Bridge International Academies: Rapidly Scaling Education for Kenya’s Poorest Children

How a for-profit social enterprise has managed to provide 118,000 of East Africa's poorest kids an affordable, high-quality education.

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.

Business Model

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.

Operating Model

Educational Quality

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

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.

Affordability

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.

 

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6 thoughts on “Bridge International Academies: Rapidly Scaling Education for Kenya’s Poorest Children

  1. Love this topic! The for-profit social enterprise model is a controversial one, though. Many people are skeptical that anyone can manage the double bottom line without sacrificing one for the other. What’s your take? How can Bridge and other companies like it overcome that skepticism/challenge?

  2. Thanks for this post Sudip, what a fascinating, socially disruptive for-profit business models. I wonder how far this can be replicated to suit a different geography like India. Standardization of teaching instruction is the biggest quality challenge that schools even like Harvard face, and I would support their scripting model. Are there any other metrics for measuring their performance, and how do they rank in those, like student attrition rate? Government schools in India provide meals as this is the only incentive to get students to stay the entire year.

  3. Great post, Sudip! Bridge is doing amazing things in East Africa. I wonder how they have thought about and managed their relationship with the governments. There is a significant scarcity of qualified teachers in Uganda and Kenya – and I imagine they would be depriving government schools of many teachers if are paying above-award wages! I can also imagine potential resistance to having two tiers of schools emerging (government-funded and private) – particularly if Bridge and other private operators are not following the national curriculum, which is pretty standardized (in Uganda, anyway). Fantastic topic!

  4. Great post and thread. Love to see what they are doing. Thanks for sharing!!!

  5. Having worked for Bridge’s early investor (Pearson), I appreciate that you wrote on them because they are considered the model in the low-cost private school paradigm that is rapidly spreading through Africa and south Asia. They were able to spread rapidly because of laser-like focus on cost efficiency and efficacy (especially compared to public school alternatives), and their success has opened the door for new LCPS chains such as Sudiksha (India), SPARK (South Africa), and APEC (Philippines). Two major challenges that remain for the entire space, however, are 1) learning gains at scale and 2) return on investment. Bridge has run into recent controversy because multiple longitudinal studies have cast doubt on its true learning impact on students (as well as that of other prominent LCPS chains). Meanwhile, investors like Pearson are wary to take on seed or Series A stage investments in these companies because the return profiles over 7-10 years are modest at best, and their thin margins are critically dependent on maintaining cost efficiencies at scale.

  6. Very interesting article! Like DeJeune, I’m not yet sure of how I feel on the private sector’s ability to really achieve a double or triple bottom line, but I’d love to believe that it is indeed possible. My biggest question seems similar to Akash’s – though they’re able to scale, are they truly delivering a quality education? With the little that I know about the education systems in developing countries in general, I’d guess that simply getting students and teachers into the classroom is a huge improvement to the status quo, but how can they both achieve low costs while also ensuring quality learning? Secondly, though $6 does seem low, I’d also guess that it prices out a significant portion of the population. Are students who are unable to pay simply stuck in their public schools? Is there a way to build in any non-tuition sources of revenue? For example, a school that I volunteered at in Nepal had parents donate 5 hours per month to the school in place of tuition, and the parents would use that time to tend to a school farm, growing crops that could then be sold. Might something like this work for Bridge?

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