Using data to improve early childhood development in Malawi


Why is Firelight investing in early childhood development?

Abundant scientific evidence illustrates the outsized influence of early childhood programs on lifelong development, especially in low- and middle-income countries.  But in sub-Saharan Africa, early childhood development (ECD) remains the least prioritized, least coordinated, and least resourced component of the education sector, with less than 12% of children accessing quality ECD services.  In response to this gap and opportunity, Firelight partnered with the Hilton Foundation and the Bainum Family Foundation to build the capacity of a cluster of five community-based organizations (CBOs) in Malawi—along with 13 other CBOs in Tanzania and Zambia—to build, pilot, and improve ECD programs and services for vulnerable children.

How are we building the capacity of CBOs in Malawi to improve ECD in their communities?

In Malawi, local communities have already established a network of community-based childcare centers (CBCCs), with 5,665 CBCCs nationwide serving over 400,000 children.  However, the challenge lies in ensuring the quality of these CBCCs, which currently serve primarily as humble daycare centers to alleviate the burden of childcare on working parents, rather than as productive, active learning environments for young children.  Firelight engaged the technical expertise of the Madrasa Early Childhood Program - Uganda (MECP-U) – to support our CBO partners in improving the quality of care and education at their ECD centers.

The capacity building provided by MECP-U has involved an intensive training program over two years for organization staff and center-based caregivers that includes classroom coaching and ongoing mentoring.  As part of the training, MECP-U has been building capacity through a ToTs (trainers of trainers) program at each of the five CBOs, who have then been able to cascade their expertise to volunteer caregivers and teachers at their child care centers.  Because the trainers live in and intimately understand their communities, they can respond in real time to the challenges faced by caregivers at the centers and together come up with effective solutions.


How have we been evaluating ECD center quality in Malawi, and how does Firelight “close the loop” between data collection and program improvement?

Systemic change takes time, and Firelight is committed to using in-depth research to ensure that we are gradually seeing improvements in CBCC quality and addressing key challenges as they arise.  In both 2016 and 2017, Firelight engaged independent academic evaluator—Dr. Amina Abubakar[1]—and her team to conduct a baseline and midline evaluation, respectively, of 12 CBCCs with which our grantee-partners work in the Mangochi, Machinga and Neno districts of Malawi.

At Firelight, data is collected for the purpose of helping CBOs to better understand where they are performing well and where their gaps and challenges are.  This information is used as the starting point for discussion and learning, and new ideas are directly fed back into their programs, as well as back to Firelight so we can understand where to offer more support.

In early March 2018, Firelight convened representatives from the five ECD partners, MECP-U, Amina Abubakar and her team, and Firelight’s programs and learning teams, in order to share the results from the midline evaluation and allow partners the opportunity to brainstorm ways forward together.  “This is a day for learning – a day to use data to inform practice,” remarked Saeed Wame, Executive Director of the Namwera AIDS Coordinating Committee.  “The purpose of the meeting is to use this opportunity to learn, not to judge or to compare results across CBOs.”


What did CBOs learn from these evaluations, and how will this inform their practice?

After seeing their individual and group results and having time to discuss in groups, partners reflected and shared what they had learned from the evaluations, including:

  • Involvement and mobilization of community members brought in increased gender, ethnic, and disability diversity into the centers, as well as enrichment of locally-made playing and learning materials.

  • Though CBOs had invested in making locally-developed playing materials available at the centers, this did not necessarily translate into an increase in free-choice indoor play for children, which is critical to cognitive development.

  • Improvements in the quality of the physical infrastructure of CBCCs were due to mobilization and involvement of community members and center management committees, but there was still a need to rectify physical hazards, such as open cooking areas near children’s play areas.

  • There is a need to ensure that caregivers are using good quality lesson plans based on the national curriculum.

  • There is a need for continued capacity building in the technical expertise and pedagogical skills of trainers (ToTs) and caregivers.

  • Partners expressed a desire for cross-organization exchange visits and networking so that organizations can learn from one another.

  • CBOs also expressed a need for more networking and engagement with the government.

The data also identified a few other gaps.  On average, caregivers had five years of experience (range 2-16 years) in teaching at the ECD level, but 85% of them had not received any formal training in early childhood education.  Even those who had been trained had gone through relatively short courses (between 3 and 10 days).  Moreover, almost all the teachers were volunteers, with 76% reporting that they received no pay.  Even those who were paid only earned between 3 to 14 US dollars a month, or only a few cents per day of work, far below the living wage in the region.  Unsurprisingly, an unlivable wage reduced caregiver motivation, and they often were not present during required teaching hours.

Another critical finding was that caregiver retention is a key challenge for CBOs.  Often, when unpaid, volunteer caregivers are sufficiently trained by the CBO ToTs, they are quickly hired by an international NGO or government project that can offer them a livable salary.  While understandable, this turnover has been causing numerous problems for ECD center quality.  When trained caregivers leave, the unqualified volunteers that typically replace them are unable to offer the same quality of care and teaching to students.  Partners noted that their CBCCs’ low scores in literacy and numeracy could be directly attributed to this problem.


What is the way forward?

Our partners departed the meeting with a renewed commitment to pilot innovate community solutions for retaining caregivers, as well as to continue improving the overall quality of the infrastructure, teaching, and learning at these centers.  They will be including new ideas for these goals in their next grant proposals to Firelight, and we are excited to see the results of their efforts.

Ultimately, Firelight knows that strong community-based ECD programs are a tremendous opportunity for promoting children’s development, but communities need support to improve the quality of learning and care at these centers so that they can maximize the benefits for children’s long-term development.  Firelight is honored to be able to work closely with our partners in this process, learning important lessons along the way that could one day be used to scale ECD programs across the continent.

[1] Dr. Abubakar is a professor and research psychologist at Pwani University in Kenya.  She has received acclaim for pioneering psychological research in East Africa and her development of neurodevelopmental assessments that are used across the continent.