Community-driven innovations in early learning in Tanzania: Opportunities, lessons, and thoughts for the future


SAWA - Learning through Play Photo: Children learn through play at an ECD center started by Safina Women’s Association near Morogoro, Tanzania

Firelight has long believed that community organizations are incredibly well placed to understand the needs of their community and what interventions will work best.

That is why, in 2011, Firelight Foundation was thrilled to be chosen as the recipient of $1,225,000 from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Early Learning Innovation Fund to support community-based innovative approaches that improve early learning in Tanzania.

As a result of this important partnership, over the past four years we have been able to work with and learn from a range of community organizations in Tanzania as they have been sowing the seeds and reaping the benefits of innovative community programs for children’s early learning.

As part of the partnership, the Hewlett Foundation recently commissioned an external team to dive deep and evaluate the Early Learning Innovation Fund, including Firelight’s work through it. This has been an invaluable opportunity to reflect on our progress to date and to look to the future of what we believe will be sustainably stronger community organizations and sustainably better outcomes for children in the communities where we work. We are grateful to the Hewlett Foundation for their partnership on this initiative, for their willingness to invest with us in community-driven innovations, and for their commitment to evaluating, reflecting on, and learning from the work we and our partners are engaged in.

It is part of our core values at Firelight to look critically at what we are doing right and what we need to do better. Moreover, we are deeply committed to sharing those learnings with others, so we are pleased to highlight some of them below. You can also read the evaluation reports here: summary report and individual report on Firelight.

We learned a great deal in the evaluation process, about how we are perceived by our grantee-partners, the strengths of our model for funding grassroots grantees with holistic support and capacity building over a sustained period of time, and where we have room for growth. We are using the outcomes of this evaluation to strengthen and improve our work moving forward. Indeed, as the evaluation process has spanned many months, we have already made some improvements to this initiative and others based on what we learned.

If you are interested in learning more about our work or our reflections, please do not hesitate to contact us at

What we did

In 2011, when Firelight began partnering with the Hewlett Foundation on the Early Learning Innovation Fund, the government of Tanzania had recently invested a lot of political and financial capital in mandating primary education across the country. However, the results showed that there was much work to be done. With over a decade of experience funding and mentoring community organizations, Firelight knew that this would be a transformative opportunity to identify and seed some of the most innovative ideas in education – the ones that are developed by communities themselves.

Firelight wanted to support grassroots innovators who were grounded in their local contexts and were finding creative ways to overcome the barriers that limit children’s achievement. Through the Early Learning Innovation Fund, Firelight invested in their efforts to improve children’s learning by harnessing the resources of family and community to support and enhance the efforts of teachers and schools. Our Grantee-partners used holistic ideas to better link communities and families to the education of their children, and developed models that were innovative in their use of existing resources and in their integrated approaches. Facilitated learning and sharing amongst Grantee-partners also enabled the lateral replication of effective models that will ideally catalyze wide-scale change in children’s learning outcomes from the bottom up.


Firelight identified and funded organizations that were using innovative approaches to improve children’s learning outcomes. Our funding not only included direct relationships with six organizations but it also included support for a community grantmaker, the Tanzania Home Economics Association (TAHEA), which provided funding and support for five additional small grassroots groups. While partner models had different areas of emphasis, they were all using holistic approaches to improve education outcomes by addressing five key challenges that limit children’s success in school: child vulnerability, family vulnerability, family literacy, learning environment, and school resource allocation.

Creating connections and sharing learnings

Firelight also facilitated Learning Circles, which provided opportunities for peer learning, joint inquiry on key topics, lateral replication of effective models, and networking relationships among partners.

Capacity building

Firelight recognizes that well-managed organizations have greater capacity for implementing effective programs. Firelight’s capacity building strategy coupled high-quality training with individualized follow-up support at each organization’s site to help them put new skills into practice.

Adding value

Firelight also partnered with the Hewlett Foundation to enable mobile data collection by our Grantee-partners, which allowed them to integrate their data collection tools into a mobile platform and aggregate data across partners using a cloud-based database, allowing for real-time access to data and timely data analysis.

