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Bridges Academy: reinventing education in Kenya – a response to Friedman

Josh Friedman correctly notes that Kenya needs new ideas for education in Kenya in his  PopTech blog article titled Reinventing Education in Kenya, he writes

“A new venture called Bridge International Academies is reinventing the model for education in Kenya by taking a page from franchise-based corporations”.

As a Kenyan I read this article thinking it would be a mind shift, something innovative, different, exciting. But all I felt was my temperature rising. What the Bridge Academy is doing is not really new, but sounds actually like more of the same – hundreds of NGO’s, companies, churches, mosques and other groups are already in the business of low cost schooling for poor Kenyans.

Friedman touts the Bridges System as new and innovative, and the answer to the crisis facing Kenya’s education system.

To avert corruption payments are made through M-Pesa or to a bank – nothing new there I can tell you. Visiting Lamu last weekend, every mosque school had such a system in place. Many schools around the country do.

The school is affordable for  parents – yes but so are all cheap schools in christian missions, churches, mosques, companies.

The school system comes in a box – well that’s only about administration, the curriculum is the national curriculum – nothing new about education there.

It’s not free therefore it’ll give a better education – what?

First, the idea of free primary school education is not a bad idea.  Friedman suggests it has led to “doubtful education results”. I’m sorry but I don’t agree. For the first time in history, every Kenyan child was in school. If results were so doubtful then why are Kenyan parents up in arms about the fraud by the Ministry and withdrawal of donor funding? Because their kids will lose out on education. A massive burden was lifted from parents and while it wasn’t always perfect, every single child had a place, even a 96 year old Mzee Kimani enrolled in class 1. Free education in Kenya gave many of us  me hope. Read this blog post called “Age is nothing but a number” by By Elijah Dianga, Student,  Kisumu Day High School In Kenya and you will undestand why.

Mzee Kimani was able to go to school because it was free.  He said “I have waited more than 80 years to go to school. Then, last year, Kenya introduced free primary education and I knew it was my only chance. At first, the school refused. But once I decided to come, no one was going to stop me.”

The Bridges Academy will not replace free schools. It will however compete with other cheap schools which are also a great idea for Kenyan familes, but it won’t help those that need free education. There are millions of Kenyans who will not afford even the low prices at the Bridges Academies, especially where the average family comprises 4 – 6 children, often plus orphaned relatives.

What gets me about Friedmans article is that he suggests that the fraud in the Kenyan education system is the reason why we need to reinvent education in Kenya by creating cheap schools. I disagree. First it was not the concept of free education that was a bad idea, it was the way that the funding was handled that was a bad idea. And the international donors (UK, USA, Sweden and others) only paid for 5% of the total free education budget.

That  the funding for free education has been abused is hardly surprising.  This is Kenya after all, the land of impunity. I hate it to the core and I would never put money into a corrupt institution. Only an idiot would because it’s  like pouring water into a bucket full of holes. So, what on earth were the donors thinking when they poured money into an already corrupt school system? Why did they do this instead of reforming the education sector? If you ask me, they actually sabotaged their own work, and they must have known this from the get go. With due respect for Michael Rannenberger, he has not always stood up for doing things the right way and American money for the education program was not improving education but building classrooms probably because they look good and you can plant a whopping huge sign outside to remind everyone that USA built this. Go to Manda Island in Lamu where you’d have to be blind to miss the sign about he US funded rehabilitation of Manda Island school as you leave the airport…it’s got less to do with need, and everything to do with trying to look good in a place where the presence of an American Marine base is not all that welcome …(no such thing as a free lunch).

According to Friedman, one of the innovations of the Bridges Schools is that they are low cost, and yet they are still “for profit”.

Ok, lets look at the math. It costs 295 Kenyan shillings a month to send a child to a Bridge school. Thats around $4. Sounds like nothing! The school in the article has an enrollment of 119 students.  That’s Ksh 35,000 (US$500) per month to run the school. That’s a budget of less than Ksh 5,000 (US $ 80) per class per month  (there are 8 classes in primary school).  Children don’t wear uniforms and that the learning materials are simple, classrooms are stark, students sit on benches not desks. Ok it’s clearly low cost, but how on earth can$80 a month pay a good trained teacher, and keep him or her motivated, plus pay for materials, training, power, water etc. Maybe my math is up the spout,  I would love to see how a school can be run at these price, turn a profit, AND provide quality education.

Finally, I’m a bit tired of foreign imports to replace rather than fix existing infrastructure. The Bridge school system, private schools in a box, nice idea, but it’s another import that still depends on donor funding. There are hundreds if not thousands of good private schools, religious schools and donor funded schools in Kenya. They all cost something and perhaps there is a need for more low cost schools. But make no mistake, the Bridges Academy is not for free, therefore it cannot replace the free government system which caters for many millions of Kenyan.

In my view what we need is not another new foreign import, but support to conduct a total overhaul of the government system, to root out the corruption and provide the quality education that Kenyan children deserve. Parents want it, children want it…why don’t the donors want it?

