A social franchise expanding access to quality early learning in South Africa, for children aged 3 and 4 years old

In South Africa only 40% of 3-4 year olds attend early learning programmes, and when they do, the quality of these programmes is often poor.
SmartStart provides a new mechanism for rapidly scaling up access to quality early learning, while simultaneously improving the quality of services that already exist.



In South Africa only 40% of 3-4 year olds attend early learning programmes, and when they do, the quality of these programmes is often poor.

SmartStart provides a new mechanism for rapidly scaling up access to quality early learning, while simultaneously improving the quality of services that already exist.


SmartStart is an early learning social franchise that aims to expand access to quality early childhood development in South Africa, focused mainly on the poorest 40% of children between the ages of 3-4 years old.

The SmartStart social franchise model creates the mechanism for scaling up a structured programme of quality early learning (through standardised materials, training, support and monitoring), whilst packaging and designing a brand that will appeal to and connect with both caregivers and SmartStarters (practitioners) alike.

Read more: One giant leap: New early learning initiative for age 0-4 offers education hope, by Marianne Thamm.
First published by the Daily Maverick, 22 May 2015.

SmartStarter Nyameka Maqham facilitates a session in a converted container/play centre in Keiskammahoek in the Eastern Cape, May 2018.


Only half of South African 3 and 4 year olds participate in any early learning programme, and only half of these children attend programmes of sufficient quality[1]Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (2012). National Diagnostic Review of Early Childhood Development. (see,[2]Hall, K., Sambu, W., Berry L., Giese, S., and Almeleh, C. (2017). South African Early Childhood Review 2017. Cape Town: Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town and Ilifa Labantwana.. This is because many parents/caregivers cannot afford to pay for ECD programmes; there are very few quality programmes available for poor children; and/or because parents and communities are not aware of the importance of early learning.

Recognising that in terms of policy, the commitment to early childhood development (ECD) is there, but not the mechanism to deliver it at scale, SmartStart was created in 2015 to significantly increase access to early learning for South Africa’s children.

To achieve universal access to quality ECD services, some crucial shifts in our national system are needed. One of these is to move from solely providing subsidies to registered ECD centres to a population-based approach in which quality early learning is also delivered in home or community-based settings. At present, registered centres are rolled out at slow pace because of the long lead-in times of new infrastructure projects or because of the acute land shortages in many poorer communities.

Read more: Ekukhanyeni Relief Project. 2013. How to develop a crèche in a poor and marginalised area.
A learning brief published by DGMT.

A national, branded, quality early learning programme has been a cornerstone of all successful approaches to scaling early learning across the world. As a social franchise, SmartStart enables the delivery of affordable, quality and standardised early learning opportunities for children currently not benefiting from these programmes.

“Social franchising is being used the world over as a game-changing strategy for getting essential services to people at scale.” – Justine Jowell, Programme Design and Development Lead, SmartStart

Read more:

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

What does 1 million mean to you?’ – a short video by SmartStart about the importance and possibility of investing in the one million 3 and 4 year olds missing out on quality early learning outside of the home each year.


SmartStart’s strategy is defined by three key elements:

1. The Franchise and Club Structure

SmartStart has established a three-tiered operational and implementation structure, namely:

  1. The SmartStart Hub;
  2. SmartStart franchisors; and
  3. Franchisees (SmartStarters).

SmartStart’s social franchising model comprises of the Hub (or central office) team that works directly with franchisors (or implementing partners), club coaches and club leaders, as well as the SmartStarters (franchisees) who run their own SmartStart early learning micro-enterprises.

While the SmartStart ‘Hub’ manages the overall programme, the quality support and assurance process is managed through a network of ‘clubs’ and ‘club coaches’ that compete in a quality ‘League’. This model of distributed management (through the franchisors), with network activation and support (through the clubs) ensures that franchisees (SmartStarters) are supported and empowered to work self-sufficiently, and that communities are mobilised to rally around early learning.

SmartStart National Franchiser Diagram

More about the different roles:

Franchisors include some of the most established ECD and development organisations in South Africa, which allows SmartStart to operate throughout the country and reach children in some of the most outlying and impoverished communities. Franchisors are tasked with building relationships with local governments, ward leaders, ECD centres and communities – increasing both the awareness and support of early learning in their areas. Working with regional franchisors ensures rapid scale-up, local adaptability and response, as well as cost efficiency.

