This is the sixth and final blog in our series documenting the ECD COVID Response Project, whose major activities concluded recently. Over the next few months we will be compiling and releasing a number of exciting learning and advocacy products which will showcase the many lessons and recommendations which have arisen from the initiative.  

The ECD COVID Response Project was initiated during the first COVID hard lockdown in the second quarter of 2020. This was a time in which children were facing acute food insecurity due to household job losses; ECD programmes were facing closure and the ECD workforce facing job losses and severe income insecurity. There was no clear plan for reopening the sector, and government support systems were not designed to reach vulnerable children and ECD service providers at scale. Moreover, it was clear that ECD programmes serving the most vulnerable children would struggle the most to meet COVID-19 compliance requirements.

Informed by this context, this project therefore aimed to: 

  • Support unregistered ECD sites serving poor children with basic health and hygiene packages, helping them meet the requirements to reopen.
  • Test ECD sites serving poor children as nodes for delivering nutrition interventions for 0-5 year olds, directly stimulating local food economies by linking to spazas through electronic vouchers.
  • Support the ECD workforce and ECD enterprises by providing some income support through a R250 monthly food voucher. The provision of site level vouchers to feed children would also hopefully reignite some fee payment and allow salaries to be paid.
  • Supporting sites with improved access to and storage of clean water for hygiene purposes.
An ECD programme owner in Villiersdorp receives her COVID compliance pack from VPUU.

Despite the challenge of implementing such an ambitious project during a difficult time, we were successful, reaching the following targets:

  • 1,710 unregistered ECD sites from all around the country were selected for support, along with 3,473 ECD staff.
  • COVID compliance packs were provided for TUC and VPUU sites (SmartStart had already provided packs for their sites prior to this project), along with a top up pack in 2021 for all 1,710 sites, as well as an additional 3,330 ECD sites in the partners’ networks. 
  • 15,160 ECD site vouchers and 13,380 staff vouchers were issued between October 2020 and May 2021.
  • Redemption rates for these vouchers were high – 86% for site vouchers and 89% for staff vouchers.
  • Over 30,000 children were fed in 1,710 ECD sites over a 4.5 month period.
  • 284 sites received water storage support
A spaza shop operator redeeming a CoCare voucher with his Kazang machine. He is looking at the voucher number on the recipient’s cellphone, and entering this number into the Kazang machine for redemption. 

In June we hosted an online learning event for stakeholders involved in the project, including implementing partners, funders, ECD owners and field staff. This was a rich engagement which focussed on the lessons learnt during the project. It was particularly revealing and inspiring to hear from different ECD owners about what the impact of the project on the ground. Their stories echoed other ECD owners who we surveyed:

 ‘The vouchers were a critical part of our ECD centre because they enabled us to be able to open and welcome children into the centre. They bridged the financial gap as some of the parents were not making a proper salary that is able to cover the fees for their child. The children were better able to adjust to the new COVID-19 regulations without putting a financial strain on the parents. The food parcels that some of the children took home with them supported their families and ensured that there was food on the table.’ (Ntombikayise Madlala, Durban)

I used to buy few items but now I can provide different meals and provide two meals a day. Poor children from the community also benefit. More children are coming to the centre and parents are recommending and appreciating.’ (Nomaxabiso Fihlani, Mdantsane)

Parents at Poplar are very grateful because the staff were receiving the voucher, the school did not pressure them to pay the school fees when they could not work due to COVID. And their children were being fed regularly because of the site level voucher.’ (Charmain Johannes, Grabouw)

Our monitoring surveys also showed that the majority of ECD sites were able to reopen by March 2021 and were able to continue complying with COVID protocols; that parents were sending their children back to ECD programmes due to their trust in the safety protocols being followed; and that despite the continued hardships, an encouraging proportion of parents had resumed paying fees.

We have also learnt of the great potential that ECD sites, regardless of their registration status, have to become nutrition hubs for young children in their communities, and the high levels of commitment displayed by ECD owners and staff to provide their children with healthy food. We saw that innovative mechanisms such as digital vouchers can, with the right approach, be used to get meals to children, and that the local food economy can adapt itself to supply ECD feeding needs. We also confirmed that ECD NGOs can play a crucial role to help the state reach unregistered ECD sites with a range of support measures.

We are very grateful to our three implementing partners, The Unlimited Child, SmartStart, and Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading. We commend them for their commitment and good work on this project. We are also very grateful to the funders, the ELMA Foundation, Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment, the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation and the DG Murray Trust, whose investment not only made a great difference to thousands of ECD programmes and children, but also allowed us to learn several important lessons which we will ensure can be used to make a positive systemic impact on the whole ECD sector.

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