Like all African countries, Kenya is inundated with well wishers trying to save the people from a greedy, murdering, inept and outright illegal government. We keep bypassing the government systems, when in fact, what we probably need to do is to work on fixing these structures and make them work properly. Otherwise we keep going around and around chasing our own tails. I’m not saying I have a solution  in hand, but there have been some much more exciting proposals made that are far more innovative than the Bridges School Academy in a metal box. Why not create internet based school systems that allow children (and adults) to learn the curriculum at their own pace and time and still work if they have to? Those Kenyan born ideas however, are unlikely to attract the mega funding of donors like the Omidyar Foundation. Like many of Americas biggest private donors, you’d need to be American to get that support.

Instead of funding a completely new set of  schools that may or may not work, perhaps donors like the Omidyars should consider paying for children in impoverished areas to go to already established and proven schools in the country.

Having said that, I genuinely  wish the Bridges Academy well, I hope that they can sustain these schools but I take issue with Friedman suggesting that these schools are reinventing education in Kenya. Kenyans need to reinvent education in this country, fix the curriculum, root out corruption, pay teachers appropriately, and get quality education to every single child. Only then will the changes stick.

What do you think?


January 31, 2010 - Posted by | corruption, Crime, education | , ,


  1. I have not read about the Bridges Academy concept yet and indeed while applauding efforts to get children a decent education. I agree that the main thrust needs to be on presssuring the govt of Kenya to provide quality education for it’s ppl.
    It would be great to see partipatory learning styles being embraced so that kids instead of chalk and talk styles are challenged to think out of the box and take their future and that of their country into their one hands.

    Comment by Emer beamer | January 31, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks for the comment and great idea – given the current education culture of spoon feeding its not surprising our leaders expect us to shut up and take what ever they dole out with out question! Yes a new Kenya depends on a new education style and system!

      Comment by paulakahumbu | January 31, 2010 | Reply

  2. Paula, thanks for this post.

    I’m responding as the Editor of the PopTech blog, where this piece was originally published (also, want to make sure we credit Bridge International Academies for the first photo you use at the top of this post).

    When you write above, “In my view what we need is not another new foreign import, but support to conduct a total overhaul of the government system, to root out the corruption and provide the quality education that Kenyan children deserve. Parents want it, children want it…why don’t the donors want it?” are you proposing that donors give support toward government transparency?

    I don’t think Joshua, the author of the original piece, is suggesting this franchise model is the solution, but that it might be *a* solution–he highlights the “cashless” system as one of the ways Bridge hopes to scale quickly.

    Have you visited one of these schools and can you point us to other resources? It would be great to know more as you are close to this in Kenya. (And, I hope you will join the discussion on our blog too.)

    Comment by Kristen Taylor | January 31, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks Kirsten, I’ve removed the photo just in case. Yes I think that the best investment that donors can make in Kenya is not to replicate but to support the mechanisms that will fix existing systems. That’s the most logical and sustainable approach. Also I wanted to correct you, just because the schools use Mpesa does not make them cashless and free of corruption. First it’s not really cashless if you think about it, and secondly, using electronic means does not make it un corruptable. Indeed the massive fraud committed in the Kenyan Education Ministry was not done with cash, but through transfers – schools were wired money then told that they’d received excess funds by mistake and were asked to transfer some of the funds back to an account. It can be traced but I’m not sure if real names were used. To date nobody has been charged or arrested! When there are crooks they will find a way to eat from any system – we have to get rid of the crooks, charge and arrest them and make them pay for their crimes. And, with our school system we should be educating generations of honest students. I haven’t been to a Bridges Academy in Kenya but will look out for them. My point is that Kenya is already dotted with private/NGO christian schools – its our education system that sucks more than the physical buildings. We are churning out kids who can’t go further and yet they are actually not employable as they don’t learn skills. This is creating a class of very frustrated people – who are easily bought during elections to do the dirty machete work (it was mainly unemployed youths for hire that burned, maimed, looted, raped).

      Comment by paulakahumbu | January 31, 2010 | Reply

  3. in this century the education system has changed and africa is reinventing itself through development of the internet and mobile phones, donors should support free technology initiatives and let the kenyan gorvernment do its work of free basic education of knowing to read and write.

    Comment by slovo | February 1, 2010 | Reply

  4. Paula,
    As one of Bridge International Academies’ co-founders, I’d like to invite you to contact me to learn more about our systems and to clarify several errors you make here about Bridge International.

    First, it is a mistake to think that our “school in a box” model is only administrative, or to think that administration is irrelevant to educational outcomes. As Josh Friedman writes, Bridge International is a complete solution to primary education—which is very different from almost all existing non-government schools. We have developed all systems necessary for running a leading educational institution to serve impoverished families—and yes, we do that at a monthly tuition cost of 295 Shillings/month. We have developed extensive financial and accounting systems, innovative building designs, full management and teacher training programs, auditing systems for both school management and teachers’ lessons. Without such complete administrative systems, you cannot possibly know what is happening in a school, let alone a system of schools every day—and if you do not know what is actually happening in the school (not just what you think should be happening) every day, then you have no real idea what you are doing, for whom. It is at the core of our model structure that we serve the needs of parents in impoverished communities in Kenya, and eventually all of Sub-Saharan Africa.