Franchisees are typically unemployed people in communities who are screened and trained to run their own SmartStart programmes. To become a SmartStarter, a practitioner must sign up to and implement the SmartStart method and practice. SmartStart first assesses and trains them, then provides them with the basic SmartStart play kit, and incentivises them with a basic income (which is more like a stipend for a work opportunity) by accessing available government subsidies and grants[3]Some SmartStarters may also receive modest fees from families of the children participating in their programmes.. A practitioner is only licensed to become a SmartStarter if she or he meets SmartStart standards. And in order to maintain their licence, SmartStarters must continue to meet certain standards, including regular child attendance and positive feedback from parents, each year.

While SmartStart targets mainly new early learning facilitators – aiming to ensure that 70% of those recruited and trained are not currently running centre-based programmes, in keeping with its mandate to increase access to quality learning for children who aren’t currently in an ECD programme – it also trains and licenses existing day mothers and ECD centres to become licensed SmartStart franchisees.

SmartStart club leaders and coaches: SmartStarters become members of a SmartStart club – a local network of 10-16 SmartStarters, where members can share practice or ask for help and support to ensure the continued growth and quality of their programmes. Each SmartStart club is overseen by a club coach, who serves as a critical link between the Hub team, franchisor and franchisee, and monitors the progress of each SmartStarter. Through club activities and one-on-one engagements, club coaches inspire, educate and motivate franchisees in their journeys as SmartStarters; and support them to advocate and promote the value of early learning in their communities.

“That’s the beauty of a social franchise… What we’ve got is a curriculum that’s been broken down into a routine. If you follow the practice, you will get the quality.”
– Grace Matlhape, SmartStart CEO

2. The SmartStart Journey and Quality Assurance Processes

Through a rigorous process, SmartStart is able to preserve the high quality replication of the programme, maintain close oversight of franchisees, and nurture communities of practice for their continuous improvement. Besides having developed an early learning practice “in a box”, SmartStart has developed a process of onboarding that enables the franchisee to receive support.

The SmartStart journey begins with a Matching Day, where aspiring SmartStarters are invited to complete a basic assessment to determine eligibility. If eligible, this is followed by a five-day in-depth pre-service training session that includes formative assessments. After passing the assessment, the SmartStarter receives a Starter Licence. They are assigned to a club coach at a consolidation meeting, where the coach outlines the next steps for the SmartStarter to become eligible for receiving a SmartSpace Licence.

The process is followed by a first-aid training session, after which a SmartStarter can begin running a SmartStart programme. They become a member of a community of practice by joining a club. A coach will then visit the SmartStarter to conduct a Programme Quality Assurance (PQA) observation. If the PQA is successful, the SmartStarter can receive a Practice Licence, suggesting that the SmartStarter practices the SmartStart programme satisfactorily. Once licensed, the new SmartStarter running bi-weekly playgroup sessions will receive regular coaching sessions in their first year in addition to the observation.

After six months of practising, the SmartStarter is invited to attend a child progress training session. Moreover, the SmartStarter attends quarterly coaching sessions to strengthen the entrepreneurial aspects of running a playgroup. They are then invited to join the SmartStart League of Stars competition, which recognises excellence among SmartStarters. After running the SmartStart programme for a year, the franchisee is invited to attend an annual day-long refresher workshop. Thereafter, they receive annual accreditation visits in the second year if they maintain fidelity to the SmartStart programme.

The SmartStart Journey Diagram

3. SmartStarter Growth Plans

One of SmartStart’s main public partnerships is with the DCoG (Department of Cooperative Governance). It involves work with the Community Works Programme (CWP) and Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) to provide work opportunities for participants in identified underprivileged wards. SmartStart partners with local implementors to match up interested participants with a stipend, and with the opportunity, after training, to engage in more meaningful, potentially career/small business-building work establishing an early learning programme for children.

Providing employment and opening up a clear career pathway are two central parts of SmartStart’s value proposition to the franchisee. In their first year of licensing, a combination of a ‘start-up grant’ and fees comprise a SmartStarter’s total income. Ideally in the second year, after the SmartStarter has received support to embark on the Department of Social Development (DSD) registration process, a combination of the DSD subsidy, fees as well as incubator support and corporate support for soft furnishings, will comprise their total income.

SmartStart has been successful in accessing a wide range of ‘start-up’ grants for SmartStarters – from the Public Works Programmes, micro-enterprise incubators, and other public financing. A major breakthrough in 2018 has been the registration of 240 SmartStarters to receive the DSD subsidy.

Read more:

  • Learn more about the SmartStart programme, daily routine and playkit, as well as the journey to becoming a SmartStarter here.
  • WATCH: ‘CWP bringing SmartStart early learning playgroups to life in KZN’. This video shows how the government’s Community Work Programme can bring early learning services to children living in the remotest parts of South Africa, through effective public-private partnerships.

