Founded in 2009, Bridge International Academies is a for-profit social enterprise that was built to address Kenya’s poor public education track record. In a country where only 35% of public school teachers possess “mastery of the curriculum they teach”, Bridge strives to provide high-quality, accessible primary education at a price point that is affordable to the country’s poorest citizens.
Bridge’s business model is straightforward. The company charges a flat $6 per month per child, and in return delivers its self-developed curriculum to students in facilities that the company constructs. Bridge currently operates 412 academies in Kenya and Uganda and has served over 118,000 students between pre-school and eighth grade.
The success of Bridge’s business model is predicated on three interrelated characteristics: quality of education, scale, and affordability. The company has developed an operating model that allows it to make each of these traits a reality.
To be successful as a business, Bridge must provide a quality of education that exceeds that of public schools. The company invests heavily in technologies that facilitate teaching and enable it to closely monitor teacher performance.
Each teacher is provided scripted teaching materials through a tablet computer. This tells the instructor what to say and when to say it. Although this highly-scripted approach has been considered controversial by some experts because it reduces spontaneity, the company views it as crucial to delivery of standardized, effective education. The company is able to easily monitor tablet activity, so it can track when teachers miss school or fail to cover certain topics. This is especially important in a region where teacher absenteeism is a major barrier to effective public education.
Bridge also uses mobile technology and data analysis to understand student performance. The company is currently developing a system that will even tell the teacher which student to call on to answer a particular question based on the student’s historical performance in a given subject.
As a result of these investments, Bridge students have outperformed peers at public schools by 35% in math and 19% in reading.
Scale is equally critical to Bridge’s business. As a social enterprise, it can only maximize its community impact if it’s able to deliver its education to millions of children. Scale is also crucial from a profitability perspective, given the company’s heavy up-front investment in technology-enabled educational tools. Bridge must spread its fixed costs across as many students as possible to maintain affordability for each student.
To that end, the company has developed the concept of an “academy in a box.” Its schools take only one month to construct and are built based on one of three pre-existing designs that require few basic materials beyond iron and bricks. The company employs a “big data” approach to site selection, using sources like satellite imagery and family surveys to ensure that schools are built in an area where families require access to alternative education and where the building will be structurally sound. This highly standardized blueprint for opening each new school has been key to Bridge’s rapid expansion across Kenya and Uganda.
Finally, to serve its customer base, Bridge must ensure that it can maintain its low $6 per month price point. This flat rate is important to provide predictability for families that otherwise have to make lumpy payments even for ostensibly “free” public schools, where uniforms, desks, books, and other expenses can total up to $12 per month.
To ensure affordability, the schools are operated at as low a cost a possible. For example, many schools do not have built-in electricity and instead use generators on an as-needed basis. High-cost printing for books and other materials are outsourced to reduce capital requirements. Bridge has even been able to cut corners on teacher certification requirements, instead hiring uncertified teachers who demonstrate a strong commitment to the work and will be able to concisely deliver its scripted lessons. This tactic may not be sustainable in the long-run, but for the time being has further enabled the company to keep school operating costs low. This in turn enables a school to be financially self-sustaining within a year of opening, even at a low price point per student.
Bridge International Academies has designed an operating model that enables it to achieve the key success factors for its business model: quality education, scale, and affordability. While the business has not yet achieved breakeven profitability, if it continues to execute on and improve its operating model, it will be well-positioned to achieve crucial social outcomes while generating a profit.
- Bridge International Academies Website
- The Atlantic. “Is It Ever Okay to Make Teachers Read Scripted Lessons?” October 10, 2014.
- The Independent. “Bridge International Academies: Scripted schooling for $6 a month is an audacious answer to educating the poorest children across Africa and Asia.” July 27, 2015.
- NPR. “Do For-Profit Schools Give Poor Kenyans a Real Choice?” April 22, 2014.