated from our centres and gone onto primary school were at the top of their class. They were described by their teachers as “independent and creative learners”. We remember chuckling when hearing one teacher describe our kids as “troublemakers” because they get their work done so quickly that they then want to ask lots of questions about life. And they hate sitting in one chair for hours at a time. We took this as a positive! Our kids are inquisitive, go-getters, creatives and do-ers.
  • One of the things we’re excited to do more of this year (which is taking up a lot of Afzal’s time and energy) is build the childcare ecosystem, both in Kenya and globally. We as a service delivery provider can only do so much – there needs to be much more attention, money, time put into the childcare space. If 90% of brain development takes place in the first few years of life, then we need to get policymakers, academics, corporates, funders excited about supporting these critical years. We are a founding member of the Kenya ECD Network to help influence policy at the national level, and serve globally on the IFC’s Tackling Childcare Working Group. We hope to continue to be thought leaders in this space and help build the ecosystem, so that collectively our efforts will ensure every child has the opportunity to reach their full potential.