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By: Lucie Mouillaud

At the Kidogo daycare centre in a working-class neighbourhood of Nakuru, a city 160 kilometres from Nairobi, a dozen children are sitting on a green tarp in the middle of the room when Magdaline Masinde arrives, carrying her two-year-old daughter in one arm and a bag containing her belongings in the other. “I always have to rush in the morning because I take her big brother to school first,” the 32-year-old mother says with a smile, while removing her daughter’s shoes and jacket. The little girl hurries to join her friends around a building toy.

Magdaline has been dropping her off at the daycare centre almost every day for nearly a year, before going to sell soap at one of the city’s large markets. “After my first pregnancy, I kept my son at home and just did some office cleaning occasionally. But with two children, I needed to find more regular work,” she explains. So, after her daughter was born, she quickly enrolled her in the daycare centre attached to a kindergarten. Although the daycare centre has existed for nearly a decade, it was only in July 2021 that it became part of the Kidogo social enterprise network. Created in 2014, Kidogo provides training for informal childcare providers so they can take better care of children aged three and under (kindergarten starts at age four). The objective: to help them create a high-quality, safe and healthy environment for preschoolers in the slums.

Otherwise, toddlers would be going to work with their mothers or spending the day in makeshift childcare. “In Kenya, most childcare is arranged in private homes, with no training and without any real regulation. We are trying to approach the people providing these services in certain neighbourhoods of Nairobi and other cities to develop the Kidogo method and create a relationship of trust between parents and educators,” explains Martin Kiyeng, Kidogo’s partnership manager.

By helping daycare managers (who are mostly women) create an ideal space for children, Kidogo hopes to make these centres attractive to parents, without increasing prices. The cost of one day’s care is no more than 100 Kenyan shillings (about one Canadian dollar), the same as for informal services. “By doing this, we hope that the centres will be affordable for most and that parents will have peace of mind when they drop off their children on their way to work,” continues Martin Kiyeng. In Kenya, only 46% of women are employed, partly because of childcare challenges.

In Nakuru, the Kidogo franchise network was launched in 2021 as a research project of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), the Kenyan partner of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, which is funding the study. The research team is hoping to determine how these childcare solutions affect mothers’ relationship with work. The research protocol was presented in the scholarly journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications in 2022. In total, about 50 centres that have adopted the “Kidogo method” are participating in the study.

A woman sits with a young girl on the floor who is drawing on a piece of paper.
Daniel Macharia / Kidogo
On the blue walls, dozens of children’s drawings are displayed below charts for learning the alphabet or the days of the week.

“We want to determine how access to high-quality early childhood care can benefit the economic independence of parents, especially mothers, who are often the first to put their work on hold to take care of their families,” says child development researcher Patricia Kitsao-Wekulo, research lead for APHRC. In the study, the economic status of 170 mothers who use Kidogo services will be compared to mothers who use other childcare services. The premise: dragging your child to work or leaving them in an environment you do not fully trust holds mothers back. “The anxiety and problems associated with these precarious situations have consequences for their economic independence,” continues the research lead.

According to APHRC’s baseline study, conducted when the first Kidogo centres opened in Nakuru between July and August 2021 and involving 173 parents, nearly 73% had been late to work due to childcare problems and 59% had missed a full day of work in the past month. “We want to observe whether, at the end of the project, parents’ performance at work will have changed.”

Children are at the heart of the project

A woman sits with young children
Daniel Macharia/Kidogo

Magdaline Masinde’s daughter’s daycare centre has been transformed since the program was launched: on the blue walls, dozens of children’s drawings are displayed below charts for learning the alphabet or the days of the week. “During our training, we were also taught how to make some of the children’s toys ourselves using recycled objects, such as towers made of toilet paper rolls or books that we created by drawing on and connecting cardboard,” explains Amos Etale, an educator at the centre. Daily activities include group games, songs and plays in the morning, with a nap and quieter activities in the afternoon, before the parents come back; most are also vendors at the city’s various markets.

“At many centres I have visited, the children are crowded and have almost nothing to do all day! That’s why I chose to enrol my daughter here,” says Faith Chepkorir Rono. After moving to Nakuru a year ago to work in a clothing store, the 29-year-old single mother visited many daycares before enrolling her two-year-old daughter at this Kidogo centre in early 2022. “She was at another daycare first, but I worried a lot during the day. Here, I see her becoming much more sociable, and starting to talk with the educators and the other children,” she notes.

