The Usefulness of "Thinking Small"

Two Social Entrepreneurs on Transforming Child Care in Urban Slums.

January 24, 2015

In 2011, Sabrina Premji walked in the door of an unmarked property in Mlolongo, an informal settlement just outside of Nairobi. She was conducting research for Aga Khan University on child and maternal health, but she wasn’t prepared for what she’d find inside this “baby care.” "I was immediately struck by the smell of urine and feces,” Sabrina said. “It was suffocating.” The room was so dark that she could barely make out the floor when her foot suddenly hit something. It was a baby. Horrified that she nearly stepped on a child, she bent down to pick it up. “As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw all around me 15, 20, maybe 25 babies — all awake, but silent.”

A native of Toronto, Sabrina was drawn to East Africa after college because her parents emigrated from Tanzania. With a passion for global health, she moved to Kenya and began working for Aga Khan University. Deeply saddened and disturbed by what she had encountered, she called her friend — Afzal Habib, a fellow Canadian who also has a parent from Tanzania — and together they started to map out what would become Kidogo, a social enterprise that improves access to high-quality, affordable early childhood care and education.

At the time, Afzal was working at the Boston Consulting Group in Toronto but, to him, consulting was always a means to an end. Since college, he had wanted to start his own social enterprise; it was just a matter of time and experience. He immersed himself in anything that brought him one step closer to the social enterprise space. He even won the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference with a plan to bring clean water to Nigeria without ever setting foot in Nigeria. Sabrina’s story pulled at his heart and he knew it was time to get serious about starting a social enterprise.

“When Sabrina called me, we didn’t know how to gauge how real or how large the problem was,” Afzal said. “So we took it upon ourselves to find out.” After Sabrina’s experience in Mlolongo, she and Afzal spent every coffee, lunch and dinner trading ideas for how they could build a better childcare option for working mothers in Kenya’s urban slums. Without any experience in early childhood development, they stared reading all the literature they could get their hands on and spoke with experts and practitioners in the field.

They learned that facilities like the baby care Sabrina visited are the only childcare options for families in Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods. Living on less than $3 per day, many women have to return to work shortly after giving birth, so they’re left to bring their children to work or leave them with relatives or older siblings. In some cases, “mothers will leave their children home alone tied to furniture,” Sabrina said. “Not out of neglect, but to keep them safe.” They also learned that 85 percent of brain development takes place before the age of five. “So if we really wanted to have an impact on poverty,” Sabrina said. “We needed to target those first five years of life.”

The more they learned, the more convinced they became that a few simple changes could radically improve the conditions of these baby cares. Sabrina and Afzal thought they could work with the women running the existing baby cares, provide them with mentorship, best practices and marketing and business expertise, and they would increase childcare standards.

A Labor of Love

It was a good-intentioned idea, but it was untested and not backed by data. So, in 2013, they decided to sign up for the +Acumen Lean Startup course, designed for aspiring social entrepreneurs, to learn what it might take to make their idea a reality. They were ready for a change, but starting their own social enterprise had typically fell second to their full-time jobs and family. The course allowed them to systematically test some of the riskiest assumptions behind their idea before making any dramatic changes to their lives.

Over the seven weeks of the course, Sabrina and Afzal completed 75+ interviews with mothers, baby care operators, early childhood development experts and corporations. They wanted to understand what these mothers liked about the existing baby cares, what they were willing to pay for child care and what a potential partnership would look like if they could get the baby cares on board.

They also had the opportunity to work closely with two mentors, Acumen’s Brad Rosenberg and John McKinley, startup guru and business coach Bob Dorf and the +Acumen team each week to help them push their thinking forward.

“From the Lean Startup course the biggest message we got was, stop working on your beautiful decks, stop doing all this thinking in your head and get out of the building and start something,” Sabrina said.

“Interestingly enough, the +Acumen course helped us to think smaller,” Afzal said. “We had such big aspirations but they were all theoretical. The Lean approach forced us to get really practical about our model. We realized it wasn’t about being perfect from day one; we would continually need to refine the model as we went along before we could scale."

One of our mentors, Brad, was very quick to point out that McDonald’s, the world’s most successful and largest franchises, didn’t grow to that size overnight. They started with one family-owned burger shop and then grew to a second and, only after years, became this large franchising behemoth. That was a lesson to us. We needed to get our center right, our model right before we could think about growing.”

The Kidogo Way

When Sabrina and Afzal completed the course in June of 2013, they knew they needed to build their brand and establish credibility and a strong presence in the community before they could license it out to others. Their business model was built around what they called “mamapreneurs” — mothers and local women operating existing baby cares — they believed they could support as franchisees. Once they had refined their curriculum and teacher training, the franchises would create a supportive community, increase child-care standards and allow Sabrina and Afzal to track performance and ensure all children were kept safe, clean, fed and properly nurtured.

