Touching Orphaned, Vulnerable Children’s Lives through Education

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For 20 years, Higherlife Foundation, co-founded by the wife of the Chairman of Econet Group, Mrs. Tsitsi Masiyiwa, has been improving the lives of vulnerable children in public schools in Africa by developing their talent in high school and tertiary levels. Funmi Ogundare encountered her at the just concluded Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) 2016, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The challenges faced by orphaned and vulnerable children, especially in Africa, are many as they have to grapple with the loss of their parents sometimes leading to difficulties in accessing education, emotional, material and psycho-social distress, among others. Thus, Higherlife Foundation decided to better their lives by using education to create empowerment opportunities and by assisting gifted and talented young scholars to fulfil their potential.

Now in its 20th year, the foundation according to the Chairperson, Mrs. Tsitsi Masiyiwa has been providing its beneficiaries access to education, which they would otherwise not afford.

“We support them with learning resources to improve the quality of their education; making optimum use of technology as a delivery and enabling tool, and we mentor and empower them with life and vocational skills through lifelong engagement. Granted that we deal with vulnerable children and young adults, we undergird our core education programming with soft, psycho-social and spiritual support through our guardianship and pastoral care programme.”

She said in the last 20 years, the foundation has impacted about 500,000 children through variety of interventions, directly or in partnership with others. “We have impacted over 250,000 children in the area of education, and we have awarded scholarships and direct education support to over 100,000 children.

“Our biggest impact has been in Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Burundi, where we have also reached over 240,000 children and teachers through close to 50 online learning hubs, fully connected and equipped computer learning centres where our beneficiaries and the surrounding communities access educational and other learning and research resources for free.”

Asked how the foundation gets its funding, Masiyiwa said, “our anchor partner, when it comes to funding, is the Econet Wireless Group (whose founder and Group Chairman is my husband and the co-founder of Higherlife Foundation, Mr. Strive Masiyiwa). Econet has helped fund the foundation’s programmes over the past 20 years as part of their corporate social investment.

“They have also supported us with technology, which we are going to be using in a big way to bring online learning support to millions of children through a platform called ‘Ruzivo’, which basically brings the entire primary and secondary school curriculum and digital teaching aids to students on their tablets, PCs and mobile devices. Econet has also provided the foundation with expert technical support whenever we required it along with its sister company Liquid Telecoms.”

On the challenges of running the foundation over the years, she said: “We have been blessed with dedicated and highly motivated staff over the years. We of course see to it that they are constantly trained and retrained, upskilled and exposed to contemporary tools and methods of carrying out their work. We are also always feeding the leadership pipeline with new blood and new talent capable of taking on new challenges and taking the organisation to the next level.

“The real challenge has always been the size of the need in comparison to available resources and funding. The 20 years we have been in existence have been the same 20 years in Sub-Saharan Africa in which the region has borne the brunt of the HIV/AIDs pandemic, of repeated droughts due to the effects of climate change, and of civil, political and economic turmoil in places such as Zimbabwe (where we are heavily invested) and the Great Lakes Region (where we are active in Burundi, and have critical partnerships in Rwanda).

“So, our biggest challenge in a place like Zimbabwe, where there are over a million orphans, is how we or others like us, can separately or collaboratively reach all the needy children with access to basic education, and how we can lobby governments to increase their education budgets.”

For the underprivileged who crave for education, Masiyiwa urged the government to be clearer on policies on how technology can be used, especially mobile phones to access content, adding that more people are needed to write local content to educate people because it is easier.

“You can teach somebody via SMS. We need to come out of the mindset that a school is a building to that of a mobile school. We can take a school anywhere and that a school term is not first, second and third term, it can be 24/7, as long as you have your mobile phone. Sitting in a taxi or sitting under a tree, you can have a school.

“We also have to redefine who a teacher is; a teacher is not the physical person who is paid by the government to give lessons, the teacher can be your parents, colleague or someone in the community who has more knowledge that you have as long as you have the content available with you wherever you are.”

Expatiating her view on whether foreign aids and philanthropy hurt public education, which she argued against at the GESF 2016, and the lessons that can be learnt, the chairperson said, “foreign aid is necessary but we are changing with the times. If we are going to achieve the ambitious targets that we have set, philanthropic and donor aid will play an important role in expanding primary and secondary enrolments, increasing educational attainment and securing gender parity. The reality is that we simply cannot build enough schools and train enough teachers in order to meet the education needs of the future generations. Philanthropic support provides flexibility, the opportunity to think big and innovate, as well as build towards long term sustainable solutions.”

She said as more Africans take ownership of their own social problems, they should also be able to take responsibility of coming up with solutions, adding that they should make decisions that would influence policies and find a common ground, which aid can be delivered in a more efficient way without wastage.

“We have to take advantage of the growing skills base available in more and more countries such that there will be a growing awareness and strong buy-in from people to solve problems as well as the willingness from the private sector to invest resources, technology, innovative and creative ideas into solving African problems.”

Masiyiwa affirmed that the innovation that the private sector brings when it invests its profit for purpose is something that governments and the public sector should embrace and fully leverage, rather than viewing it as a competition or meddling by the private sector.

“This Private Public Partnership (PPP) has worked extremely well in the markets and communities we serve where governments, burdened by dozens of competing public service priorities, are only grateful to embrace the help of, and collaborate with the private and NPO sectors to build capacity through education.”

Asked how public education is being run in her country, Zimbabwe, she said though its public education system can be credited with the strides the country made in education in the first 20 years of independence (between 1980 and 2000), the economic, political and social challenges experienced over the past 10 to 15 years have had a huge negative impact on the superstructures of a good system of public education that it has built over the years.

“Even today, the fact that Zimbabweans working around the world are famed for being disciplined and professional is evidence that there is something the country has done particularly well in the area of education. However, as alluded to earlier, the economic, political and social challenges Zimbabwe has experienced over the past 10 to 15 years are also very well documented.

“These inevitably have had a huge negative impact on the superstructures of a good system of public education that Zimbabwe built over the years to the extent that some of the gains of over the past 30 years are in danger of being reversed altogether.

“This is why we believe that the work we do is not just relevant, but necessary and critical in helping governments in Zimbabwe and beyond, to fulfill the promise of education for all now in our time, not any time in the future. We believe the dreams of our children for a better future and to contribute fully to nation building cannot be deferred one day longer. That is why we are in education today.”

On where she sees the foundation in another 10 years, she said, “10 years is a very long time. What I can tell you is that by 2020, in the next five years, we will have impacted over two million children with quality education across sub-Saharan Africa.

“In 10 years, I guarantee you that we will have played a pivotal role in the positive transformation of the African continent and African economies by helping to raise an educated and highly trained African workforce and by helping young Africans fulfil their God-given potential. I am excited to be a part of those investing in Africa’s greatness now.”