The following is a conversation between Sabrina Habib, Co-Founder and Chief Exploration Officer of Kidogo, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: The childcare crisis is hitting economies and societies around the world and it’s hitting it hard. With more than 350 million young children able to receive childcare globally, all too many parents are forced to choose between working to put food on the table and providing quality care for their children.

An organization that is addressing this issue in East Africa and in the most innovative fashion is Kidogo, and it’s a pleasure to have with us now their Co-Founder and Chief Exploration Officer, Sabrina Habib

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Sabrina. 

Sabrina Habib, Co-Founder and Chief Exploration Officer of Kidogo

Sabrina: Thank you so much for having me.

Denver: Kidogo started, I guess you could say, almost by accident. Tell us how this all began. 

Sabrina: I literally stumbled into the problem of this childcare crisis. I was in my early 20s. I found myself in an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. I was working with a large nonprofit and we were interviewing the community about their nutritional needs so that we could write it in a proposal and send it off, and I kept hearing the words, “baby care”. There was bad food at the baby care, the diet was awful. And I asked, “What’s a baby care?” And they all laughed at me because they thought it was funny that I didn’t know, and then they showed me one.

We walked through the informal settlement, we got to this unmarked property, we took our shoes off at the gate, and opened the door, and the smell was awful. There was no sanitation at all, the smell of urine, of feces, and it was completely dark. I had come from this bright sunlight outside, I couldn’t see anything, and so I inched my way forward trying to understand what they were trying to show me, and my foot hit something. I looked down and it was a baby. And instinctively, I leaned forward to pick her up and I saw babies all around me, 15, 20 of them, maybe more, all awake, but completely silent. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a room, even with one kid, but if they’re awake, it’s never silent. 

Denver: Never silent, unless those kids know that crying isn’t going to do any good. They learned pretty quickly that it’s pointless so they just sit there in silence. 

Sabrina: That’s right. It was severe neglect or in the worst-case scenario, they were actually given alcohol or a sleeping pill to keep them hushed through the day. And this baby care represented the best childcare option for working moms living in the informal settlements. It’s either that, or leaving their child home alone, sometimes even tied to furniture as they run out to wash clothes or sell fruits and vegetables, and then run back to check on the child, or an older sibling is pulled out of school to look after this younger infant, but that girl is usually never going back to school. And so this is the option and they pay for it up to a dollar a day, and that was the craziest part for me. 

There is a huge problem, there’s a huge unmet need of a quality and affordable childcare, and there’s a market that exists, but there’s just no quality. And so, I think I left that experience and called a friend at the time and we hypothesized, “Is there a way that we can provide a higher quality childcare option at roughly the same price point that moms were already paying about a dollar a day?” 

Denver: And what did you do? I mean, this is a big daunting challenge for somebody in their early 20s. You’ve just had this experience, it’s obviously moved you very deeply, you called up a friend. So, how did you get started? What were your first steps? 

Sabrina: There were two things we did. The first was we turned to Google, as any millennial would do. We figured that if this is a problem in the slums of East Africa, it had to be a problem in the slums of India, Latin America, and other places in the world, and so how are other countries tackling this issue? And we found that the people have tried different things, but no one had quite cracked the code, and for us cracking the code meant something that was quality, something that was sustainable so that it wasn’t donor-dependent, and if donors change their minds or whatever they started would end. And something that was scalable, that was not just about 20 kids or 50 kids, but was about hundreds of thousands, millions of kids, and so nothing quite existed. 

The second thing we did is we just talked to a whole bunch of people and we listened. We went to and talked to these daycare operators, and we talked to parents to understand their pain points, and really tried to dig deep on what was going on there.

What’s interesting is there were three big insights from those conversations.

The first thing that came up was, “Who are you?” and “Why are you telling me how to raise my kids?”

Denver: Yeah, you’re coming from Canada. I know your parents immigrated to Canada from East Africa, but you’re parachuting in and you’re lecturing me about what I’m doing wrong as a mom. That’s tough. 

Sabrina: Hundred percent, I know. That was a really good lesson in humility. And what’s interesting is we never wanted to do anything about this problem exactly for that reason. We thought we would come up with this brilliant solution and we would shop it around to all of the big NGOs who had deep-rooted relationships in the communities, and we would feel like we had done our part, but we would leave this in the hands of a bigger organization. And we eventually did do that and no organization wanted to take it on because it wasn’t part of their strategic priorities. And at that point, we realized, “Okay, we’ve got to do something about it.” So, we quit our jobs, left our… 

Denver: If not us, who, right?

Sabrina: Exactly. Be the change you want to see in the world. 

