Give every child the benefit of early childhood development


SmartStart is an early learning social franchise that aims to expand access to quality early childhood development in South Africa, focused mainly on children between the ages of 3–4 years old. SmartStart is a national social franchise with trained and licensed practitioners who implement high-quality, standardised early learning programmes in low-resource communities. It expands access to quality early learning in communities across South Africa.

SmartStarter in training, Noluvuyo Wesi, attending a SmartStart training session in Duncan Village in the Eastern Cape (May, 2018).

The disconnect

This explains why the project exists

Far too many young children in South Africa miss out on early learning opportunities that develop their cognitive, emotional, social and physical potential. While quality early childhood education programs are a proven vehicle for academic success and economic mobility, nations that do not already have a nationally supported early childhood system struggle to find ways to move from the status quo to a scalable, replicable, evidence-based program.

In South Africa, 80% of lower-income households do not have access to any form of early learning for their children under the age of five.

The lack of early learning opportunities for these children prevents them from starting school with the foundational skills and knowledge required to realise their potential. As a consequence, millions of children start school behind and never catch up – perpetuating cycles of social and economic exclusion. 

Several public systems are required to enable and regulate a high-quality supply of early childhood development (ECD) programmes, including financing, curriculum, qualifications and health and safety requirements. Unfortunately, these systems do not grow capacity towards universal access, nor do they ensure quality and regulatory compliance. 

SmartStart has identified this as an ‘implementation gap’. This conceptualisation of an implementation gap focuses attention on the ingredients of system capacity, including a practitioner pipeline, sufficient venues and architecture for managed programme set-up and support. These elements can be provided by an end-to-end delivery system that organises a value chain of administrative and operational solutions into an integrated platform.


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

SmartStart’s social franchise model is designed to address the implementation gap in early learning and promote employment opportunities for a women-led care economy. The social franchise model seeks to develop a population-based approach in which quality early learning is not just delivered through registered ECD centres but also delivered in homes and other community-based settings. 

Through its network, SmartStart trains and recruits early learning practitioners to run their own programmes. In so doing, it not only allows for the delivery of a defined, quality daily routine for young children, but it also empowers franchisees to support themselves as micro-entrepreneurs while developing a large cohort of ECD practitioners who can be upskilled for a national ECD service delivery system in future.

In this way, SmartStart is focused on driving female economic empowerment by training women to become early learning practitioners in their respective areas. This stimulates job creation and increases access to early learning in our most vulnerable communities.

According to the Women’s Report published in 2021, ECD services are provided by predominantly non-profit organisations, subsistence entrepreneurs, or social micro-enterprises.

The trajectory change

This explains what the project is doing to make a difference

In the South African context, addressing the lack of quality early learning programmes in low-resource communities requires an approach that is both cost-effective and accessible. SmartStart provides a new mechanism for rapidly scaling access to quality early learning, while simultaneously improving the quality of services that already exist.

SmartStart is simultaneously pursuing two bold goals: 1) strong early learning outcomes for poor young children across South Africa; 2) and sustainable livelihoods for women in the informal care economy. 

In pursuit of the first goal, SmartStart has developed a unique social franchise model, using coaches and clubs to recruit and equip mainly poor, black women with training, curriculum and learning tools to deliver SmartStart’s evidence-based early learning programming. The success of this model is driven by supporting home-based provisioning which allows SmartStart to place resources where they are needed most – developing a high-quality curriculum and training more people to become social entrepreneurs in the early learning sector. Children who attend SmartStart programs see dramatic improvements in Early Learning Outcome Measures (increases from 32%–62%) and are prepared for further learning and schooling. 

In pursuit of the second goal, SmartStart’s Early Learning Practitioners – typically underemployed or unemployed South African women – gain both critical ECD training as well as the know-how to access government funding and support as micro-entrepreneurs. Since 2015, SmartStart operates in all nine provinces across South Africa and has built a network of over 9 000 practitioners to fill the early learning gap. 

Visit the SmartStart 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.

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