Shannon May is co-founder of Bridge International Academies — Africa’s largest provider of preschool and primary education privately to those living under $2 a day — and has attracted investment from Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg among others. In this interview she emphasises the need for social enterprises to plan for scale and to collect the right data. An edited transcript and further details of Shannon’s work can be found below.

One of the Millennium Development Goals is universal primary education. Unfortunately, the real problem isn’t getting children into a classroom. It’s what happens inside that classroom.

In Kenya, 47% of teaching time is lost to teacher neglect or absenteeism. Children are only logging two hours and 19 minutes a day. It is almost impossible to teach a child how to be literate and numerate, how to learn the history of their country, how to learn about photosynthesis, when you only have two hours a day. It’s just not enough. So the teachers aren’t teaching.

And many teachers haven’t been prepared with the content necessary to educate a child. In Kenya, 65% of teachers are failing exams on the content they’re teaching the children. Our teachers need better preparation, our teachers need better support, and our parents need to be able to hold our teachers and our education systems accountable.

One of our core innovations is our highly scripted instruction methodology that rapidly up-skills our teachers. We do that through a two-tier teacher model. We have master teachers who are experts in their field and who have access to the best randomized control trial data on best pedagogical practices and best classroom management.

Those master teachers actually write the lessons, word for word, activity by activity, example by example, which we then distribute to our 3,500 teachers so our teachers don’t have to spend time preparing their lessons. This model enables us to rapidly up-skill a teacher who otherwise wouldn’t be able to put that time and wouldn’t have that content mastery.

Using Data to Make Better Decisions

Our other core innovation relates to technology and data more broadly. We don’t assume we know anything. We don’t guess. We constantly look for primary source data. We spend intensive amounts of time talking with our target communities to understand their lives and their problems – how much money they’re earning, what they’re currently spending on education for their children, what they like about their current schools, what they don’t like about their current schools.

And once we’re operating a school, we are religiously data driven. Every one of our teachers has a teacher tablet that we publish their lesson plans to, and we’ve created an operating system to know the moment they arrive in the morning to sync their tablet for the day. We use that to ensure every teacher is present. Our absenteeism rate is less than 1% whereas the average for Kenyan public schools is 47%. Why? Because we are tracking that data and we have incentives and disciplinary procedures in place.

Similarly, we get all of the children’s assessment scores about every seven to 10 days. Every time we have a formative assessment or a unit assessment, we receive that information. We can see which classrooms are performing well and which schools are performing well or poorly. That gives us information both about the content of the lesson as well as the instructional leadership at an individual Academy.

We’re constantly looking at how to make classrooms transparent through data and then using that data to make better decisions. Everything we do is about making sure we’re not guessing. And that drives us to a better decision in our curriculum and in our teacher professional development, all to lead to the most important data of all: are our children learning? That’s what we want to know. And we test that every year so that we ensure our children are learning more than they would learn in any other school in the neighbourhood.


Planning for Scale

Bridge International Academies was started with the idea that to be able to scale a radical intervention in education, you have to provide a service to parents living under $2 a day that they could afford. When we started our first school, we ran it as if it was the thousandth. We built the systems and the processes from the very first school that would enable us to run 50 schools, 100 schools, 1,000 schools, with the same integrity, data processing, financial management, and overall monitoring and evaluation.

Once we were running about 60 schools, it became very clear what was needed that we hadn’t yet invested in. But we’d always planned for that. We’d probably need to be charging more than $10,000 a year per child if we ran one school. It’s because we’re running 300, and we already have the forward looking plans to be running 500 in Kenya, and to be opening up in Nigeria, and India, and Uganda, that we can go through good financial planning like any other business. We can keep our price point at $5 or $6 a month because we’re going to be serving enough children in the next two to three years to support the entire business.

As a social entrepreneur, you need to focus on the entrepreneurship side. Yes, you want to solve a massive social problem, but you still need to tackle it from the idea of a business. When Jay and I moved to Kenya in 2008, we hadn’t yet closed our Series A round of financing. We were still self-financing the company for the majority of its costs. It wasn’t until after we had opened the first school and hired our first five employees that we were able to bring in our first big investment from Omidyar Network. They gave us huge credibility, and then like many other enterprises, you move from your Series A round of financing into Series B, Series C, and we’ve now closed our Series D round of financing.

One of our biggest challenges initially in pitching Bridge to investors was getting them to see people living in poverty not just as beneficiaries but as customers. Most investors said, “They’re poor. They just need a handout. They couldn’t possibly spend anything today.” In fact, poor people are already spending $51 billion a year putting their children in private school. It’s one of the largest economic markets that most people have never heard of.

We did a lot of convincing to help investors that this really is a vibrant market. It’s all about, can you give them a choice at a price point they can afford? A big part of our journey has been figuring out how to provide a really great service that will be disruptive in this market and then convincing other people to believe in us. That’s hard. But no business starts without doing that.

We’re never the same year on year. We’re always moving and changing, from how we prepare our teachers to deliver curriculum in the classroom to how we engage with our parents, because we want to make this a world-class service even though it’s happening in some of the most impoverished neighbourhoods in Kenya. If parents can’t say what’s wrong and can’t change it, they’re powerless. If they can’t go to school and say, “That teacher hit my child,” or “That teacher was two hours late” and have something be done, that’s where the problem in the system lies. The people who know what’s working and what’s not working are the parents, and we need to use that to drive innovation in the system.

Leverage technology everywhere you can, and you’re much more likely to make the radical disruption you’re seeking.


Social Entrepreneurs: Innovators for Impact

This post is part of a major series of interviews with leading social entrepreneurs associated with the Schwab Foundation. For further insights from the world of social enterprise see the following posts:

Explainer: What is a social entrepreneur

10 lessons from leaders — social entrepreneurs tell all

How to make everyone a microentrepreneur

Driving up school standards in Kenya with smart data

The full set of interviews

Author: Shannon May is co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Bridge International Academies. To read more about her organisation’s work see Zuckerberg-Backed Startup Seeks to Shake up African Education.

Image: Children being taught at a Bridge International Academies school in Kenya.