What we found

Better outcomes for children

Analysis of our data showed that children enrolled in early childhood development (ECD) programs were performing measurably better than children who are not attending ECD programs. Often these children also had a richer home literacy environment and literacy interactions with their parents. Attendance at ECD programs was also positively associated with skills that are likely to lead to long-term schooling success: fine motor skills, attention, and early literacy.

Similarly, data gathered and analyzed by some of our Grantee-partners indicated that children participating in their innovative programs at the early primary level made substantial gains in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Great ideas spreading

Organizations have embraced key points of each other’s models and incorporated what they learned into their programs. For example, Elimu Community Light (ECOLI) uses text messages to share information on child development with parents and caregivers of young children. Their messages cover topics such as nutrition, parenting skills, and improving the learning environment for children at home and at school. After learning about ECOLI’s parent text messaging program during a partner meeting, Organization for Community Development (OCODE) was so excited about the program that they took time to learn more about how it works and have now integrated it into their own programs.

What the evaluation found

Our program design is sound. It recognizes the strong motivation but limited resources of local actors to improve education quality. Firelight’s selection of and support to community-based organizations (CBOs) is an effective way to increase other community actors’ support for these new education programs. It increases the likelihood that those programs will be sustained after Firelight’s support and that they will spread beyond the initial implementation area.

Our programmatic design demonstrates a strong understanding of how to achieve the lateral spread of innovations. Firelight’s holistic approach engages different actors in a child’s ecology (e.g., family, community, schools, and local government) to promote the spread of new program models from one organization in Firelight’s cohort to another.

We have fostered an informal community of practice among our grantee-partners, leading to the spread of innovative practices. Our Grantee-partners indicated that they valued the partnership and collaboration with each other that has emerged over the course of the initiative, with some expressing the desire for an even more structured network with Firelight partners. Networking among Grantee-partners has also helped them engage local government, community groups, teachers, and parents.

Our approach to organizational capacity development is strong. Our long-term partnership model gives Grantee-partners time to learn, adapt, better measure change, and sustain their programs after the partnership ends. Grantee-partners indicated that they have been overwhelmingly satisfied with the capacity-building support they have received. They appreciate Firelight’s tailored approach and its genuine concern for their organizations’ development. Capacity building is ongoing. While this evaluation identified early trends, issues, and positive signs, it could not assess the organizational capacity of sub-grantees. In fact, it would be too early to do so at this stage in Firelight’s longer-term partnership model.

Where we still need to invest

We need to work more with our partners on enabling them to take their innovations to a regional or national level. While the adoption of best practices is important across community organizations – otherwise known as “lateral scale,” greater success will be achieved if the government or another large entity adopts and spreads our partners’ innovative models – otherwise known as “vertical scale.” Firelight’s focus on lateral scaling across communities can contribute to achieving vertical scale, because it creates a critical mass of demand for improved services that will eventually lead to higher-level reform. In the next phase of this project, we are building our partners capacity to engage with government as a step toward vertical scaling.

Advocacy training and facilitation will also be important to sustained change. While most of our partners are working in collaboration with governments on a ward and district level, in many cases they need continued support to do so. We realize Firelight can also play a facilitative role in engaging government with the aim of long-term sustainable change.

Building and sustaining networks is key. While Firelight has brought its partners together into an informal community of practice, we need to support them even further by deliberately investing in their linkages to other education-focused networks.

Lessons for other donors and grantmakers

One to two years is too short a time frame in which to achieve sustainable success. At Firelight, we are deeply committed to funding our grantees for a period that can last up to seven years in recognition that true innovation, scale, and sustained change take time. As such, we are deeply grateful for the Hewlett Foundation’s investment in this initiative over a longer period of time.

Allow time for ramp-up. Often in grantmaking, there is an understandable desire to get things going quickly and to get results quickly. At Firelight, we support our Grantee-partners to get moving because we know that children cannot wait, but we also acknowledge that there needs to be a period of ramp-up – both for us as funders who need to understand our Grantee-partners and their context, and also for our Grantee-partners who need time to develop and prove their innovations before scaling.

Get to know your political environment if you want to create sustained change. While sustained social change can occur on many levels, if you want to see the adoption by governments of your innovations, it is critical to understand the political environment in which you are funding. Education innovations do not take place in a political or economic void. These factors can have a significant influence on capability to take innovations to scale.