“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”.

This old saying seems apt in 2020, a year which many people are lamenting as one of the worst in living memory.

Certainly is has been a tough year for all of us, not just in South Africa, but around the world. And the COVID-19 situation does not look like it is going to ease up anytime soon, although the recent development of a few working vaccines certainly is cause for hope.

As we wrote in our recent Op-Ed, published in the Daily Maverick, the COVID-19 situation in South Africa, and the associated lockdown and job losses, has had a particularly devastating impact on the ECD sector. As our surveys have shown the vast majority of ECD programmes have struggled to reopen due to the multi-dimensional impact of lockdown, job losses and the fears of parents of sending their children back into crowded settings. Thousands of ECD workers have had their jobs put on hold as their businesses have all but collapsed. A combination of poor support from the state and highly stringent re-opening protocols meant that many ECD programmes were in no position to reopen once the lockdown eased, especially because parents were also struggling to afford the fees on which these programmes rely.   

So much for the lemons. How about the lemonade?

Since April Ilifa Labantwana, along with a number of partners, has been actively looking for ways to intervene in a positive way, not just in the immediate crisis, but also in innovative solutions that could help to transform the sector more systemically in the longer term. With the generous support of four funders,[1] Ilifa has led a highly ambitious COVID Response Project for ECD, which we are currently implementing between October and January 2021. Three implementing partners, SmartStart, The Unlimited Child, and Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading are rolling out a suite of comprehensive support measures at almost 1800 unregistered ECD sites across South Africa.

We chose unregistered ECD programmes serving poor communities because they are the most in need of support at this time and, while catering for the ECD needs of the majority of children, receive the least support from the state. We wanted to test and demonstrate ways of reaching bona fide unregistered programmes by leveraging partnerships with NGO partners. Our package of support, which includes a hamper to enable full compliance with COVID protocols, is meant to enable these programmes to get back on their feet and reopen, and to offer educational and nutritional support to the children in their communities despite the crisis. 

More than compliance, the initiative revolves around an innovative voucher system in which regular vouchers are issued to the participating ECD programmes, their value based in the number of children registered at the site. The ECD staff themselves are also receiving monthly vouchers to assist them get over their loss of income. This voucher system  is known as CoCare, and it uses a financial technology platform owned by a company called Flash to send vouchers by SMS to beneficiaries. Flash works predominantly with small ‘spaza’ shops based in low-income communities, with hundreds of thousands of spaza shops in its network. CoCare vouchers are meant for the purchase of highly nutritious foods within local communities, stimulating local demand for healthy foods and supporting the local economy.

The ECD programme staff in our COVID Response Project receive a voucher every two weeks, and have been signed up to purchase highly nutritious foods with the vouchers and to use them to feed children returning to their programmes, or to distribute food parcels to children if they remain closed.

We are currently documenting the many lessons emerging from the use of this voucher system to enable ECD sites to become nutritional hubs, and we hope to use these lessons to influence policy on nutritional provision to children aged 0-5 years old.

We were initially not sure if the CoCare system would work for the ECD context, given that spaza shops are generally small and not known for supplying the type and quantity of healthy foods needed to feed nutritious meals to young children. However, early signs are promising as redemption rates for our vouchers have been high, and ECD staff have had few problems redeeming their vouchers and supplying children with healthy meals.

All in all, it has been a very promising start, with ECD programmes opening up and getting involved in supplying crucial nutrition to children in their communities, who have also suffered greatly due to the economic impacts of COVID on the household.

We will be writing a series of blogs throughout the project where we share further lessons and insights, and hopefully some more good news stories which allow 2020 to be remembered not only for the hard times, but also for how resilient people were able to respond to them.  

[1] ELMA Foundation, Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment, the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation and the DG Murray Trust.

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