Denver: Exactly right. And you also learned, I think you said that you need to fall in love with the problem and not the solution. Tell us a little bit about that and how that kind of framed your thinking. 

Sabrina: When we were having all these conversations with these daycare operators, I think another big insight that came up was people felt like they didn’t realize that there was anything wrong with their center. And we were looking at it and it was this 10 foot by 10 foot corrugated metal shack, and it was really awful quality. And there was an open cookstove, and you had curious children heading that way, and it was unsafe. And we looked at each other and thought, “What do you mean there’s nothing wrong with your center? This is not great for child development.” 

And quickly, we realized that they didn’t have any ideas of what this could be and I think we realized that we were trying to tell people what we wanted to do and we were trying to sell them on this franchising network. Both my husband and I thought that social franchising would be an incredible approach to solve this issue. You’ve got thousands, at that time, 3,000 mom-and-pop individual daycares that don’t have standards, and a franchising methodology would work really well. And so we went in with that. And I think that’s the issue that a lot of us as entrepreneurs fall into is we get a solution and we think we’re the bee’s knees and we’ve got something that will fix the whole world.

And through a lot of deep listening and empathy, we realized that, no, you start with the problem, and the problem here was that daycare operators don’t see what’s wrong with their centers, and this other issue of parents and communities don’t feel like the early years matter, that children will start learning when they enter school, and we know the research says something quite different which is 90% of brain development happens in those first couple of years of life. 

So, we had to pivot quite early on our model and rather than launching straight into a franchising model, we decided to do a hub-and-spoke model, start with our own corporate-owned quality childcare centers that gave us a sense of how to run a center by ourselves, and then also to demonstrate what we meant. It’s the notion of show, not tell, and that was our launching pad to something quite bigger. 

Denver: That’s a great point because, again, people have to see it and they have to envision it. And it’s got to even be more than imagine, you have to put them into the place where they can see it. Otherwise, they’re never going to know and I could see my eyes glaze over when you said social franchising, You’re talking, you know, “I’m a young mother and I got a little kid, you’re talking social franchising. What are you talking about?” You know what I mean?

So, that takes us to the Kidogo way, and this is based on six elements. Why don’t you tell us what those elements are?

Sabrina: We have a network right now of over 500 centers and what happens at each of those centers is the Kidogo Way. So it’s the six elements that we think are absolutely critical to running a thriving childcare microbusiness and it’s mapped to the Nurturing Care Framework, which is a global standard.

So number one, safe stimulating environments. Making sure the space is safe, first of all, and then ensuring it’s stimulating and good and child-friendly.

The second is nurturing caregivers. Making sure that those caregivers are trained and know what they’re doing, and they’re loving and respond to the needs of the child.

The third is a play-based curriculum. Making sure that children are developing to their fullest potential on all elements: cognitive development, language, socio-emotional, and using play, because play is truly the brain’s favorite way to learn.

Number four is health, nutrition, water, and sanitation. Because the needs of a young child and especially in the informal settlements go far beyond just learning. Half of the kids that we meet are stunted, they’re too short for their age, so making sure that there’s adequate sanitation and feeding practices is critical. 

The fifth is parent and community engagement. We have our kids from 6:00 in the morning until 06:00-7:00 PM, five days a week for their first five years of life, but weekends and holiday months and evenings, they’re in their parents’ homes, and so how do you make sure there’s a great continuum between what’s happening in the center and the home environment.

And then the sixth element is business and administration. How do you ensure that these daycare operators, we call our mamapreneurs, are running thriving childcare microbusinesses because this is their livelihood at the end of the day. 

Denver: Let me dig in on a couple of those things, if I can. I’m going to start with play-based learning, because again, I’m going to go back to what you said before, “What’s wrong with my center? Seems fine to me.” And then secondly, this early childhood development, I’m not really sure about what’s so important about that. But now, you’re really pushing the envelope, Sabrina, when you’re telling me play-based learning. How were you able to get moms, and dads, and local officials get their arms around that concept of play-based learning?

Sabrina: It was an interesting journey for us because we started by talking about the importance of the early years and how neural connections and then the brain development in those first few years of life. And I think when we brought awareness to how important those early years are, the rebound effect was, “Okay, great, we need kids learning.” And so the pendulum shifted to academic, rote memorization, bringing down what happens in primary school down to the earliest years. And the reaction to that was desks, chairs, 2-year olds sitting all day long, staring at a chalkboard, memorizing numbers and letters, and that’s not learning. That’s not what’s great for a 2- or 3-year-old. And so we showed again that principle of show what we want to do rather than just talk about it.

