supporting early childhood development systems

– Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia

What are the challenges?

There is abundant evidence about the importance of early experiences in influencing lifelong development and extensive research that shows the impact of both risk and protective factors in early childhood in low- and middle-income countries. Risk factors include being orphaned, HIV, poverty, inadequate opportunities for cognitive stimulation in the home, and high levels of parental stress. On the other hand, protective factors include attending high-quality early childhood development (ECD) programs, greater social support to parents and/or children, and higher educational or language stimulation in the home.

Early childhood development (ECD) programs are most effective in reducing inequalities if they are introduced early in life, provide integrated services that target the many risks faced by vulnerable children, and are of high quality in terms of design, curriculum, training, and monitoring. High-quality ECD programs can have an impact on cognitive development, preparation for primary school, physical growth, HIV outcomes, and so much more.

However, ECD remains the least prioritized and resourced component of the education sector in sub-Saharan Africa, with less than 12% of children accessing quality ECD services. This is due in part to limited government resources for ECD programs as well as limited capacity, including a lack of trained personnel and the absence of a culturally appropriate, interactive, and play-based curriculum. Programs that do exist often struggle with quality and lack essential infrastructure and resources, such as safe learning environments, appropriate teaching materials, and trained ECD caregivers and teachers – often operating more as “daycare” for parents during work hours, rather than a robust support to children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development.

How are our CBO grantee-partners helping?


To address these challenges, communities in many African countries have come together, often with the support of community-based organizations, to establish and run ECD programs to improve their children’s developmental and educational opportunities. Community-based ECD center programs hold great potential to improve children’s early development and learning, and long-term outcomes. Our grantee-partners in Malawi have been working with their communities to establish and strengthen ECD centers – including building basic infrastructure, creating supportive learning environments, and training ECD caregivers – to serve the needs of children from birth to age 5 and of their families.  A training program of ECD personnel includes classroom coaching and ongoing mentoring from local experts in child development.

In Tanzania and Zambia, our grantee-partners are implementing the Care for Child Development (CCD) curriculum (developed by the WHO and UNICEF), a program for empowering parents and caregivers in the home that is implemented by counselors trained in the CCD curriculum. The Care for Child Development intervention provides information and recommendations to parents and primary caregivers to encourage cognitive stimulation and social support to young children, through sensitive and responsive parent-child interactions. These basic caregiving skills contribute to the survival, as well as the healthy growth and development, of young children.

In addition, our grantee-partners recognize the need for holistic programming that serves children’s and families’ multi-faceted needs, and have thus also implemented a variety of other supporting programs and services along with their ECD programs. These include savings and loans groups to promote families’ economic empowerment, feeding programs to provide basic nutrition to children at ECD centers, voluntary counseling and testing for HIV and AIDS through community health activities, and income-generating activities to sustain some of the expenses involved in running the ECD centers.

How is Firelight helping?

Based on our own evidence and the growing body of knowledge that improvements in organizational and programming capacity of CBOs result in stronger community-based support for vulnerable children and families, Firelight has been systematically funding and building the capacity of clusters of CBOs across these three countries in sub-Saharan Africa – Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia. Our ECD initiative began in 2010 with a two-year pilot in Malawi and Zambia and in 2012 expanded to include Tanzania. In 2018, we were able to expand our impact to four additional grantee-partners (formerly part of the “Strengthening primary education” cluster) in Tanzania. Within each cluster, we mentor, strengthen, and empower a Lead Partner – a community-born organization with greater capacity – to grow, lead, and mentor the cluster of CBO grantee-partners in their geographic areas.

Our aim has been to help these CBOs to build, implement, evaluate, document learnings from, and improve effective, replicable, and potentially scalable community-based ECD centers and family-based training programs that are of high quality and provide integrated services for vulnerable children from birth to 5 years of age and families. We also work to build our CBO grantee-partners’ capacity to use data to improve the quality of learning and strengthen the evidence base for community-driven solutions for early childhood development.

At the same time, we support CBOs to shift local norms and attitudes towards early childhood development and to sustain community support for the development and wellbeing of children and families for generations. We also support our CBO grantee-partners to actively engage with technical networks and government policymakers to advocate for evidence-based policy change at the local and national levels.


What has the impact been?

Firelight is committed to evaluating our impact through systematic yearly evaluations of CBO programs in ECD center quality improvement and Care for Child Development implementation.

In Tanzania and Zambia, we engaged external experts to evaluate the implementation and impact of the Care for Child Development curriculum on children under the age of 3 in their community, to find out more about improvements in their home environments, and the capacities and skills of parents and caregivers. We learned:

  • CBOs have successfully raised awareness among families and communities about the critical importance of the first 1000 days of life – resulting in increased demand for services and programs for young children in the community.

  • CBO trainers and CCD counsellors supported parents and caregivers to increase the frequency with which they engaged in positive care and development practices with their children under the age of 3 – including telling stories and reading books, playing together, and singing songs. Parents already see substantial changes in their children, especially in their more vulnerable children, that set them on a trajectory for long-term success and wellbeing.

