Chasing Elephants in ECD

I returned from Think Future 2017 spouting quotes like an inspired madman. I’m desperately holding onto these quotes knowing that in a few days or maybe hours, the effects may wear off. I want to put them down in black and white, blow them up and put them up on my wall, imprint them on my brain, set an intention, make a commitment, build something. Do anything.

Before they disappear into my subconscious and it’s back to the grind.

I hope sharing them here will concretize them for me, and guide my work in Early Childhood Development (ECD) going forward, and possibly inspire others as well.

“I am enraged and excited at the same time.”

- David Harrison, CEO, The DG Murray Trust

David Harrison kicked off the conference by sharing that his levels of rage are matched only by his levels of excitement about the state of ECD in South Africa. The challenge is monumental, but therefore, so is the potential for change.

He shared a few stats:

  • 62% of children in South Africa under the age of 5 live below the poverty line
  • 27% of these children are stunted
  • The majority of the damage is already done by Grade 4. Learning outcome patterns in Grade 4 closely mimic those in Grade 12.
  • Children who do not receive quality ECD drop out of school earlier, earn considerably less than their peers, are less healthy, and are more likely to end up in jail.

Innovation Edge, the organisers of the conference, encouraged attendees to “Be bold. Be courageous. Be creative” in coming up with solutions for this monumental challenge.

“Chase elephants, not mice.”

- Nicola Galombik, Executive Director, Yellowwoods

In one of the opening presentations, Nicola Galombik further challenged attendees to chase elephants, rather than mice. She said that we need to be focusing all of our attention on tackling the biggest issues, and letting go of those things which keep us busy, but aren’t worthy of the time spent on them.

In a similar vein, Bevan Ducasse (Founder & CEO, wiGroup) told us a story of a little boy who went to a birthday party where there was a pinata. This little boy was holding a cupcake in each hand when the pinata, instead of breaking open and sweets pouring out, flew, fully in tact, out of the tree and towards him. He dropped the 2 cupcakes just in time to catch the pinata. All of the sweets were his.

The key of course is that if he had not dropped the small things he was holding onto, he wouldn’t have caught the big thing.

“No one ever made a decision because of a fact. People need a story.”

- Dave Duarte, Founder, Treeshake

Dave Duarte told us the story of a copywriter who was walking down the street one morning when he encountered a blind homeless man begging with a sign that read: “I’m blind, please help.” His donation cup was empty. He paused and rather than putting some money in the man’s cup, he took the man’s sign and rewrote it. When he left his office later in the day, the homeless man’s cup was overflowing with money. The new sign read “Today is spring, and I can’t see it

Dave emphasized that the most powerful way to unite and to mobilize people is to give them a story to believe in and fight for. A story that is simple and universally relatable. A story that can be shared widely and freely. He calls this ‘the enabling narrative’. And in order to lead change, this narrative needs to fulfill four criteria. It needs to be Inspiring. It needs to be Credible. It needs to have a sense of Urgency; and it needs to be closely Aligned with the audience’s goals and objectives.

There is currently a lot of research and data out there about the benefits of investing in ECD, but the realisation from the conference attendees was that what is really needed is a social movement based on one brilliant story.

“Start with the mothers.”

- Norman Mbazima, Group Management Committee, Anglo American SA

At the session ‘Making Business Future Fit’, Norman Mbazima shared insights from research conducted, that it is clear that many “mothers have no idea that an ECD centre is not just a place where you drop off your baby to be held while you go to work”. Many have no idea that it’s a place where the baby’s neurons are stimulated and their brain developed. And they have no idea that this will be a major determinant of their baby’s future. “Once mothers understand that, then they will take it into their own hands to hold ECD centres accountable and ensure that a quality service is provided. So that is the first thing that we should address.

So to sum up what I am taking away from Think Future 2017:

  • Embrace the rage.
  • Tackle elephant size problems.
  • Drop the small things, and go after one really big thing.
  • Lead the change by telling a story.

And last but not least, quality Early Childhood Development has undoubtedly got the greatest potential to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty in South Africa.

Written by Lauren Kotzé, Service Designer, Praekelt.org