Bringing early learning to every child in South Africa is possible

Published: Thursday, November 22, 2018

Education EconomyGovernment

In its national development plan, the government of South Africa aims to create universal access to early childhood learning by 2030. Local organisation, SmartStart, believes it has found the answer to make this possible. 

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In May 2015, this non-profit pioneered a new social franchise model, which uses a nationwide network of partners to bring affordable and high quality early learning to the one million three- and four-year-old children who currently lack access to it. Following a promising pilot phase, which has reached over 40,000 children, SmartSmart held its official launch at a stakeholder event at Constitution Hill on Wednesday, 14 November 2018.


“Today’s launch is a milestone in the establishment of SmartStart,” says Grace Matlhape, CEO of SmartStart. “In our first three years, we successfully developed and established our model, reaching thousands of young children. We have tested our programme on the ground, built strong partnerships and refined the systems that support delivery at each level of the franchise. With this groundwork in place, we’re now entering a second phase of rapid and sustainable scale.”


The success of SmartStart in reaching underserved children is rooted in its social franchise network. SmartStart currently works with 14 franchisors – including some of the country’s most established ECD and development organisations. This has enabled SmartStart to expand into all nine provinces of the country, reaching children in some of the most outlying and impoverished communities of South Africa.


These franchisors are tasked with building relationships with local governments, ward leaders, ECD centres and communities – increasing both the awareness and support of early learning. They also recruit SmartStart programme facilitators (franchisees) – unemployed people in their communities who are then screened and trained to run their own SmartStart facilities. To date, there are over 3,800 facilities across the country. Each one of these facilities represents a micro-enterprise opportunity for those who are passionate about working with children, offering quality learning, and encouraging parents and caregivers to promote learning in the home.


“Improving education and skills in South Africa is not just about opening more schools,” says Dr David Harrison, CEO of DGMT. “It’s about building an entire ecosystem and network of learning that can be unleashed in society. There is a wonderful opportunity to build this network, while also addressing the unemployment problem in South Africa. We need to embrace and recognise the value of South Africa’s social economy – the opportunity for workers to be engaged in communities as playgroup facilitators and home-based Early Learning workers.”


Siven Maslamoney, Executive Manager of the Inclusive and Sustainable Growth Portfolio at Yellowwoods, agrees. “When we think about scale and delivery of universal early learning, we often think about the money needed for it,” he says. “However, we overlook social capital – the networks of relationships and shared goals that can rapidly expand and advance South Africa. SmartStart is building a platform for social capital to be nurtured and grown, creating, in essence, an effective early learning social movement.”


“SmartStart is not here to replace what’s established and working,” concludes Grace. “Rather, we are closing the gaps of access by creating a nationwide network that makes early learning more accessible. Starting with the poorest of South Africa’s children, we’re breaking the ceiling of social inequality to ensure that poor does not translate into poor quality.”


To learn more about SmartStart, become a partner, or find a facility for your child, visit or dial *134*48333#.

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