Providing quality childcare in Kenya

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Every two years, the Jacobs Foundation awards the Klaus J. Jacobs Best Practice Prizes to trailblazers seeking evidence-based solutions to education’s biggest challenges. In this series, Annie Brookman-Byrne meets with the finalists of the 2022 awards. In part 8, Annie talks to Sabrina Habib from Kidogo in Kenya.

Annie Brookman-Byrne: What are the biggest challenges for childcare in Kenya?

Sabrina Habib: There are two. First, there are no good options for working mothers. Working moms may leave their baby home alone. They may pull an older daughter out of school to look after the baby, and that daughter may never return to school. Or they may leave the baby in unsafe, informal day care with an untrained caregiver. With limited nutrition and stimulation, these children are unable to reach their full potential. And mothers cannot work productively because they’re worried about their children.

Second, there is a lack of policy and financing for childcare. At present, no regulations or policies exist in this area. Childcare centres are not registered, there are no minimum standards, caregivers are not required to be qualified, and there are no barriers to entry. As a result, children are often left in unhealthy situations. The lack of market regulations, government funding and the resulting local challenges are what we aim to address at Kidogo through service delivery and advocacy work.

“I envision a world in which children born in low-income communities are able to build a foundation in their early years that allows them to reach their full potential and ultimately become happier, healthier, and wealthier than their parents.”

ABB: What is your vision for the future of children?

SH: I envision a world in which children born in low-income communities are able to build a foundation in their early years that allows them to reach their full potential and ultimately become happier, healthier, and wealthier than their parents. And I want “peace of mind” to become the new normal for working moms all around the world.

ABB: What solutions are needed to address these issues in Kenya?

SH: As a new mom, I reflect a lot on the idea that “it takes a village to raise a child”. Similarly, it will take a village to resolve these issues. We need government to pursue progressive, not punitive, policies, and we need financing and subsidies – especially for those with the lowest incomes, who cannot afford the full cost of quality care.

The private sector needs to support family-friendly work environments, for example by providing quality childcare, which increases women’s productivity and reduces absenteeism, which helps a business’s bottom line.

“When children are provided with physical, social, and cognitive stimulation and early learning experiences, they are able to meet their developmental milestones and enter primary school with a strong foundation.”

Researchers need to gather evidence on what works and what doesn’t. Academia and colleges need to provide accreditation for childcare workers so that their job is recognised as an honourable profession.

The media, too, play a role in communicating the importance of the early years for child development and learning. If communities and parents believe that children start learning only at the age of three – which many do in fact believe – then they will also conclude that what happens in a childcare centre doesn’t matter. As long as their children look the same when they pick them up as when they dropped them off in the morning, they’re satisfied. We need a global media campaign to explain why these early years are so important.

We need social enterprises that are embedded in communities and can produce promising innovations that can be scaled up.

And finally, of course, we need funders who can put up the capital to make all of this happen, especially when the government or private sector may not be willing to take the risk of doing so.


SH: Kidogo uses an innovative social franchising model. We partner with entrepreneurial women we call “Mamapreneurs”, helping them to start or improve their own childcare micro-businesses. Kidogo begins with community mapping and recruiting women who are providing informal day care services. Selected centres complete a three-month accelerator program, which includes training in early childhood development and entrepreneurship. Those who meet Kidogo’s quality standards receive a childcare centre retrofit, branding and ongoing training and mentorship and quality assurance as a franchisee. It’s a highly scalable and impactful model to address the childcare crisis.

When children are provided with physical, social, and cognitive stimulation and early learning experiences, they are able to meet their developmental milestones and enter primary school with a strong foundation. In addition, adolescent siblings who previously bore the brunt of child-rearing are able to return to school, mothers can work with peace of mind, and Mamapreneurs earn a dignified livelihood.

We recognize that no matter how much we expand, we will never reach every child. So, over the past eight years, we have engaged with government to create a better environment for the childcare sector – for example by working to pass the Kenya Children’s Bill, which acknowledges the need for childcare. One of our biggest advocacy wins has been to set up a childcare arrangement at vocational training centres so that young mothers who became pregnant during COVID were able to return to school. We subsequently handed over operations to the government, which has continued to run the centres at a high level of quality. We are especially excited to note that the government is now discussing mandating childcare at vocational training centres nationwide. This is systems change.

ABB: What would you like to learn from other Best Practice Prize finalists?

SH: We’re all working in broken systems. We’d love to discuss with other finalists how they are working to change systems beyond their own organizations, and how they view their role in fixing these broken systems.

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