    Second, what matters in the classroom for student learning is not only what is being taught (e.g. long division, phonics), but how it is being taught. Yes, we follow the overall Kenyan national standards for Standards 1-8, and so do most schools across the country. But many of those schools are failing their students. They are not prepared to pass, let alone excel at the national primary exit exam, the KCPE. Following the guidelines of the national curriculum standards, we write all of our own curriculum—all the way down to the exact words the teacher says in the classroom (what is known as “direct instruction”). No other schools in Kenya use this methodology. We ensure that world-class, leading pedagogy findings are deployed in our schools, which lays the foundation for students at Bridge International getting a better education than at comparable schools.

    Third, just as Josh Friedman writes, our schools are cashless. Not a Shilling of money ever changes hands between a parent and a school manager, a parent and a teacher, or between a school manager and the teacher. All payments are made via M-Pesa or Equity Bank. This is different than just offering the option of M-Pesa payments to parents as one means of payment. Why is this a critical difference? Because then there can never, ever be money exchanged at the school without one of the parties knowing that it is unofficial—or an attempted act of corrupting the system. This means that parents know that a teacher can never ask for a motivation fee, and that any money that a school manager asks for directly is inappropriate. This makes the common, petty bribery that is endemic at many schools across Kenya impossible. The system is actually much more complex and involved then I’ve written here, and I invite you to actually learn about our financial and auditing systems before making public statements about how our schools work.

    Fourth, and most importantly, our schools wouldn’t exist if parents in these impoverished communities didn’t think we were the best, most affordable choice of education for their children. Every day that a parent transfers their child from a more expensive or poorly performing school, that parent and child have an opportunity for a new future. They choose Bridge International for reasons that you seem unwilling to acknowledge: all of their current options are failing them, and they have found this as a promising solution to their own problems. Parents choose Bridge International precisely because there are no established schools that provide comparable education that are open to them, or at a cost they can afford. If there was truly free education or less expensive education that was available to these parents that delivered a quality education, they would choose that, and Bridge International would go out of business. That is also part of the innovation that Friedman notes.

    Lastly, I think that the more than 60 Kenyans who work diligently and energetically with Bridge International would be surprised to hear it labeled a “foreign import.” We are proudly a company founded in Kenya, upon extensive research conducted in Kenya, and made possible by Kenyans who believe that this is a necessary mission to help transform the future of Kenyan children today, and tomorrow. All of our school managers and teachers live in the communities we serve, and 90% of our office staff is Kenyan.

    I hope you do not mind such a long comment, but given our respect for your leadership and work with Wildlife Direct, I wanted to set right some of the inaccuracies that could mislead other people, and to, again, invite you to contact us in Nairobi to learn more about the innovations of Bridge International, and why groups like Omidyar see investing in Bridge as a wise decision for education in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as a smart financial decision.
    Shannon May
    Co-Founder, President
    Bridge International Academies

    Comment by Shannon May | February 1, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks Shannon I really appreciate your comment (and by the way wildaboutafrica is not related to wildlifedirect – these are my personal thoughts), I’d love to learn more about the system – and am glad to hear that you have a strong Kenyan team. The Friedman article spoke only of American founders. On the quality of education – I don’t think all cheap or donor funded private schools are failing Kenyans – and have no doubt that your method as described may be a million times better than what’s available in government schools. I wouldn’t go to a government school nor send my kids there, but I hope that advances in education like what you are promoting could be propagated through the government school system rather than bypassing it. If Bridges is making a difference to the individual students then wouldn’t scaling it up be faster through the established school networks rather than a parallel series of new schools. I’d like to see the government schools and education system totally overhauled from the inside….send me your contacts to pkahumbu@gmail.com

      Comment by paulakahumbu | February 2, 2010 | Reply

  5. Hi Paula, I’m a new reader/listener from Toronto Canada. I’m a radio broadcasting student here in Toronto. I love your pod cast and I enjoy reading up on your politics.

    Please feel free to send me an email. I would love to start my own podcast one day!


    Comment by Iman | February 17, 2010 | Reply

  6. This school system is a good idea of course but as was pointed out or implied in each comment, the overall education system in Kenya seems so broken that there really is not one quick fix. If it makes you guys feel better, it’s far worse in Burundi where I currently reside.

    Solution: Change must come from within and outside forces may help but Kenyans must instigate the major change themselves…there is simply no other way.

    Comment by Marc N | May 11, 2010 | Reply

  7. As a layman I usually sum it up this way…Better have a million semi literate kids than have 20,000 fully literate and 980,000 illiterate

    Comment by Wainainah | January 6, 2011 | Reply

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