Give every child the benefit of early childhood development

Ilifa Labantwana

lifa Labantwana works towards a South Africa where everyone recognises their contribution to children reaching their full potential. We use our technical expertise and deep understanding of government alongside evidence, collaboration and advocacy to strengthen the early childhood development (ECD) ecosystem. We improve this ecosystem to enable all stakeholders to play a role in securing quality ECD services for children.

The disconnect

This explains why the project exists

South Africa’s current ECD ecosystem excludes 70% of the poorest children from quality early learning programmes, and as a result more than half of all children fail to thrive. Home visiting programmes only reach a very small portion of these poor children. South Africa is also missing out on the economic and development benefits that come from investing in the female-led care economy.

There are approximately 1.3 million children in South Africa aged 4–5 and most of them attend some type of early learning programme (ELP). However, data from a survey conducted in 2021 shows that half of  4–5 year olds attending early learning centres face barriers to thriving 1 Action brief Findings , while a further 16% will start Grade R at a significant disadvantage. For most poor children in South Africa, their experiences in the first five years of life have long-term implications for their education and employment prospects.


The majority of South Africans are stuck in an inequality trap with wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Most are stuck in intergenerational loops of exclusion with few chances to escape. Breaking this cycle requires a fundamental change in life trajectories, starting in the womb.

Think of a Möbius strip – just one twist in the circle allows you to trace a completely different pattern. Instead of being stuck on the inside of a loop, you emerge on the outside. In the same way, escaping the inequality trap requires a fundamental twist to set South Africa on a new path.

The twist in thinking

This explains how the project approaches problems

Ilifa Labantwana is motivated by global evidence that confirms investment in ECD develops individual potential and builds countries’ human capital, resulting in long-term economic growth, labour market productivity and public health savings. 2 De Lannoy, A., Mudiriza, G. (2019). A profile of young NEETs: Unpacking the heterogeneous nature of young people not in employment, education or training in South Africa. Cape Town: SALDRU, UCT. (SALDRU Working Paper No. 249).

Ilifa has seven strategic goals which are the foundation to achieve our vision for an equitable and prosperous South Africa that is built on quality ECD services for all children and a women-led care economy. These goals are:

  1. Mobilised sector and accountable government – Our government must realise the right to ECD. All children must be able to access the full essential package of quality ECD services and those who cannot afford to pay must be funded by the government. Our strategy is to generate knowledge and support advocacy to hold the government accountable for ECD.

  2. Effective, coordinated and collaborative government – National, provincial and municipal levels of government whose actions affect ECD must collaborate with civil society towards a joint goal of universal access to quality ECD. Our strategy is to build effective partnership models for civil society to work with the government to accelerate delivery and support the government’s capacity to plan and coordinate ECD.

  3. Inclusive regulatory environment – We need simpler, fairer and more inclusive regulations that recognise the value of informal early learning programme (ELP) provision and enable women who are starting up or running these ELPs to register with the government and access subsidies and oversight. An enabling environment with simplified norms and standards will encourage more women to become ELP providers and thereby increase the supply of ELPs. Our strategy is to build a more inclusive regulatory environment that enables the care economy to flourish.

  4. Data-driven planning and quality improvement – Every ELP provider in South Africa must be able to receive support if they need it to improve and maintain the quality of their service. For this to happen, they must be known and overseen by the government, with data being collected, captured and widely accessible and shared across the sector. Our strategy is to build data-led systems for planning, resourcing and quality support of ECD.

  5. Informed and supported caregivers – All caregivers in South Africa need easy access to useful information on supporting their children’s early development. Caregivers also need a thorough understanding of their rights to access ECD services for themselves and their children. Our strategy is to develop mass communication techniques and materials that inform and support caregivers through the Side-by-Side campaign.

  6. Effective delivery systems –The number of ELPs and practitioners in South Africa must increase so all children can attend one. In order to increase ELP supply quickly, we need systems to manage the recruitment of women into the sector and mechanisms that help them set up ELPs. Our strategy is to develop effective systems to expedite ECD service delivery.

  7. Increased budgets – The government should increase the budget allocation across ECD services and remove all barriers to access of funds for eligible children, caregivers and the workforce. Far too many are denied access to funding due to the informal provision of services. New sources of public funds should be directed to building the care economy by supporting women to start up ELPs. Our strategy is to position ECD as a key contributor to human capital to secure increased state funding.

The trajectory change

This explains what the project is doing to make a difference

We want to see 2.1 million children aged 0–5 accessing early learning programmes by 2027. One million of these children should be subsidised and 300 000 of the most vulnerable children aged 0–2 should benefit from home-visiting programmes.

Universal access to quality ECD services has direct benefits for caregivers and households through childcare, parenting programmes and income support for eligible households. Free or affordable and safe spaces in an ELP means that as many as 2.3 million caregivers, who are mostly women, have the opportunity to seek employment.

We want to enable 1.4 million female caregivers to participate in the labour market by 2027, due to the wider availability of childcare in low-resource communities. In addition, we want to play a role in creating opportunities for 300 000 women in the care sector by 2027.

If all children are developmentally on track by the time they start Grade R in terms of physical growth and early learning, their lifetime earnings potential is 25 to 40% higher. Bridging the service gaps for the poorest 60% of households is an opportunity to catalyse human capital formation by improving skills and working conditions, shifting the ECD workforce from unskilled to semi-skilled opportunities and setting a precedent for the acknowledgement and remuneration of care work.

Visit the Ilifa Labantwana website to learn more:

Trying to change life trajectories is ambitious and profound. It requires us to radically influence the lives of individuals and to be part of changing the circumstances in which they live.

Helpful Resources

Useful Links

Read more about why early childhood development is a key aspect of driving social change in South Africa here.

Read Ilifa Labantwana’s Five-Year Strategy 2023-2027 here.

Explore Ilifa Labantwana’s Story of Change here.

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