So before investing any more time or money into their big idea, they set out to create a central hub that would become a laboratory for their enterprise-in-the-making. They refined their vision, creating “The Kidogo Way,” a play-based, child-centered approach to early childhood development for kids ranging from six months to six years old. In Kenya, typical student-to-teacher ratios can reach more than 50 children per teacher. At Kidogo, classes would be kept to 15 and the teachers would be carefully selected from the local community. They would be required to have a diploma or certificate in early childhood education, not a standard in Kenya’s informal settlements. And while Kenyan schools employ hard disciplinary measures such as caning, Kidogo’s teachers would be trained to use positive discipline and communications methods to create a loving, nurturing environment.

Photos courtesy of Kidogo

Kidogo’s childcare centers would also offer a clean, welcoming environment, nutritious meals and snacks, dedicated time to play outside, and age-appropriate learning materials and toys. In most centers across Kenya, children are given imported learning materials from the United States or nothing at all. At Kidogo, children would have books showing Kenyan children eating local staple foods like ugali and locally made toys relevant to their lives. “You don’t need these Fisher Price plastic toys from abroad,” Sabrina said. “We believe locally relevant materials are critical to empowering children within their communities, cultures and environment.”

To reach financial sustainability, Kidogo would have to charge roughly 75 cents a day for tuition at each hub. Comparatively, standard baby cares ranged from 35 to 80 cents per day so Kidogo’s tuition fell on the higher end of the cost spectrum but sought to offer a superior quality. “Despite these women only making $2 to 3 per day, we learned they were willing to put a large percentage of that into child care,” Sabrina said.

Open for Business

Six months later in January of 2014, they took the leap — Afzal quit his job, Sabrina left graduate school, and they moved to Nairobi to work on Kidogo full-time. Acumen’s Brad Rosenberg had given them $5,000 and they had landed a $250,000 “Saving Brains” grant from Grand Challenges Canada. They had the funding they needed to open their first Kidogo center.

In March, they hired a critical teammate, Sheela Bowler, an American who had worked in several African countries and had deep experience in community-building and global health. At the time, Sheela was running the Kenya Community Childcare Initiative (KCCI), a nonprofit committed to improving the quality of baby cares. In May, the three officially joined forces, effectively merging KCCI into Kidogo and adding Sheela’s operational experience and fluency in Swahili to the company’s business and marketing skills. Sheela also helped to bring in Kidogo’s fourth hire, Community Launch Director Janet Mwitiki.

With the beginning of the school year just around the corner, the four-person team had to move quickly. In a matter of three months, they found and renovated a space to rent in Kibera, built age-appropriate furniture for the kids, gathered learning materials, and set up an advisory board of local community leaders to advise them on marketing the center and recruiting teachers. They also distributed fliers, enlisted their teachers to spread the word door-to-door, and held an open house for the community.

Afzal Habib and Sabrina Premji, +Acumen course-takers and founders of Kidogo, a social enterprise changing child care in Kenya’s urban slums.

On September 8, the last school term in Kenya, Kidogo officially opened its doors. Within a few months, 18 children grew to 50. Six weeks after opening, the Kidogo team held a meeting with parents to hear their initial feedback. The team was worried about receiving pushback on its approach and the school’s fees. “A lot of our work had been around educating parents on why we do things the way we do,” Afzal said. “For example, why the play-based approach is the way it is or why we have learning corners rather than rows of desks.”

To the team’s surprise, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “They loved our teachers,” Sheela said. “That was number one; they adored how our teachers treated their children.” Parents were also pleased with the facilities. They liked that the centers were clean, bright and had plenty of materials for their children to engage with. The greatest relief — and biggest win — for Kidogo was that parents didn’t push back on the fees. “They told us, ‘Oh no your fees are reasonable and we can manage,’” Sheela said. “This was music to my ears.” They had built a model that could sustain. A year after Sabrina and Afzal had arrived in Nairobi, Kidogo had opened its second center and, within two months, it had reached full capacity with 40 children. They were making enough on tuition to cover their monthly operating costs. Now they were really in business.

“All Great Things Start Small,” the Swahili proverb adorning Kidogo’s Kibera center.

The Kidogo team began to expand their model, adding “mamapreneurs” to test their franchise model. Today, the enterprise has two centers, five franchises and 11 teachers and serves nearly 300 children in Kenya’s urban slums. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.6 million children under the age of six living in East Africa’s informal settlements. But as the Swahili proverb proudly displayed over the Kidogo Kibera center says, “All great things start small.” This team is just getting started.

“Now when I walk through the winding alleys of the slums of Nairobi, no longer do I see an unmarked property,” said Sabrina. “I hear the loud voices of children playing, laughing, singing and just being kids. And to me, that is the best feeling in the world.”

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