/ 23 May 2024

Early learning is essential to economic development

Research shows that pupils with sufficient exposure to early childhood development programmes have better attainment levels and cognitive abilities.
Despite the urgent need to scale early learning provisioning to ensure universal access for all children, South Africa’s restrictive regulatory environment and inadequate public funding constrict the availability of this service.

As the elections draw near, conversations about our country’s most pressing issues have intensified. Top among these is how we address the staggering unemployment rate.

Many people — predominantly women — have sought alternative pathways to securing livelihoods. Recognising the pressing need for accessible childcare services in their neighbourhoods, these women are earning a living while also offering an invaluable service. They have achieved this by establishing early learning enterprises. 

Although these enterprises fall within the purview of the department of basic education from a child development lens, the government should recognise their potential as vehicles for job creation.

But other departments such as that of small business development and trade, industry and competition, along with the broader economic cluster have, perhaps unwittingly, overlooked these businesses as viable micro-enterprises that offer opportunities, especially for women. The sector therefore remains sidelined in the current entrepreneurial landscape.

The story of *Gladys Khumalo, 37, illustrates how her early learning enterprise not only created employment opportunities for herself and other women, but also made a positive contribution to children’s development in her neighbourhood. After the death of her husband, the family’s primary breadwinner, Gladys found herself faced with the daunting task of having to provide for her two-year-old son alone. She embarked on the journey of running her own childcare business.

Gladys runs her business from a house in Chiawelo, Soweto. She started with just two children in 2019. By 2020, prior to the declaration of the national state of disaster brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, she had four children in her care. Amid the globally escalating pandemic, Gladys, like many others, had to close her business. In 2021, she began operating again, and the number of children increased to six. Through word-of-mouth, her business has experienced steady growth. Gladys now nurtures and cares for 18 children. 

Reflecting on South Africa’s education landscape, Gladys laments that children start their schooling without a solid foundation. “There are so many children right now that cannot afford to go to an ECD [early childhood development]. They are at home. They are waiting for grade R, at school. They go to grade R and have already missed steps. ECD starts them somewhere. They are cutting, they colour, they learn shapes, phonics and all these things. A child goes and starts grade R or even grade one, and while others are somewhere, because they have the foundation, this child doesn’t know anything. They feel left out and as time goes by, they drop out of school.”

Triple effect vs triple threat

Despite the government’s increasing awareness of the pivotal role played by early learning in unlocking the full potential of children, there remains a notable gap in leveraging this sector for the economic opportunity it presents for women — both those who operate these micro-enterprises and those who use them.

In South Africa, as in every other country in the world, the burden of childcare falls primarily on women. Data from the 2022 national census shows that about 50% of households in South Africa are headed by women, with this figure rising to 53% in some rural areas. Yet it is women — particularly black women — and young people who are disproportionately affected by joblessness. The Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) reports that in the first quarter of 2024, the national unemployment figure stood at about 33%. Notably, the unemployment rate among black African women was at about 39%, surpassing both the national average and that of other population groups.

Given these alarming figures, the role played by early learning enterprises becomes crucial as these can enable women to participate in the workforce by driving both job creation and parental employment. Gladys’s decision to establish her own business demonstrates her entrepreneurial spirit and confronts the problem of unemployment among young black women.

Her early learning enterprise has not only enabled her to operate her own business but has also led her to become an employer. Gladys began caring for children in her own home, a space she describes as “small”. As her business began to expand, she recognised the need for more room. She approached a friend and asked to use her (larger) home to accommodate the children.

Because her friend had experience working with children and was unemployed, Gladys asked if she would be interested in assisting her with the business. Her friend was then hired to take care of the younger group of children while Gladys looked after those aged three to five. Gladys currently has a staff of three assisting her to run her business and ensuring a somewhat steady income for this group of people.

The curious case of South Africa

Despite the urgent need to scale early learning provisioning to ensure universal access for all children, South Africa’s restrictive regulatory environment and inadequate public funding constrict the availability of this service. Gladys, for example, has faced significant problems in her attempts to register her business, having to navigate through expensive and unrealistic municipal compliance requirements. Without registration, she is unable to access the meagre and inconsistently disbursed R17 per child a day subsidy from the government. 

To increase women’s labour force participation and improve access to early learning in Mexico, the government implemented a programme known as the Federal Day-Care Programme for Working Mothers. The programme supported quasi-market early learning services by offering incentives to providers and subsidies to eligible parents. Women or groups interested in starting home or community-based childcare services could apply for government funding to cover start-up costs such as converting a space in their home and purchasing materials. In addition, eligible parents could apply for a state subsidy to enrol their children into childcare (paid directly to the early learning operator), provided they met certain criteria such as earning below a certain threshold and being employed, studying or actively seeking employment).

Within one year of its inception, the programme reached more than 200 000 children and grew steadily, becoming the single most important provider of childcare in Mexico. Mothers who benefited from the programme were 18% more likely to be employed. But this programme was recently modified to provide cash transfers to families and not directly to service providers. These changes have reportedly had a negative effect on the provision of early learning and women’s economic empowerment.

Like Mexico, South Africa’s child care landscape is made up of private providers, many of whom are micro-social entrepreneurs in a largely informal sector. Unlike Mexico, these providers have not had access to consistent and much-needed state support in the form of a subsidy to start up and sustain their businesses. 

The need for support 

To leverage the many benefits of early learning -— including inclusive economic growth, job creation and improved learning outcomes for children — the South African government must prioritise investment in this service. 

Thankfully, the basic eduction department’s recently published 2030 Strategy for Early Childhood Development Programmes acknowledges the sector’s vital role in South Africa’s economy and that this, “has the potential to unlock new jobs and micro-social enterprise development. It is estimated that around 300 000 new jobs can be created in the ECD sector.” President Cyril Ramaphosa noted in his 2022 State of the Nation address that the ECD sector does not only provide vital services, but also creates jobs. 

Therefore, it is crucial for the economic cluster of government and entities such as the Small Enterprise Finance Agency and National Empowerment Fund to recognise childcare provisioning as a legitimate and viable micro-social enterprise opportunity deserving of funding and support. These initiatives are one of the levers we need to enable women’s participation in the workforce and to foster a more inclusive and economically resilient society.

*Not her real name.

Grace Matlhape is the chief executive of SmartStart, an nonprofit organisation established in 2015 to close the gap in access to quality early learning for all children. 

Hopolang Selebalo is the advocacy lead at SmartStart.