How One U.S.-based Education Organization is Working in Developing African Markets

Staff Writer
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For education companies interested in international expansion, emerging markets such as those in Africa — where there’s hunger for online resources and rising buying power among parents and schools — may draw their attention.

But creating a product or service that can win approval, get implemented correctly, and scale across developing countries is a daunting task.

“Because the challenges are so vast — there’s so many, 60 million children, who are missing out on primary school — the scale of the challenge can naturally lead you to focus on scale at the expense of quality,” said Caitlin Baron, CEO of U.S.-based nonprofit Luminos Fund.

“That’s a false tradeoff. It’s entirely possible to deliver rich, inclusive, high-impact learning, even in very poor quarters of the world.”

Baron’s organization, founded in 2016, works with children in countries across Africa and the Middle East who are not in the school system, often because of conflict, poverty, or, in many more recent cases, pandemic-era closures.

Luminos partners with local community organizations to provide an intensive, yearlong literacy program that targets the first three years of learning, with the goal of then transferring its graduates back into their local system.

The nonprofit recently was awarded the 2022 Klaus J. Jacobs Best Practice Prize from the Jacobs Foundation, a European philanthropy with a focus on encouraging evidence-based strategies in childhood development and learning. The award recognizes companies around the world for working to “ensure children have access to quality education.”

The Luminos Fund has supported more than 172,000 children across Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Gambia, and Lebanon, and says it plans to reach an additional 200,000 students by 2024.

EdWeek Market Brief recently spoke to Luminos Fund CEO Caitlin Baron about finding success as a U.S.-based organization working in developing nations and her advice to other company leaders considering expanding internationally in emerging markets. 

The Jacobs Foundation seeks to recognize companies that bring evidence-based practices to their work. How does Luminos use research to inform its work?

We have a strong focus on external evaluation in everything we do. Actually, the international education space, I think, is much more at peace with external evaluation being a standard part of operations. Whereas you find quite a lot in the U.S. it’s relatively unusual that programs are evaluated externally.

The burden of proof is high in the context that we’re in, and funders really need to see that kind of independent verification of impact. We do an annual external assessment in each of our country programs all the time — baseline in, where are kids starting, where are they ending.

In a typical Luminos [situation] children come to us reading less than three words per minute. And at the end of year with us, they’ll be reading at the level of 40 words a minute. So we have a really intensive literacy focus. But, most importantly … we see year-in and year-out this great immediate benefit and impact.

How do you adapt your programs to work in different countries?

We operate in four different countries in Africa, right now, and essentially our program is successful when it seamlessly marries the best that we understand from global practice about how to teach kids to read and do basic math together with the specifics of a given operating context. So our model is about 70 percent the same from country to country, but there’s a critical 30 percent that is developed bottom up in context.

We always operate through a network of local community-based organizations. So our team does curriculum pedagogy, government relations, training, and then assessment or external evaluation. And then we fund local organizations to actually set up the classes, engage the teachers and run the program. That means that we have a really nice marriage of what local organizations know and what Luminos knows.

Our program is successful when it seamlessly marries the best that we understand from global practice about how to teach kids to read and do basic math together with the specifics of a given operating context.

We always focus on the first three years of school. Every country has its own national curriculum. Everything we do needs to be approved and endorsed by national ministries of education — that goes without saying. That being said, what most countries in the world cover in the first three years of school are basically teaching kids to read and do basic math. So while a lot of the terminology can vary from place to place, the core content elements are similar and so that helps.

I don’t think we could easily go country to country if we hadn’t made the decision to really focus in on foundational learning.

What advice would you have for a U.S.-based company that is interested in working in emerging markets such as those in Africa?

[My best advice is] just remembering that there’s a huge amount of diversity in whatever context you’re targeting. There’s a huge amount of diversity in emerging markets. On the one hand, we work in Ghana, which is closing in on being a middle income country. On the other hand, we’ve worked in Liberia where [around] less than 20 percent of the country has electricity.

Even if we think about the major emerging markets — India, Brazil, China — there’s extraordinary diversity within those country contexts as well.

In general, there’s been, especially in the international education world, a lot of focus on literacy, for all of the obvious reasons. But I will say that literacy is pretty hard to scale. In Ethiopia, [for example,] there are at least 80 official languages. I always feel like there’s a missed opportunity to think more intensely about numeracy because actually, numeracy, if done right, it [crosses] over the language barrier and you can much more easily roll a product out everywhere.

What are you seeing in the international education space as the world begins to transition out of the pandemic?

We’ve seen a large number of students go back to school, which is amazing. Keep in mind there are countries like Uganda where literally the entire country was completely shut down continuously for two years, in an environment where there was no remote learning of any kind. So we have some pretty dire circumstances on the continent.

Of course, the learning loss is profound. And what we expect … is that children that fall behind, that sort of deficit is cumulative. If you’re behind in one year, you don’t catch up, you’re actually further behind the following year. What we’ve seen time and again is that even in a world where most children come back to school, if they’re not progressing successfully they will wind up dropping out far earlier than then they otherwise would. In many of the contexts where we operate, ministries are well aware that the classroom doors reopened, but the problem is not solved.

What are the other most pressing challenges that you see standing in the way of students’ academic opportunities? 

Beyond the COVID context, we have an enormous amount of displacement due to climate change — families that have to migrate from land which is no longer viable. In a context like Ethiopia, that means they’re actually moving to a new language of instruction. So it’s not a simple matter of re-enrolling the child when you get to the new geography, it really is a question of building life all over again. I think over the next 10 to 20 years we’ll see more and more of that.

There’s been a reasonable amount of talk in last few months about whether or not there’s a role for international education in preventing climate change. There may well be, but I think what we see as the more urgent matter is the role for international education in responding to climate change.

As families and children are displaced, how can we create a flexible education system that has on ramps back into the system. Because in the context that we operate in, far too often when children fall out of the system, there’s no there’s no practical way for them to reintegrate.

Image by Getty.

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