“Children are a gift to the world and my passion is to bring out their talents and nurture their dreams.” These are the words of 42 year old Nomcebo Mantengu, an early childhood development (ECD) practitioner who lives in Msinga, South Africa.

Her daycare center is one among 3,400 in the SmartStarters network that spans the Eastern Cape and North West provinces. Founded in 2015, SmartStart is a social franchise that aims to expand access to quality and affordable early learning across the country.

Nomcebo opened the doors of her playgroup center in 2018 after receiving training from SmartStart. She currently has 18 children under her care and is a mentor to two aspiring SmartStarters who lend a helping hand and hope to open up their own center one day.

SmartStart operates through a franchise model that harnesses the experiences of implementing organisations with a grasp of local community dynamics. These organisations are otherwise known as "franchisors". Franchisors work with “SmartStarters'' who are provided training coupled with business support to ensure that they have the skills and tools required to run successful ventures. Once they begin operations, SmartStarters are taken under the wings of coaches who provide continuous professional development and support while ensuring uniform implementation across the SmartStart network. SmartStart offers a sustainable livelihood for many women like Nomcebo and their families, while also enabling families to access an ECD service that is most suited to their needs.

Supporting SmartStarters During the Pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in South Africa, Nomcebo was worried about the future of her center and how the children and their families were coping at home. SmartStart took actions to support Nocembo and others across their network, including creating a call center that allowed for constant engagement with SmartStarters to better understand the challenges that they were facing.

To help their centers stay afloat, the SmartStarters received financial support through a relief fund from SmartStart that was channeled through their coaches. SmartStart also devised ways to support parents and children. “My coach kept in touch with me and ensured that I was able to support the families that I work with,” said Nomcebo. “I kept in touch with parents through regular phone calls, and I also used the WhatsApp platform to send videos and activities to parents which kept their children busy," she shared.

To ensure learning continuity, SmartStart introduced a new section on their website that acted as a repository where parents could download stimulation content for their children. These included games and activities, stories and tips for parents on how to promote social emotional skills among young learners.

Lastly, food insecurity and loss of livelihoods was of utmost concern during this time. SmartStart leveraged the power of its vast network to ensure that vital supplies and information was cascaded down to the community. Franchisors distributed care packages to SmartStarters who in turn distributed them to vulnerable families. These packages contained information on hygiene and handwashing, masks, sanitisers and porridge for the children.

The rapid action and support measures initiated across the network seem to have paid off. When schools reopened, Nomcebo retained all of the 18 children that were under her care before the pandemic struck.

Supporting Interventions that Promote ECD: Why it Matters

Despite the dark cloud cast by the pandemic, the SmartStart team were able to deepen their engagements with the South African government to shed light on why the ECD sector is a critical component of South Africa’s education and economic outcomes.These included spearheading petitions that lobbied for ECD reforms and the prioritization of the early learning workforce. In South Africa, more than 75% of 3-5 year olds from low-income households have no access to an early childhood development program. “The pandemic has shed a light on the crucial role that the early childhood development sector, and in particular, the role women play in improving learning outcomes for vulnerable children,” shared Grace Matlhape, CEO of SmartStart.

When COVID-19 struck, it exacerbated the economic and social divide that exists in South Africa, with vulnerable families bearing the brunt of the scourge. The ensuing lockdown measures stifled the economy, resulting in unprecedented job losses that affected women disproportionately. Women’s role as caregivers coupled with the lack of access to supportive work-family policies, often makes it difficult for them to participate fully in the labor force. ECD centers offer crucial child care services to South Africa’s frontline workers and affords women an opportunity to make a living and support their families. Yet, while ECD teachers play a crucial role, the majority of ECD centers are operated by women and have largely remained invisible to the government. “The most undersupported group of workers that contribute to the workforce —right at the bottom of the pan is the ECD workforce," said Grace.

The pandemic has shed a light on the crucial role that the early childhood development sector, and in particular, the role women play in improving learning outcomes for vulnerable children.
Grace Matlhape, CEO, SmartStart

What Next? Scaling to Support the Sector Future of Young Learners

Learning has since resumed in South Africa, yet most ECD centers in low-resourced communities have either closed shop or are struggling to stay open. In this moment of extraordinary need, SmartStarters like Nomcebo are proof that if the right systems for recovery and resilience are in place, ECD centers can bounce back from the adverse challenges presented by the pandemic.

But to reach high numbers of children who do not have access to early learning, system capacity needs to grow at an unprecedented rate. In the next five years, SmartStart aims to support the ECD sector by rolling out its national delivery model, which will edge them closer to their goal of closing the gap in access to quality learning in South Africa. To achieve this, they are currently exploring strategic partnerships that will enable many more ECD practitioners outside the SmartStart network to run quality and sustainable centers.

“Our challenge is to broaden the base of interest in ECD. To make a difference, we have to attract many more players into the promise of early years.” said Grace. There is much work left to be done for young learners from vulnerable communities in South Africa; and with the efforts of organizations such as SmartStart, a better future for children and families seems possible.