Selling entrepreneurship to a million students

By Anna Patton 11 April 2016

Students from Iganga High School make papier mâché paste as part of a unique curriculum developed by Educate!, a social enterprise that helps students start businesses while in school. Photo by: Anna Patton

It’s Friday afternoon at Iganga High School in Eastern Uganda, but the students aren’t thinking about the weekend. One group sinks their hands into a papier mâché paste, another stirs a foamy liquid. This is no art project or science lesson; it’s business. The end products — egg trays and soap, respectively — will provide an income for some pupils.

The students here are learning from a unique curriculum developed by Educate!, a social enterprise that helps young Ugandans start businesses while in school, through a combination of weekly classes, mentoring, business clubs and teacher training. Educate! is today offered in about 350 schools — about 12 percent of Ugandan secondary schools — and the aim is to reach 1000 schools nationwide by 2024.

Unlike the teacher-led, theory-based classes students are used to, this kind of learning is utterly practical. “We really make them scratch their heads,” James Otai, a program officer at Educate!, told Devex. “[We ask them] ‘In your community, what is the problem? And what can you, as an Educate! scholar, come up with to solve that problem?’”

If the program succeeds, students like these will become innovators and entrepreneurs, creating jobs instead of looking for them. The data so far indicate that’s exactly what is happening, and Educate! is looking to replicate its success elsewhere in Africa — and to become financially sustainable itself. For now, the social enterprise is funded largely by institutional and family foundations.

Doubling income

Educate! was born in Uganda, where 70 percent of the population is aged 24 and below, and where 400,000 youths enter the job market every year to compete for just 9,000 new jobs, according to government figures. Finishing high school is no guarantee of future employment. If graduates don't have a family farm or business to fall back on, said Magola Aggrey, a history teacher at Iganga High, they will likely end up “moving around trying to find a job.”

Educate! wants to change that. Their mentors deliver leadership, entrepreneurship and workforce readiness training over 18 months, to 40 students per school, who in turn mentor several younger students each and recruit classmates to join a school business club. Teachers are trained in Educate!’s skills-based approach and in how to support student businesses.

Launched in 2009, the program quickly saw rapid results. Between 2013 and 2014, they almost quadrupled their reach; 94 percent of business clubs that year reported profitable projects. Randomised control trial results in 2014 also found that graduates earned double the income of their peers.

The social enterprise plans to expand into another nine African countries by 2024, either delivering direct programs or supporting governments on curriculum reform. In Rwanda, Educate! began advising the government last year on its shift to a skills-based secondary curriculum. In mid-2015, the Ministry of Education introduced Educate!’s skills modules and student business clubs into its national entrepreneurship curriculum, which is being rolled out in 2016 — ultimately reaching all secondary schools in the country.

The ultimate vision is not only to be running programs directly, “but to be improving education overall,” said Maggie Appleton, director of policy and partnerships. “There are components of our program that are being run in schools we’ve never been to, and that’s also a really exciting strategy.” Educate!’s curriculum is also open source and has been shared with over 100 organizations.

Lessons from India

As Educate! first looked to increase its reach, officials turned to a country where scale is a daily fact of life: India. Appleton visited 20 organizations in ten Indian cities in 2013 to try and learn from their experience and ask how scale can remain cost effective.

“India’s massive — if you’re doing anything there with reach, you’re having to think about scale,” she said. Many organizations there are set up in a similar way to Educate!, in that they have limited funding from bilateral donors and aim to address one specific need.

The biggest lesson for Educate!, said Appleton, was to adopt a “stepladder” model for growth.

“You shouldn't pilot a program you want to scale in 20 schools. You should pilot it in 150 schools, because you need to learn to operate at that level,” she said. In other words, get to full scale in a first “unit” or region, she explained, then add the next — rather than growing incrementally.

That approach became Educate!’s plan. The organization has created two units — two regions in which they operate at full scale — and plans to add a third this year. They’re now allowing some time to adjust before adding units in new regions.

Repurposing systems

Educate! has invested heavily in monitoring and evaluation as it grows, spending about 12-13 percent of their budget in Uganda on this area, for example. The data they collected — and strong results of success — helped the organization win a grant in the Global Innovation Fund’s first round of funding in February.

Quality matters more than quantity when it comes to data collection, organization officials say. Appleton says Educate! is “really thoughtful” about what is needed, “because it takes so much effort to set the structure up, to ask people to manage it.”

Systems building, for example, was needed in “every corner of the organization,” Appleton said, from logistics (establishing processes for distributing lesson materials) to finance (adopting mobile money for payment of expenses and wages) to human resources (realizing, through experience, how important it is to plan ahead for gaps).

Growth also affected program design. For example, equal opportunities for girls and boys were previously encouraged informally by staff and mentors. But a large-scale program needed that to be more explicit. “We can’t just rely on that value coming out,” said Appleton. “Right now we’re integrating more gender-sensitive processes into how we recruit and train our mentors, and bringing the issue of gender out in the lesson plans.”

Paying for growth

As it grows, Educate! has started charging most schools a fee for service of up to $200 per year. The cost has not dampened schools’ interest: when the charges were introduced in 2014, Educate! aimed to get 150 schools on board; 238 signed up.

The fee is a minor financial contribution to program costs, which amount to about $5,000 per school, but are expected to fall as low as $2,500 once operating in 1,000 schools. Educate! officials admit they have not yet been able to increase the fee above $200 as hoped. Still, its main value is perhaps nonfinancial.

“We didn’t want our biggest stakeholder to be our donors, or ourselves. We wanted something that holds us accountable to schools,” said Appleton. “It definitely has served that purpose.”

It meant having to “really listen” to head teachers’ needs when first exploring their willingness to pay for services. For example, the core leadership course targets 40 students, but schools wanted all students to benefit, so Educate! opened up other components, like the business clubs, to all students. Once up and running, monthly payment reports became a useful feedback mechanism; nonpayment can indicate dissatisfaction with the service.

As a social enterprise, Educate! is also “laser-focused on one problem,” according to external relations manager Elana Pollak, and therefore unwilling to design projects simply to meet donor specifications. For example, said Appleton, they would not work with out of school youth.

The organization expects to be largely donor-funded in the short and medium term, but ultimately becoming sustainable, they hope, by integrating the model into national education systems and adding a new revenue stream from advising governments on skills-based reforms.

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About the author

Headshot anna patton
Anna Patton

Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.

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