After six months learning about agriculture in West Africa and working on a project whose objective was to improve the private sector, I decided to return to the private sector, since the public sector was not very good at making it any better. I had interviewed with the Acumen Fund for its global fellowship in Nairobi six months prior. I knew a few folks through my Kiva connections, and began networking for jobs there. I cold-emailed a few, hit up friends for introductions, and stumbled into an informational interview with Jay, the founder of Bridge International Academies, through a former Kiva Fellow in Benin. When I told him I was trying to move to Kenya four months later, he said “let’s meet when you get here.”
So, when I got there – actually, 10 hours after I got there – I met with him to discuss the prospect of me working with the company. The company, as a background, is a chain of low-cost private primary schools serving the slums and low-income communities in Kenya. When I met him in January, they had just opened their 20th school. When I met him again in May, they were at 25 schools. When I left two weeks ago, Bridge had 75 schools throughout Kenya, and is planning on opening another 200 by the end of 2013.
The model is as simple as it is elegant. Bridge is creating a “school in a box” – a highly standardized, systematized, and replicable model for an individual school, where everything, from the curriculum to the training to the school operations, is designed for scale. The process begins with market due diligence, where a team of research associates interview 40 households in each community where we are considering opening a school. We survey the parents to determine whether there is a market for one of our schools. For the last four months, I worked with the research team, developing an algorithm to predict the size and profitability of each new school, allowing us to determine how much we need to pay for land, how many classrooms we need to build, etc. I redesigned our research report and, using our enrollment figures from this year, created a rubric based on population density, market size, cost-competitiveness, and the number of competing schools, which gives us a fairly accurate projection of how a school in that community will do.
Once we have approved a community, we scout for suitable plots and negotiate for the land. Our construction team builds the school, and our training department ensures that teachers are trained and ready to teach by the time our school opens. The curriculum team – which consists of 40 Kenyan and American educators – script every minute of every lesson, from math to English to science to Kiswahili, which is then delivered to the students by the teachers. The incentive structure for school managers is based on the number of students they attract to their school, while the teachers are given bonuses based on performance. All problems at the school – from teacher complaints to requests for water or desks – are routed through an in-house call center, which also makes outgoing calls to schools and teachers to ensure that the ship is running smoothly. Lastly, the IT department has designed a billing system that allows parents to pay with M-PESA, and a school-management Android smart-phone application that automates much of the payment and performance monitoring at the school level. All in all, it is a remarkable model.
In the next post I will discuss why I think Bridge has been so successful.
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