Monday, 5 March 2012

Soiya Gecaga writes on Africa Rising and her fight against child poverty

 For many years now, the continent of Africa has been synonymous with concepts such as famine, poverty and corruption in people’s minds and even though this may be part of Africa’s story there are many, much more positive things about the continent. Today, the countries of Africa are full of potential and home to a number of incredibly exciting bold new initiatives. In terms of landmass, the continent is larger than the United States, China, India, Japan and all of Europe combined and by 2020, the collective GDP for Africa will be $2.6 trillion, consumer spending will stand at $1.4 trillion and there will be 128 million households with discretionary income. At 1.1 billion workers, by 2040, Africa will have the world’s largest workforce – larger than India’s or China’s workforces. As G. Pascal Zachary wrote in a recent article, “A decade ago, The Economist labelled Africa "the hopeless continent." In December 2011, the magazine predicted that "the continent's impressive growth looks likely to continue." Apologising for their former Afro-pessimism, the editors now conclude that "a profound change has taken hold" in the region.”

Last week, I travelled from Nairobi to Cape Town to attend COMMON Pitch South Africa, where I witnessed first-hand, inspiring examples of some of the new social innovation initiatives that are being developed on the continent. I met people like, Dr Johnny and Clare Anderton, Heather Costaras and Glenda Tutt. I was also thrilled to see one of my friends, Charles Kalama, win one of the prizes that evening. Dr Johhny and Clare (who incidentally took home the top prize that evening) are a loving and kind husband and wife team who run a company called EarthBagBuild. They build low cost houses and schools using a construction system that combines ancient building techniques with 21st century technology. Locally developed and patented high strength polypropylene ‘EarthBags’ that are filled with earth and stacked one on top of the other.

Heather Costaras is the inspirational founder of VENT! - an art and performance platform for South African teenagers with incredible, creative talent and with few opportunities to express themselves. The project uses art and creativity to drive personal growth, education, empowerment and transformation. Glenda Tutt, is a compassionate and determined single mother from Cape Town who founded MPower - an innovative sustainable solution for sanitary menstrual management for women living in developing countries. Charles Kalama is the co-founder of EcoPost, a social enterprise founded in 2010 in Kenya to address the challenges of plastic pollution, urban waste management, health, unemployment, deforestation and climate change. The company uses recycled plastic waste to create plastic lumber products including fencing and signposts. All of the people that I met in Cape Town have one very fundamental thing in common; they are passionate people who are incredibly positive about the future prospects of Africa and who have been motivated to play their part in the change that they wish to see in our world.

I was invited to attend the COMMON Pitch event in my capacity as the Executive Director and Founder of “We the Change” Foundation, an organisation that is tackling child poverty in Africa through early childhood education and care programmes. Our organisation currently supports 30 children between the ages of 2 and 7 in our initial program in Mathare slum, located on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. However, it is our aim to progress our work further and to create a centre for excellence and innovation in the field of early childhood care and education that will comprise of model schools, backed up by a dedicated teacher training and research centre based at one of the top universities in Kenya (Kenyatta University). Our ultimate aim is to develop a model school system that can be replicated both nationally and then later, throughout the rest of Africa.

The first few years of a child's life are critical in terms of human development. Growing up in a stable environment and being properly cared for will mean that a child is more likely to fully develop his or her thinking, language, emotional and social skills, and to suffer less from disease. Having received this kind of support, a child is then able to take these valuable foundations with them when they start primary school. Whilst the years after early childhood are bound to be fraught with difficulty and challenge for many children living in marginalised communities, their journeys in life would be that much harder (if not nearly impossible) without a good and solid start in life. For children growing up in extreme poverty and deprivation, solid foundations in early childhood are very rarely developed. Many young children living in such environments are exposed to multiple risks, including poverty, malnutrition and poor health, all of which detrimentally affect their cognitive, motor, and social-emotional development.

Rather tragically, it is not the norm for early childhood care and education to be given much attention by education policy makers in governments across the world. Therefore, it is also my hope that through this work we will be able to raise awareness about the importance of education in this field and to transform education policy where we can. A report produced by the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University outlines the potential benefits of investing in early childhood education by explaining that, "extensive analysis by economists has shown that education and development investments in the earliest years of life produce the greatest returns. Most of those returns, which can range from $3 to $16 per dollar invested, benefit the community through reduced crime, welfare, and educational remediation, as well as increased tax revenues on higher incomes for the participants of early childhood programs when they reach adulthood."

In providing young children across the continent of Africa with good quality early childhood care and education, we will help to alter their life trajectories and to provide them with opportunities that would otherwise have eluded them. I have a vision and dream of a complete paradigm shift - where different stories are told about Africa. Where, rather than living and/or dying in poverty, tens of millions of children have access to good quality early childhood care and education programmes, which in turn leads them to complete secondary school and university and onto becoming the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. Where rather than talking in terms of a hopeless continent, Africa is recognised as a continent of prosperity, innovation and ultimately of hope.

Soiya is an Acumen Fund East Africa Fellow and a Creative Visions Dan Eldon Fellow. She founded “We The Change” Foundation, which tackles child poverty by providing early childhood care and education programmes to children in marginalised communities. Born in Kenya, Soiya was educated in the States and the UK. Trained as a solicitor specialising in charity and corporate law, Soiya has also worked for The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva, Nyumbani (an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS in Kenya), and Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute and dying in Calcutta.

Follow Soiya and “We the Change” Foundation on Twitter at @soiya and @wethechange2010, or on Facebook. Visit


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