By Zanele Twala, CEO of Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation
The onset of Covid-19 was an interesting challenge for those of us working in the education space. The biggest lesson that we at the Tutuwa Foundation have learnt is how important it is to innovate quickly if we are to continue supporting our beneficiaries.
At the start of the national lockdown we developed an online partner survey to get a sense of what challenges they were facing and how we could help mitigate the impact of Covid-19. Working with a total of 16 non-profit organisations (NPOs), our first and main concern was our beneficiaries and how best to support them through our partners, despite the additional challenges that emerged.
In addressing these issues, we became more than just a funding partner, we became one that is truly in touch with the ecosystem in which it operates. The approach was aligned to the Tutuwa Foundation’s mission to inspire and support the growth and development of young people, so that they can reach their full potential as productive citizens who contribute to the economic development mission.
Non-governmental organisations in the early childhood development (ECD) sector had conducted a survey at the beginning of lockdown to understand the pressures that ECD programmes would be under while they were closed. The findings made it clear that the ECD sector serving the most vulnerable children – which is almost entirely made up of micro-enterprises and NPOs owned and run by black women – would struggle to survive the lockdown. A primary concern during this time of crisis was the risk of malnutrition in young children.
A major challenge was that, when we did our organisation’s budget last year, we didn’t foresee this. The unprecedented nature of Covid-19 meant that there were regular differences of opinion in board meetings, but because immediate action was required, consensus on items had to be reached and solutions had to be sustainable ones that allowed us to be agile.
We took such an opportunity to act swiftly recently to address the issue of parents not sending their children back to school, even after a court order ruled in July that ECD centres could reopen. This meant that some children did not have access to the things they were getting from the centres, such as food. In addition, ECD providers had to go many months with no income. To close the gap – in collaboration with three other major funders – we decided to pilot a digital voucher project.
The digital vouchers given to ECD programmes are to be used to buy food for the children at local spaza shops. Vouchers are also given to staff of ECD centres who have gone without a stable income because they have not been able to collect fees from parents.
Tutuwa Foundation, together with its partners, are piloting this system to support ECD programmes to reopen and make sure that children are getting food. It also aims to encourage parents to send their children back to ECD centres, and to ensure that those spaces are prepared to mitigate the risks of Covid-19 by providing essential health and hygiene products.
The programme will run for the next three to six months. We are hoping that we will be able to use this time effectively to demonstrate the impact of the system to the government, thereby encouraging viable solutions for the ECD sector to ensure its sustainability.
The programme – already successfully deployed – will demonstrate the modalities and systems that can be leveraged for much-needed solutions. The digital voucher system ensures that the money goes directly to the beneficiary, whether that is the childhood development practitioner who is looking after five or 10 children in their early learning centre, or directly to the ECD practitioner who has been without an income for months.
A key learning from my experience over the past few months is that, while we have our titles, our knowledge base and our skills, no one has all the answers in a pandemic. Even with our extensive risk planning and mitigation strategies, there was nothing planned for a crisis of this scale – you can never stop collaborating and learning.
I have seen a lot of resilience from my employees during this period, and their ability to work and be productive has not changed. Going forwards, we will increase our focus internally on the wellbeing of staff. I think that working in an office environment and having employees around you means you’re in touch with them and their emotions, which is not always the case when everyone is working remotely.
Sometimes this makes it harder to connect and to feel and feed off each other. I think there is so much room for us to creatively innovate around how we continue to do our work whilst maintaining social distancing.
Covid-19 has shown us that we have gaps in our business that need to be addressed, and that the model needs to change to fill these gaps. Going forward, we will be changing the agility of the business in terms of our workspaces and how we allow for flexible working arrangements without compromising our business goals.