The following is part two of a five-part post about education in development and Bridge International Academies.

I think that one of the reasons that Bridge has been so successful at innovating has been its willingness to bring in a multidisciplinary team to run the show.  People like me, who have no background in education, but a good deal of experience in other areas, bring fresh ideas to an industry that, apart from certain ed-tech companies and charter schools like KIPP, is not known for innovation.  Our head of operations was the former director of business development for Dominoes Pizza in Asia, responsible for introducing the retail chain to a completely new market.  The founders include one successful tech entrepreneur, a division lead at IDEO, the design firm, and an anthropology PhD.  It doesn’t get much more interdisciplinary than that.

Another reason I think it has seen success where others like it have seen failure is that it refuses to accept excuses for poor performance on the part of its employees and vendors, and sees itself first and foremost as service provider that puts its customer first.  As a generality, business in Africa moves more slowly.  The business culture – with many notable exceptions – is such that the customer is never at the top of the priority list.  The other day, a coworker told me that one of the vendors we had been working with – to whom we paid a lot of money to perform a service which he performed poorly – was upset that the management was too busy to see him.  “This is an outrage – I am a client,” he said.  The fact that we were, in fact, the client and he the service provider undoubtedly never crossed his mind.

Bridge demands quality from it suppliers, timeliness from its vendors, and results from its employees.  This mentality ensures that the best people for the job are in place, and they can perform their jobs efficiently.  In the NGO world (or at least the ones I have seen), this approach to doing business is hardly, if ever, the norm.   If a deadline is missed, people say “what can we do – it’s Africa time.” Or an NGO holds a conference that only attracts participants for the per diems and lunch provided.  Accountability is not part of the lexicon.  At Bridge, on the other hand, if a vendor screws up the logo on the 1,000 shirts it ordered, it refuses to pay until the mistake is corrected.  It’s only business.

That is because Bridge, above all else, is a business.  It happens to be building low-cost primary schools in slums, but it is first and foremost a profit-oriented enterprise.  If Bridge is going to reach 1,000 schools and one million children in countries around the world, it has to be laser-focused on the bottom-line to succeed.  Drawing from a talented pool of private sector veterans and a founder who started and sold a company in his twenties, Bridge understands this well.

This kind of truly business-minded approach to development is rare, even within the relatively new and trendy industry calling itself “social enterprise.” While many social enterprises – companies that try to turn a profit while doing good – struggle to balance the demands of a double bottom-line, Bridge has create a model where the profit motive is inseparable from the social mission – one cannot exist without the other.  If Bridge students perform poorly on the KCPE exam – the test culminating primary education in Kenya – parents will pull their kids from Bridge schools en masse.  On the other hand, if they perform better than students at other schools, Bridge schools will double in size in a day.

That is because poor parents, just like middle- and upper-income parents, are discerning consumers when it comes to education.  They look for quality and, more importantly, value for the little money they have.  This is generally true for most products and services, but particularly so for education, which parents see as a means of getting out of the slums.  For Bridge to grow, it must be educating its students better than the alternatives in the community – either government schools or other non-formal schools.  In this case, it means ensuring that we outperform other schools – both government and other non-formal schools.

In the next post, I will explain the public education system and the origins of non-formal schools. If you have questions, feel free to email me at josh@developeconomies.com.

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