In our first few years, we set up our centers with learning corners and we didn’t have any desks and chairs, and we had teachers at the level of the child crawling down and engaging in materials. At first, there was this reaction of, “What is going on here?” And parents quickly asked us, “Where are our report cards? “How is my child doing compared to the other kids in the class?” And, “Where’s my homework for my child?”

Denver: Yeah, they’re not coming home with any homework, how can they be learning?

Sabrina: “How can they be learning?” And we realized right away that if we dug a little bit deeper, the rationale for wanting those things was homework was a way to occupy the child while the mom was cooking because she got home from work and needed to also put food on the table and needed the child to occupy themselves so that they wouldn’t bother. And so we’ve met them halfway and we’ve created take-home activities and often activities that they could do with their older siblings, and again, very much based and grounded in play-based methodologies.

And then, instead of report cards, we would give portfolios, all the children’s work over the course of a week or a month and send that home and show the progress of the child because that was what was important. And for…

Denver: Put it in pizza boxes, didn’t you?

Sabrina: We did, my husband and I ate a lot of Domino’s Pizza. And that was earlier like all this material…

Denver: I guess so. You have to take a look at the size of the center and say, “Oh boy.” 

Sabrina: They were large, large pizzas.

You do what you have and you use what you have, and that’s one of our biggest principles. And what was amazing was our parents then went and told other parents that, “I don’t know what these guys are doing. It sounds crazy, but it works.” Because they were seeing the difference in their child compared to other children that they would meet in the market or in the same compound or at church. They then became our biggest champions, and we haven’t really spent any money on marketing to this day, and all centers are full or overfull with waitlists.

Denver: Fantastic. There’s nothing in the world like word of mouth, that’s for sure.

Let me jump ahead to number six, which I think is the business, and that has to do with the Kidogo method and the mamapreneurs that you talked about.

Tell us how you identify these women, mostly women, I’m sure there’s a few guys involved, but almost all women and how do you train them? 

Sabrina: The word mamapreneur is actually very intentional because we think that in order to be a great caregiver, you’ve got to have the qualities of a mama. You have to be loving and nurturing, but you’ve got to be an entrepreneur as well. You’ve got to be a hustler, you’ve got to be resourceful, you’ve got to be gritty because this is your microbusiness. 

And so, we have a three-step process. We go into a community, an informal settlement, we map it of all of the existing daycares, and invite them to a workshop where they apply to be part of the Kidogo Network.

Step two, they enroll in a three-month quality improvement program, where we teach them about both early childhood development, so topics on health, and nutrition; and on making play materials out of locally available resources, and using positive discipline instead of corporal punishment. Unfortunately, hitting and caning and biting are the norms of how to discipline a child; as well as entrepreneurship, how do you track your finances. And the majority of our mamapreneurs have just a primary school education and not more than that, and so financial literacy; how do you market your center, how do you attract customers— all of these components. At the end of those three months, those that meet our quality standards are invited to become a franchisee.

And then step three, we convert them into a franchisee. We do a small retrofit to their center to make it safe and stimulating. We provide some branding to show to the community that this is a center that you can trust, and they become then part of our ongoing network. They meet other mamapreneurs in their community once a month for peer learning, they have access to our mamapreneur app, which eases the administrative burden of running a center, and they’re part of something bigger than just their own micro center. 

Denver: Talk a little bit about self-esteem because you just said that a lot of these women had really basic education and often you don’t need to be certified to do this. Was there an issue of really giving women self-confidence and feeling good about themselves as they embark upon a pretty scary journey, and that is becoming an entrepreneur?

Sabrina: There’s so much to be said there. I think, unfortunately in Kenya and in other parts around the world, early childhood development and particularly, childcare providers are not seen as real teachers. They are seen as not being good enough and I think when you are told by parents and by the community, and if that’s the perception, there’s not a lot of pride in your work. 

The first thing we do, before we even start on ECD or Early Childhood Development or business, the first thing we do is talk about confidence. Who are you as a woman and why is the work that you do so important? And you are shaping little minds that are going to be the future citizens of the world. And that community aspect, being part of a community and having a sense of belonging, all of these elements are super important to develop the confidence and self-worth of our mamapreneurs. And then the rest comes very easily. 

And it’s cool to see the benefits of that. We see that collections rates at our centers improved because mamapreneurs are not afraid to tell parents that you owe me this money for the services that I’ve rendered. Expansion happens. A lot of our centers have taken on more children or expanded to multiroom centers because they’ve got this aspiration to do something bigger because they’ve got pride and belief in their work.