  • CBOs have been able to identify and mobilize community/civil society support for vulnerable children and families who were previously not accessing any programming or services.

Likewise, we have worked with our grantee-partners in Malawi, our in-house Learning and Evaluation staff, and a regional ECD researcher to evaluate the quality of learning and care at CBO-supported ECD centers, as well as the strength of our CBO grantee-partners to effect systemic change. We have learned: 

  • CBOs have successfully mobilized parents and ECD center management committees to improve quality and access at ECD centers.

  • CBO trainers have supported ECD center caregivers to improve their practices and environments in different dimensions of quality – especially in the use of a curriculum and daily program, fostering positive adult-child and child-child interactions, and the quality of the physical classroom environment. We see promising improvements in children’s school readiness scores.

  • Community members continue to improve the physical infrastructure, develop low-cost learning materials, and contribute time and resources to feeding programs at the ECD centers.

  • CBOs are being recognized by other stakeholders and are now participating and contributing their skills in technical working groups on ECD established by the Malawian government to elevate the quality of ECD programs and services across the country.

At the same time, our partners have mobilized community engagement and parent involvement in their children’s development, have worked with government to contribute to district-level and national-level working groups on ECD, and have become stronger, more resilient, and more professional organizations over time. 

How are we planning for the future?

In these early childhood development clusters, we are excited by the opportunity to work with a variety of community-based organizations to implement deliberate, replicable, and potentially scalable programming that includes integrated services for young children and their families and that can be sustained by communities themselves or by governments over the long term. At the same, we are building stronger CBOs that can become potential mentors to each other and to other CBOs in the next phases of this initiative.

In addition, we are excited to continue gathering and sharing data on the difference that community-based programs can have on child development, a need that has not been adequately addressed by the wider field. Through the documentation of approaches and assessment of the role community-based organizations can play in providing quality early childhood programming, we hope that our work will contribute to a body of knowledge on the important role that communities play in child development.


Communities in action

Spiwe Ernest was born in Malawi to a family deeply affected by the HIV and AIDS crisis.  Her mother was HIV positive, and when she revealed her status to her husband, he physically abused her and fled, leaving her to fend for six children, including their youngest—Spiwe.  Fortunately, Spiwe was born HIV negative, due to her mother’s participation in a prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) program in her community.  However, Spiwe’s mother, unable to take care of six children on her own, sent Spiwe—at the age of two—over 10 miles away to live with her elderly grandmother, who is also HIV positive and on antiretroviral treatment.  A farmer struggling to provide daily meals to her granddaughter, Spiwe’s grandmother enrolled Spiwe at Chisomo ECD center—an ECD center managed by TIPOLISO (Tikondane Positive Living Support Organization) in partnership with Firelight.  

TIPOLISO, a Firelight community-based grantee-partner, currently works with five ECD centers in Malawi.  Firelight supports TIPOLISO with the grant funding and capacity building to allow them to train caregivers, provide children age-appropriate learning materials, build permanent ECD structures, and partner with local government.  With Firelight’s support, TIPOLISO engaged in a participatory research project to better understand how to improve early childhood education for vulnerable children in their community.

From this study, TIPOLISO found that some of the central factors that contribute to school dropout are poverty, lack of ability to pay school fees or purchase scholastic materials, limited family support, and child marriage.  TIPOLISO realized that families needed and wanted an intervention to allow them to better provide for the basic needs of their children.  Community members believed a goat pass-on program was the right, long-term solution to serve their children’s needs.

Firelight supported TIPOLISO with the grant to launch their goat pass-on program, which would be targeted at the most vulnerable children in the community.  TIPOLISO—already a trusted voice in the community—held numerous community mobilization meetings to identify beneficiaries, as two families were to be chosen from each of the five ECD centers.  One of these meetings was attended by Spiwe’s grandmother.  Community members agreed that Spiwe’s family was the right choice for the program, and Spiwe could continue her education uninterrupted.

 Spiwe’s grandmother was mentored and trained by TIPOLISO staff, and in November 2015, she was given a single female goat, which provided the family with nutritious milk both to drink and to sell.  Luckily, the goat was pregnant, and in 2016, gave birth to a female kid.  Spiwe’s grandmother enjoys taking care of the goats and feels like a weight has been lifted from her shoulders—allowing her to better care for Spiwe’s needs and allowing Spiwe to pursue her education.  As of now, the original goat has given birth to three goats, two of which will be passed along to the families of other local vulnerable children. 

Today, Spiwe is seven years old and thriving.  She recently passed her Standard 1 exams in third place (in a class of 123 students), and she is ready to begin Standard 2.  At Spiwe’s school, the top eight performers in her class come from TIPOLISO’s ECD centers.  We at Firelight are deeply proud of Spiwe’s progress and the tireless efforts of our community-based partner TIPOLISO, who fights every day for a better future for children.