A few blocks away, a new Kidogo centre is identified by the sign on the gate of 35-year-old Winfrida Kerubo’s home. From the courtyard, you can hear the singing of the four children that the educator is watching over today. “They’re pretty active in the morning,” she says with a laugh, wearing a black apron with Kidogo’s elephant logo. She set up a daycare in her small two-room home a few years ago, but it has only been a few months since she joined the “mompreneurs”, the name given to childcare managers trained by Kidogo. “When I started, I was taking care of the children as if they were my own; I didn’t organize any games or space for them,” she recalls.

Since her training, she has completely transformed her organization: in the narrow living room, toys, stuffed animals and soft balls have now taken over the rug between two sofas. On the walls, there are children’s drawings next to a sign listing the meals for the week: rice and beans, peas, fish, etc. “I try to change up [the menu] as much as possible. That’s one of the biggest requests from parents and one of the core points of the Kidogo method. Since then, children have been staying at the daycare much longer. Before, I couldn’t get them to stay for more than a few months and I would have to find new clients quickly,” she explains.

“That’s the second part of the research: to see how childcare, often traditionally unpaid, can be professionalized and become economically viable,” says Patricia Kitsao-Wekulo. Since the project began, Winfrida Kerubo has been earning an average of 500 Kenyan shillings (about $5 Canadian) a day, almost three times more than when she started, and enough to pay her rent and her own children’s school fees. “I wasn’t used to managing my accounts before the training, so I often ended up operating at a loss,” she recalls. That is no longer the case: every morning, the educator carefully records the names of the children enrolled on the Kidogo application, payments from parents, and costs incurred for purchasing materials or food. “Many mompreneurs say how hard it is to get their clients to pay them. Therefore, the training emphasizes how to talk to parents and manage finances. This way, we see that many of them have improved their income since the project began,” says Martin Kiyeng.

The next step for APHRC is to set up a centre of excellence in Nakuru to have a model for all childcare providers. The project, delayed by the Kenyan general elections held last August, needs to be in place before the end of the research, scheduled for the summer of 2023. “Before that, we also need to establish with the public authorities which department is responsible for this type of centre,” says Patricia Kitsao-Wekulo.

In Kenya, there is currently no national or local authority to regulate childcare for preschoolers. Discussions on this topic are underway between the research partners and the Ministries of Education, Health, Public Service and Gender. “We hope the discussions will result in better programming for the sector and the allocation of a budget that will help childcare providers develop under the right conditions, in Nakuru and in the rest of the country,” she continues.

Striving for excellence

A young girl in a school uniform smiles and run in a school yard.
Daniel Macharia / Kidogo

The first centre of excellence was already set up by Kidogo in 2015 in the working-class neighbourhood of Kangemi, Nairobi, one of the social enterprise’s oldest childcare centres. “We organize training sessions there or educators come to observe the best practices, particularly in terms of health and safety, that we want to reproduce in the other franchised centres,” says Martin Kiyeng.

In this daycare centre, there are large rugs set up for all activities: musical instruments, drawing, colouring books, and almost all the material made by teams of educators. Mattresses are piled up in one corner of the room for early afternoon naps and hanging woollen balls serve as developmental toys for the youngest. “Everything is done to create an atmosphere of positive discipline. In general, the children in the daycares are ahead when they start kindergarten, simply by learning how to behave with their classmates and with adults,” says Harriet Muhonja Vijedi, the lead educator at the centre of excellence for the past three years.

A teacher by profession, she often sees parents enrol their younger children after a positive experience with their older ones. “That’s proof that it works, and that this meets a real need for parents,” she says. Since the Kidogo model was created, more than 700 “mompreneurs” have been trained in eight Kenyan departments. But the project partners aren’t done yet. “The research has highlighted other needs parents have for improving access to childcare: many mothers are asking for childcare at their workplaces, especially at the markets, and we are now looking at how this can be implemented, to reduce their burden,” says Martin Kiyeng. And to maximize fun for the little ones!

The program described and this article were made possible by support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

This article was originally published in the January–February 2023 issue of Québec Science. 

Top image: Daniel Macharia / Kidogo