We’ve had some unintended consequences also that the women in our network, they live tough lives. They live in informal settlements. They also live in poverty. Many of them are HIV-positive. They’ve got a lot of issues with domestic abuse, lots of stuff going on. And as a result of the work that they do, the confidence that they have that they’re running their own microbusiness, a lot of our mamapreneurs are now having the courage that extends beyond just their center. They’re having tough conversations with their husbands when abuse is taking place. And it’s been wonderful in some places to see just that evolution, but also has made our work sometimes more difficult because it extends so much beyond just the work that happens in the childcare center and really is about their entire life as a whole human being. 

Denver: And I would imagine they probably lean on each other very much, you said they get together every month. This is probably, for some of these women, the first time they’ve been part of a larger, loving community, and they can get some support of people saying, “Go ahead and do it,” and that can make all the difference in the world. You’re not out there alone.

Sabrina: Yeah, that’s exactly it.

“We believe that childcare is really an everybody’s issue, not just a mother’s issue. And we know that when women have access to quality, affordable childcare, companies get better.”

Denver: In addition to these folks, you also have childcare solutions for companies, correct?

Sabrina: That’s right. We’ve embarked upon something called Employer-Supported Childcare, and it’s part of our larger partnerships work. We believe that childcare is really an everybody’s issue, not just a mother’s issue. And we know that when women have access to quality affordable childcare, companies get better. They have less absenteeism, their moms are less stressed at work so they’re more productive, and companies’ bottom lines benefit as a result, and economies benefit as a result. And so we’ve got a few interesting pilots going on with companies to offer a childcare solution for their workforce.

The other interesting one that we’re doing right now is we’ve partnered with the government on childcare for young mothers at Vocational Training Centres. There was a huge increase in teenage pregnancies during COVID with eight months of school closure, and a lot of young moms returned to school with young babies and either they couldn’t attend school anymore, or they would bring their babies with them and couldn’t concentrate. And so we launched three childcare centers in collaboration with a county in Kenya to ensure that young moms have access to childcare and are able to concentrate better in school. 

Denver: Let me pick up on what you just talked about there too, and that’s the impact of COVID on Kidogo, and the children, and their parents, and the mamapreneurs. How did you guys deal with that and how did you pivot to address it?

Sabrina: It was tough. Schools were closed. As a result, older siblings were at home. There was no enrollment at any of our childcare centers. And for eight months, they didn’t have any income. We went back to the drawing board of, “Why do we exist as an organization?” And it’s to ensure that young children are able to reach their full potential. We figured that if children can’t come to Kidogo, how do we bring the Kidogo experience home? 

And so we launched an entirely new digital caregiving stream. We took all of the content that we usually have for our mamapreneurs and targeted it towards parents. We launched WhatsApps where we filmed what normally happens in our centers and sent it home so that parents could replicate it. We had SMSes going. We had parent check-ins going because maternal mental stress can have a huge impact on the way that a child is being cared for. We had play packs that were going every month to ensure that learning was still happening at home.

And then we provided a basic income for all of our mamareneurs to ensure that they would be able to reopen their centers. I think one of our biggest fears was that once COVID subsided, the economy reopened, childcare center would not have survived. Moms would need to go back to work, but there would be no supply of childcare. As a result of some of our interventions, 98% of our centers reopened once the economy reopened as opposed to something like 50% of daycares not in the Kidogo Network.

Denver: Great. Those conditional cash transfers, assuming they did everything you just listed a moment ago, which was the carrot to get them to it. Well, that’s really breathtaking.

Let me ask you about innovation. There are so much that you’ve done to come up with solutions on the fly. Is there a system or a process or a philosophy that you bring to the task in terms of having an innovative culture? Because it just doesn’t happen. It usually has to happen intentionally. 

Sabrina: I think we’re still very much figuring things out. I wish we could say, “Yes, we’ve got a three-step process for innovation,” but we don’t. I think it really comes from deep listening. Every once in a while, just checking ourselves and making sure that we are solving the problem we intend to solve or having the impact we hope to have.

An example is, I felt like our team is getting a little far away from the field. We have a mandated policy that every staff member, no matter if you’re the office assistant or the company driver, needs to get to the field once a month, and I felt like that wasn’t happening. And so I got all of our staff members, all 75, to spend a day in the life of a mamapreneur. We spent the entire day just sitting in centers and observing what it was like. 

From that, we reflected on, “What did we learn? What is the impact of our work? What’s something that we’re missing?” And we came up with a strategy on how to take what we’ve learned and put it into action. I think it’s just about deeply and intentionally listening, and reflecting on what you’re trying to do and how are you doing in tandem with that. 