SmartStarters are supported by a network of coaches, whose role is to support them in not only setting up their programmes, but also to provide ongoing guidance and input through SmartStart’s Programme Quality Assurance (PQA) process. In this image, SmartStart club network activator, Nthabi Mofokeng, is seen visiting a SmartStart Centre in Duncan Village in the Eastern Cape (May, 2018).

The 5 Pillars of SmartStart’s Early Learning Programme:

The SmartStart programme provides practitioners with a daily routine and SmartStart PlayKit that promotes free play in a language-rich environment, and that encourages interactive storytelling and the development of self-regulation. Based on research and experience from around the world, SmartStart has identified the following five features of successful early learning upon which its programme is based:

1  NURTURE: SmartStart practitioners surround children with care and attention. When young children feel safe and loved, it helps their brains to grow in the way they should. When children are made to feel that their needs and ideas matter, their self-belief soars. Children who feel good about themselves love to try things out, are less afraid of making mistakes, work well with others and take on problems – all signs of a good learner.
2  TALK: SmartStart practitioners interact tirelessly with children. Young children need language to communicate and learn, and later on, to become successful readers and writers. Everyday talk is one of the most effective ways of boosting early language.
3  PLAY: SmartStart practitioners create abundant opportunities for child-centered play. Play is one of the most powerful catalysts of early learning. It is also something that children do naturally and is therefore important in its own right.
4 STORIES: SmartStart practitioners lead special story-times, full of conversation. Whether make-believe or real-life, stories are an endless source of wonder and enjoyment for children. Story-time may involve books or drama or neither, but in SmartStart groups it always involves lots of conversation. This kind of interactive storytelling is particularly valuable because it encourages important thinking and language skills.
5 PARENT INVOLVEMENT: SmartStart practitioners build strong partnerships with parents and caregivers. Parents are children’s first and most important teachers. Valuing parents’ capability and ingenuity, SmartStart practitioners encourage parents to recognise and appreciate what they already know. At the same time, information-sharing and workshops motivate parents to reflect on what else they can do to support their children’s early learning experiences.

To read more about the SmartStart programme, PlayKit and Daily Routine, click here

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


Since its launch in 2015, SmartStart has trained over 3 500 people to fill the gap in early learning service provision – to the benefit of over 40 000 children across South Africa. In 2018, SmartStart was joined by four new franchisors – all highly respected and recognised organisations in the early learning sector – expanding its network to a total of ten franchisors operating in seven different provinces. 2018 also marked the end of SmartStart’s three-year incubation phase – a period in which the initiative successfully established its model, tested its programme on the ground, built strong partnerships and refined the systems that support delivery at each level of the franchise. With this groundwork in place, SmartStart has now entered a second phase of rapid and sustainable scale to reach its target of 1 million children by 2025.

“Our social franchise model is enabling us to activate a new generation of independent early learning facilitators, bringing early learning opportunities to communities that previously had none, while upskilling unemployed women and men and creating thousands of micro-enterprises.” – Justine Jowell, Programme Design and Development Lead, SmartStart

In addition to its work on the ground, SmartStart has also developed an extensive programme of advocacy at the national and provincial levels. Working with partners, it has completed a comprehensive review of the legal and funding frameworks for ECD, and has identified key barriers to fair access for poor children.

In 2018, SmartStart also conducted a number of case studies examining some of the approaches being used by different provinces to draw more ECD programmes into the registration and funding nets, and has developed detailed draft amendments to the Children’s Act, with the goal of creating a more enabling legislative environment that better reflects the diverse contexts in which ECD programmes are provided. This analytical work has enabled SmartStart to offer government practical and inclusive solutions for registering and funding home and community-based ECD programmes. If adopted, these solutions will help the types of ECD programmes that are frequently accessed by vulnerable families to grow and improve – ensuring more poor children have access to the high-quality learning opportunities that they deserve.

“Starting with the poorest of South Africa’s children, we’re breaking the ceiling of social inequality to ensure that poor does not translate into poor quality.”
– Grace Matlhape, SmartStart CEO

Finally, while SmartStart’s educational programme is evidence-based and anecdotal evidence about participation in the programme has been positive, its impact on child outcomes has yet to be scientifically proven. As such, SmartStart has contracted an external evaluation team to conduct an evaluation of child developmental outcomes following participation in the SmartStart programme. The findings will be released in 2019.

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