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Big things begin at Kidogo

With over 3,000 daycares in informal settlements, this educational centre is giving a different meaning to quality care for underprivileged children

It is Thursday midday, in the heart of Africa’s second largest slum, Kibera. Scattered across two rooms, groups of two, three or four children aged below four years old roam contentedly.

“Would you like some milk?” a child asks, standing beside the class ‘canteen’ elaborately set up on one corner of the room. Their teachers move among the children, making periodic steps, chatting and observing their work.

Welcome to Kidogo’s Early Childhood Centre.

Well, there is nothing outwardly distinctive about the centre if you compared it to daycares in the neighbourhood. Yet it is in this fairly old building that used to be a medical facility some years ago, walls painted with children’s art and neatly arranged piles of play materials that an affordable, high quality Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre in Kenya, starts to take shape.

Located at Kisumu Ndogo area, the centre is one among three early childhood hubs in various parts of Nairobi that has a dream of transforming childcare in urban slums. The other centres are located in Kangemi and Githurai.

Kidogo was born in 2011 when Sabrina Premji, a Toronto native with Tanzanian roots moved to Kenya and began working for Aga Khan University. She was conducting a research on child and maternal health in Mlolongo and in the course of her research experienced horrific conditions in which children in daycares grow in.

A staff member escorts a pupil out of the centre. Photo/BETTY MUINDI

She contacted a friend, Afzal Habib, a fellow Canadian who also had Tanzanian roots and together they worked hard to birth what would become the first of its kind social enterprise that improves access to high-quality, affordable early childhood care and education.

They researched about daycares in Nairobi with special focus on informal settlements. They looked at existing gaps between community needs and existing services as well as what needs were not being met.

“We realised that there was so much room for improvement, most daycares took in the children, but very little was done in terms of quality care,” says Sabrina.

There are over 3,000 daycares in the informal settlements in Nairobi, but most of them are of poor quality and yet parents, who are mostly casual labourers and small business owners earning less than Sh300 a day, need the service.

Constant features synonymous with daycares in the slums are overcrowded, poorly ventilated rooms and children are taken care of by only one or two untrained caregivers. Parents who cannot afford daycare fees leave their babies alone at home, with older siblings or with neighbours when they go to work.

“At the heart of it, we believe that a child born in Kawangware or Kibera should have the same opportunity as a child born in Karen or Gigiri. And that begins in the early years,” says Sabrina.

With this dream in mind, they were confident that they had what it takes to make their idea a reality.

In September 2014, they launched the first daycare in Kibera that serves as a model for best practice for early childhood care and education in the informal settlement. It is also used as a training facility to help other caregivers learn the basics of ECD.

A lot of the credit also goes to Janet Mwitiki, an early childhood development expert and Kidogo’s Director of Learning and Play, who provides valuable input on designing an effective pedagogical approach that fits the Kenyan landscape.

She says being trusted with children is a great responsibility that needs a lot of passion. It means giving them quality care and nurturing in the crucial first few years of their life.

“Once a child reaches five years old, usually 90 per cent of their brain is already developed. Therefore, it is crucial that they are given access to holistic, quality care, especially in the areas of health, learning, nutrition, play and protection,” she explains.

At Kidogo, Mwitiki says they make play-based learning a top priority.

“Our emphasis is learning through play, which promotes critical thinking and problem solving competencies in our children at an early age. We call it ‘The Kidogo way’, we believe children need time to play, which in turn promotes the all domains of child development rather than sitting behind desks and copying from the board,” she adds.

Maybe that explains why classes, despite the centre being located in a densely populated and squeezed neighbourhood, are spacious and not crowded and each class also is stocked with age-appropriate learning materials.

For example, three to four years age group class has about 15 children supervised by an early childhood education trained teacher, which is an unlikely standard in most daycares in the slum. Role playing items such as cooking pots, cooking sticks, first aid kits and a doctor’s white coat, are strategically placed in one corner and on the wall hangs charts of animals and alphabets.

The same features are replicated in the other two Kidogo early childhood centres in Kangemi and Githurai.

But Kidogo’s reach is much bigger than this. Emmanuel Ogwell, Kidogo’s Business and Operations Manager says their business model is built around Mamapreneurs, local women running already existing daycares.

“We work to improve the quality of daycares in informal settlements through our franchising programme that provides training, mentorship and resources such as curriculum materials, to mamapreneurs who are running their own daycare centres or wish to start their own daycare,” he offers. “We also teach them business skills so that each Mamapreneur can earn an income to support their family,” he adds.

To reach financial sustainability, Ogwell says they charge a small fee per term for tuition at each hub and a small monthly fee for mamapreneurs to be part of the programme. Kidogo is aiming to be the largest network of quality, affordable daycares in Kenya by 2020.

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