Denver: That actually makes all the sense in the world because essentially, if you are listening and you’re identifying what the need is, and you’re a learning organization, your organization is going to have to change every year or two, because they can’t stay the same. And so many social enterprises, nonprofits, they think that they have a timeless solution and it really hasn’t changed all that much over the last five or 10 years and even beyond that.

You mentioned before about mamapreneurs going and collecting the money that’s owed to them. Let me ask you as a social entrepreneur, how do you think about money and how should a social entrepreneur think about money? 

Sabrina: That’s an interesting question. It’s a weird one because I am probably the most frugal person ever. I think your relationship to money changes depending on the stage of your organization. I think early on when you’re just an idea and you’ve got a beautiful pitch deck and you’re ready to go, you think that you need to raise a lot of money to get started. I don’t always think that’s the truth. We started Kidogo with $5,000 and we’ve grown a lot since then. And I think it’s about starting and you don’t need a lot of money to get there.

And then at some point in time, you need money and you’ve got something, and you’ll take any dollar that you can. Like anyone that will give you money, you’ll take it no matter what strings are attached. And we ran into that issue where we took money from people that we shouldn’t have, and it caused us to stay stagnant for two years because we were tied to doing something in a certain way, which prevented us from being innovative and iterating from what we were seeing on the ground.

And then at some point in time, you get big enough and you can start saying no to people because you realize that you’ve got a vision of what you want to do and some money comes with strings that you’re just not willing to compromise on.

And so I think it is a very interesting relationship with money. There is a sense of constraint, though. Money is always a constraint and so forcing yourself to think about how you can do things differently, more resourcefully, I think, is a really big principle at Kidogo.

“At some point in time, you have to stop thinking and just go out and try it and let the work teach you.”

Denver: That gets us back to the previous question. I think limited money and constraint leads to innovation. Too much money, you tend to, “Oh, we’ll do this, we’ll do this.” But when you got a little bit of money, you really got to be thinking outside of the box to be able to leverage that.

You are an Acumen fellow. Tell us about that experience, Sabrina, and the role it played in helping you build and grow Kidogo. 

Sabrina: We’re really big fans of Acumen. My husband, I think, has a secret crush, maybe perhaps not anymore now if this is on a podcast, on Jacqueline Novogratz. 

Denver: I think we all do, by the way.

Sabrina: Yeah. She’s just a beautiful energy. He read her book, The Blue Sweater, her first book, when we were in university, and I think that was it for him, that there’s this concept of social entrepreneurship and patient capital and doing good using business principles, and he was hooked at that point in time.

And then when we stumbled across this childcare crisis, we enrolled in an Acumen course and met an advisor, and he was the one who cut us that check for $5,000. We were thinking too much about the problem and not doing. And I think that’s one of my biggest lessons, is that at some point in time, you have to stop thinking and just go out and try it and let the work teach you and…

Denver: That sounds like Jacqueline. 

Sabrina: Yes, very much. And now to be part of the community and to be an Acumen East Africa fellow, there’s just such a sense of belonging, of community, of like-minded individuals, and a sense of hope as well. You turn on the news and you see what’s going on and it can be very disheartening, and then you have a conversation with an Acumen fellow who’s doing something really awesome in a different part of the world, and there’s a sense of hope and confidence for the future.

Denver: Absolutely. Finally, Sabrina, what’s next for Kidogo, and how do you hope to change the conversation around early childhood development? 

Sabrina: What’s next for Kidogo is we’re right now the largest childcare network in Kenya. I never thought we would be at this place eight years ago when we started this journey and it’s an interesting point to think about, “Where do we go from here?” And I think the answer is clear, we want to be the largest childcare network in East Africa.

My parents, my ancestry is all from East Africa, and there’s such a need. And, “Scaling for what purpose?” That’s the question we keep asking ourselves, and I think a lot of it is, the bigger we get, the bigger of a seat we get at the table to have conversations around larger systems change. That the bigger we get, the more the government takes us seriously, and we can then start to shift the mindset around the importance of childcare, the multigenerational impact of childcare, the economic benefits of childcare, and really make it a priority. And my big hope is that it becomes an election issue in all the upcoming elections across the continent. 

Denver: It’s just not getting big for the sake of getting big. There’s a lot of other things that you can do when that happens.

For listeners who want to learn more about Kidogo, tell us about your website and the kind of information they would find on it.

Sabrina: It’s called Interestingly, Kidogo means small in Swahili. It comes from their proverb, “Chanzo cha makubwa ni kidogo.” All great things start small. We’ve grown quite a bit, so we’re hoping to go from “kidogo” to “kubwa” which means large. 

Denver: I’ll be keeping my eyes out for the branding change.

Thanks, Sabrina, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on this show. 

Sabrina: Awesome. Thank you so much for having me.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.

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