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Rewriting the Book on Education Investment in Africa

A school boy carrying another boy on his back
A young boy carries his disabled best friend through the Marigoini slums on their way to school in Nairobi, Kenya, on September 17, 2007. © Hazel Thompson/eyevine/Redux

Schools do not exist in isolation. They are embedded in neighborhoods and communities. Students do not magically disappear from the school gates every afternoon; they venture out into the streets as residents, whose reality and prospects are inexorably linked to the conditions that surround them.

This simple fact, however, is not recognized by the current approaches to impact investment in education, particularly in places like East Africa. Here, efforts primarily focus on improving in-school conditions as a means to address traditional markers such as attendance, grades, and dropout rates.

What these approaches fail to recognize is that improved school infrastructure, enhanced classroom resources, and modern pedagogical approaches only go so far. These fixes will be of little benefit, for example, to a child who might be eager to study but is forced to stay home twice a week due to water-borne gastrointestinal illnesses. Similarly, community education programs alone will do little to combat the stigma associated with menstruation; girls will continue to drop out of school past puberty as long as they lack access to affordable and effective sanitary products and reproductive health education.

We at Educate Global Fund believe that an enabling external environment is essential to youth development. This is why we have chosen to break away from the traditional investment paradigm to focus instead on small and medium-size businesses that provide essential goods and services to low-income communities.

For example, we are working with a local distributor of affordable sanitary pads in Kenya to address school attendance of girls during menstruation. In addition, we will act as lead investor in a firm that produces porridge enriched with vitamins and minerals and distributed to schools; a meal a day at school has been shown to increase attendance and concentration.

We believe that addressing living conditions in these communities, in coordination with government efforts to tackle the public education system’s shortcomings, can have a profound effect on children’s education, especially among vulnerable populations like refugees or residents of rural areas and informal urban settlements.

Our unconventional investment approach, presented in our recently published report, has been shaped by a two-year grassroots effort that brought together schools, orphanages, businesses, government, and community members across East Africa. Working closely with a select group of businesses in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya, we developed case studies documenting business models and measuring their impact, while also integrating input from children, parents, school staff, and community members. By democratizing the design process, our aim was to ensure that the results emphasized by our approach are in line with those most valued on the ground.

We’ve now established an evidence-based framework that will allow us to further trace the link between these environmental factors—health, nutrition, sanitation, energy, and technology—and improved educational outcomes over a 10-year period.

But the lessons we’ve drawn from our design approach and presented in the report have applications not only for our investors, but also our investees. Just as good assessments in the classroom must allow teachers to identify a breakdown in learning, good impact measurement systems must help ventures improve and grow their services.

The promising findings presented in our paper are only preliminary; further research in conjunction with partners, civil society organizations, and local philanthropists are necessary to fully flesh out our strategy. But with continued conversations around novel investment and impact measurement approaches, we are approaching the day when all children, regardless of where they call home, have the best chance to succeed in school.

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