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on a positive impact

World Children’s Day 2018: A new perspective on early childhood development

By Sabine Scheppe, 2018 J&J Secondee

This year, I’ll be seeing World Children’s Day through new eyes.

When I first learned that Johnson & Johnson (J&J) would enable me to serve a six month Secondment at the Madrasa Early Childhood Development Programme (MECP), supported by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and a partner of the J&J Global Community Impact team in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, I knew I had to go. As a mother of two twin girls of my own, I felt compelled to pack my bags and make the journey from Germany to Zanzibar to support the development of young children.

Pemba, part of the Zanzibar archipelago, is lush and green. Across the island landscape, you’ll come across women working outside, dressed in their colourful kangas dotting the hillside, accompanied by their young children. For first-time visitors this beautiful paradise can obscurethe fact that 55 percent of the population lives in poverty. In a country where nearly two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25, a strong start to life is key to overcoming this. Ensuring a child’s optimal health and development during this time is crucial to their ability to think, form relationships, and live to their fullest potential.  

Many barriers, however, stand in the way. Access to important screenings during pregnancy and the first years of life is sparse, nutrition is not always balanced, and parents often do not have the tools or the time to help their young children develop language or social skills. Early education is critically important, and in 2006, pre-primary school was made compulsory Zanzibar in an attempt to minimize the gaps in pre-school education that result in high dropout rates later in primary school. Nonetheless, preschools remain sparse and in rural areas with no transport available, especially difficult to get to.

Expanding the Network of Early Childhood Care

Committed to changing the odds, since the early nineties, MECP has supported 81 communities across Zanzibar (31 in Pemba) to establish and sustain their own community preschools. This has been achieved by:

  • Providing teacher professional development
  • Developing a contextually relevant, age-appropriate, play-based curriculum
  • Supporting teachers to develop inclusive and conducive classrooms, particularly with low-cost teaching and learning materials
  • Providing school management with the knowledge and skills to manage their preschools effectively
  • Ensuring community and parental ownership and active engagement

The impact of MECP’s work can be felt across Zanzibar, Kenya, and Uganda, where 70 percent of young children now have access to preprimary school thanks to a network of 300+ newly established community preschools and support to an additional 1,000+ existing schools over the years.

MECP also works with community health centers to provide families with critical health and wellness education. By training community health workers to make regular home visits during a mother’s pregnancy and baby’s first several years of life in order to encourage positive relationships and early stimulation,MECP is steadily building awareness of the importance of a healthy and active start to life.Parents whose young children have participated in the program have told me they can see how the sessions affect the trajectory of their children’s life.

Evolving to Increase Access to Early Childhood Care

Recognized across East Africa as a major contributor to early childhood development (ECD), MECP continuously strives to evolve and find new ways to best support young children and their families. For example, MECP is exploring initiatives that enable young children of working mothers to receive care through low-cost babycares or through partnerships with major corporations to establish a day care centers in the workplace. In addition, MECP supports frontline workers to establish ECD services (e.g., babycares and preschools) as a means of income and to increase access to care in their communities.

MECP is also looking at how it can increase impact and influence at scale by possibly transitioning to becoming a social enterprise. Over the last six months, I have had the privilege of using my experience in market research, business development, and marketing to help MECP get a deeper understanding of their opportunities in order to develop a business strategy that supports these new shifts.Conducting interviews with internal staff, external partners, and community members, I’ve learned a lot about how different MECP stakeholders view the organization and perceive its value. My findings will inform an eight-month process, also supported by J&J, that will enable MECP to reflect on their current positioning and determine the best way forward to improve access and quality of ECD across East Africa, and beyond.

As a J&J Secondee, I’m proud to have played a small role in supporting MECP to advance its mission, but I know that my work does not end in Zanzibar with my Secondment. As I prepare to come home, I am committed to building awareness around my experience and the impact of ECD. These programs are so important not only because they dramatically impact the lives of children in vulnerable communities, but because they have the potential to reshape entire communities by enabling each individual to reach their fullest potential and leave their mark on the world.

About the Johnson & Johnson Global Community Impact Secondment Program

Johnson & Johnson Global Community Impact invests in people on the front lines of care as they change the trajectory of health for the world’s most vulnerable people, their families, and their communities. We are inspired to help create a world where people, no matter their circumstances, have access to quality health care. The Secondment Program is a long-term collaboration between Johnson & Johnson, our employees, and our NGO partners to invest in and build the skills of people on the front lines of care in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Through full-time field assignments of up to six months, our employees transfer their knowledge, expertise, and passion to our partners at the heart of delivering care, uniquely give back to society, and change the trajectory of human health. Learn more here.

About the Aga Khan Foundation:

For nearly 50 years, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) has partnered with communities, governments and local leaders to harness the best from people from all backgrounds to improve quality of life. AKF is a member of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), one of the world’s leading poverty solutions networks. The AKDN’s integrated approach makes long-term investments, builds permanent institutions and cultivates an active civil society, impacting tens of millions of people annually in 30 countries.

About the Madrasa Early Childhood Programme:

The Madrasa Early Childhood Programme (MECP) supports the provision of quality early childhood care, development and education for children aged 0-8 years in East Africa. MECP belongs to the Aga Khan Development Network and is supported by the Aga Khan Foundation.

About the J&J and AKDN Partnership

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is a partner of Johnson & Johnson Global Community Impact (GCI) EMEA since 2001, working on a number of innovative programs and initiatives aimed to improve the quality of life of communities. Together, the AKDN and J&J GCI EMEA are working to support early childhood development programs to provide children with the best start in life and to ensure that children and young people are equipped with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to help them interact effectively with their world and be contributing members of society so that they can fulfil their potential. Read more about the partnership here.