No education crisis wasted: On Bridge’s “business model” in Africa

The dream is wonderful: provide a good education to millions of children growing up in poverty. That’s why Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the World Bank and the Dutch Ministry for Foreign Affairs are pouring millions into a company that aims to turn that dream into reality. Investigations show, however, that both the children and their teachers get a raw deal.

Shannon May is clearly emotional when she walks onto the stage in early February 2017. The founder and strategist behind the world’s largest chain of kindergarten and primary schools is about to speak to a room full of women. She will talk about education, motherhood and the reasons why she founded her company, Bridge International Academies, with her husband Jay Kimmelman in 2008.

May and Kimmelman are in Nairobi, the city they live in and where Bridge has its headquarters. About 70 percent of the more than 100,000 pupils attending Bridge schools live in Kenya and around 6,000 staff work and live there. It was also the company’s base for expanding into Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria and India.

In her speech, May tells the story of the founding of Bridge: “I was speaking with mothers and with fathers, about their struggles… two things came up across hundreds of conversions I had… the first was health… the other thing was education.”

This made May think about her own childhood: if she hadn’t had good teachers, she would never have been admitted to Harvard and she would probably never have worked at Morgan Stanley. She would certainly never have come up with the idea of setting up Bridge, the “edu-business model” that aims to provide affordable, high-quality education to millions of children from families who have to live on less than US$2 a day. When the couple founded Bridge in 2008, their dream was to emancipate these children.

The exact number of children involved is unclear.  Sometimes her husband talks about 700 million children, at other times it’s around 700 million families.  According to the World Bank, 767 million people worldwide currently live below the poverty line of 1.90 dollars a day. Whatever the exact figures are, they are high and education opportunities fall short of what is needed.

There are not enough good state schools and private schools are often too expensive. May and her husband have spotted a gap in the market: education needs to be better than what state schools offer, and provided at only 30 percent of what the state currently spends per student.

May, close to tears, continues her speech in Nairobi: “Bridge is different because it exists for only one reason, it’s so that every child, not just the rich kids, not just the kids in the cities, not just the kids who have mothers and fathers who can look after them and teach them at home but every kid no matter what else is going on in their lives can go to a great school.” She is even more positive in an interview: “We fight for social justice, to create opportunities.”

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By Maria Hendeveld