Fostering a Culture of Learning in Rwanda

Written by Nazanine Scheuer, Save the Children
This post originally appeared on Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs

Fostering a Culture of Learning in Rwanda
How can you learn if you can’t get books in your own language? And how can that situation be remedied if 1) your nation has only three local publishers and 2) they’ve published just 12 children’s books in the language spoken by the vast majority of your country’s citizens?

That was the challenge faced by schoolchildren in Rwanda – until Save the Children stepped in to create a social enterprise partnership platform that engaged the private sector in local book publishing. By enabling the start-up and training of Rwanda-based publishers and linking them to key actors across the value chain, we strengthened the supply of locally created, quality reading materials, stimulated demand and helped local entrepreneurs build thriving businesses.

The result? By providing students with vastly improved access to books that are both culturally relevant and language-appropriate, the venture is making significant strides toward creating a culture of literacy and learning in Rwanda. We have helped local publishers produce over 1,000 stories, of which more than 600 were approved for use in schools by the Rwanda Education Board. At the same time, the project has built – and continues to build – a new industry that’s making significant contributions to the local economy.

Why Local Publishing?
As Save the Children enters our second century of creating innovative approaches to improving life for children, women and their families around the world, we are increasingly engaging in market-based, impact driven solutions to social and economic challenges. Investment in these initiatives has become a driver of our strategy to build and strengthen local market systems and underpin long-term, self-sustaining economic development.

In the case of Rwanda, it was widely recognized that a shortage of books in their mother tongue, Kinyarwanda, was preventing millions of girls and boys from building literacy skills and discovering the joy of reading. Furthermore, what was available was poorly written, edited, illustrated and designed and/or for the wrong age group. Not only did local publishers lack the skills, knowledge and experience to produce high quality children’s books, but, as a result of low demand for non-textbook materials, they lacked incentives to produce good quality reading materials.

An added hurdle to availability of appropriate books was the lack of access to or within schools, as well as a lack of the skills necessary for teachers to use the books effectively.

Traditional literacy initiatives addressed the gap in book availability by developing materials externally or facilitating the translation of foreign-sourced materials into Kinyarwanda. While that approach was somewhat effective in the short term, it did not offer a pathway to sustainable solutions. Equally important, it largely ignored the role local publishers could play in enhancing their communities’ economies by building and expanding profitable business ventures with long-term viability.

Creating an Economic Eco-System
In 2013, with an initial investment from public- and private-sector partners, we designed and implemented the Rwandan Children’s Book Initiative (RCBI). The goal was to foster a reading and learning environment to improve literacy. By developing a local publishing industry through a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach, we were able to strengthen all aspects of the book value chain, from developers to end users. We created a thriving new industry in Rwanda and also achieved our objective of improving literacy outcomes and creating a culture of reading among children. In 2016, we received an additional investment that enabled us to further expand the model, building on the eco-system already created.

We focused our model on five key activities central to success:

Skills Development

o   Provide quality, relevant training and ongoing mentoring to the publishing industry and its constituents;

o   Work in partnership with private sector, book-publishing actors to tap into resources and expertise (i.e. a partnership with Penguin Random House.)

Demand Generation

o   Support the establishment of communities of practice for each segment of the industry;

o   Invest in initiatives that established a market for the newly developed, local-language books.

Supply Strengthening:

o   Maintain a book-review committee to provide feedback to publishers, assess quality and inform procurements;

o   Establish incentive-driven agreements to encourage publishers with low capital to invest in quality materials;

o   Facilitate an understanding of quality criteria to allow negotiation of better prices/more affordability;

o   Formulate quality-assurance guidelines;

o   Create a book purchasing consortium comprised of different projects/programs/organizations.

Advocacy

o   Invest in advocacy and policy formulation work to create a conducive book-publishing environment;

o   Engage relevant decision makers and build evidence to support the importance of a local publishing industry;

o   Build coalitions around the importance of involving the private sector to develop and maintain quality materials, educational opportunities and a knowledge based society;

o   Raise awareness through meetings, conferences, campaigns and media.

Through this model, we demonstrated the value of a “whole chain” approach that connects publishers with government agencies, the private sector and local communities. In doing so, we increased collaboration between these actors to establish a self-sustaining industry that draws on the local mix of skills and expertise.

Compelling Results
Thanks to RCBI, the quality, quantity and range of local-language children’s books published and distributed in Rwanda has grown significantly. In fact, there are now more than 1,000 books for children from 0 to 9 years of age available from publishers that received our support. An added bonus of the project is that girls are increasingly likely to be the protagonists in these stories and are more often portrayed in positive roles. By 2019, almost a third of the children’s books featured girls as main characters.

As for the impact on local economies, most of the participating publishing houses have grown, often from just one person to an entire staff. Notably, a third of the active publishers are women! With a stronger capital base, these publishers are able to compete for contracts and access markets that were previously unavailable to them. Additionally, the publishers are diversifying their activities beyond Kinyarwanda children’s books and even beyond the boundaries of Rwanda. Some have begun co-publishing textbooks in foreign countries, while others have sold rights for publishing their books in additional languages or sold rights overseas.

This is important because generating income allows them to invest in the production of more books and other learning materials. For example, many publishers are investing in digital educational materials such as animations, alphabet apps and audio books and are building online e-bookstores. They’re also forming partnerships with local schools, writing books for older readers and offering books on important topics that align with national development priorities.

In all, we’ve counted more than 250 new actors contributing to the industry, whether as authors, illustrators/artists, editors, designers, booksellers or administrators, underscoring the thriving industry created by the project.

“There were no trainings for publishers and no local publishing schools. I had an interest in this field because I am a writer, and I worked in a printing company. When I started my company, I wanted to create products children would enjoy, but didn’t know which way to go to achieve that goal…. So Save the Children helped me bring my vision to life.”

– A Rwandan publisher trained by Save the Children

What’s Next?
The bottom line is that the RCBI project has exceeded its goals, helping children learn while also building a flourishing children’s book publishing industry in a nation that previously had no such aspiration. In our next phase, we plan to increase distribution across the country including in remote communities, amplify women’s empowerment and further improve literacy outcomes. Concrete examples include: establishing micro-libraries; starting women’s authorship groups; developing innovative, income-generating activities to increase book sales and incentivize reading.

Thanks to the support of our committed partners in the U.S. and Rwanda, this project has effectively changed the lives of children, women and entire communities. To learn more or get involved, please contact Nazanine Scheuer at nscheuer@savechildren.org. And do stay tuned for the next chapter!

Leveraging Brain Science and Our Program Legacy to Support Early Child Development during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Educators, service providers and families are grappling to find the best ways to support early learning and healthy development while the world stays safer at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Save the Children has been actively leveraging our expertise as a leader in early education to support children and families across America through our SAVEWITHSTORIES campaign and our public COVID-19 Resource Page. We know that even while schools are closed, stores are empty, and many are struggling to pay bills, children’s brains are continuing to grow – with more than 1 million new neural connections forming every second, laying the foundation for all future learning, behavior and health. It is now as important as ever to help caregivers to provide young children with love, stability and learning opportunities in the face of uncertainty and change.

With extensive experience in helping rural communities prepare children for success in school and life, we are particularly mindful of the impact of the pandemic on children and families in geographically isolated and low-resourced communities. Here, infant mortality rates are higher than average and one in five children is growing up in poverty. These remote pockets are struggling with unemployment, violence, addiction and poor access to essential educational and healthcare resources – and the effects of the pandemic are intensifying these problems. Although rural communities face many of the same challenges as urban ones, they often don’t receive the same attention.

With a strong history of inspiring breakthroughs in rural communities across the United States, we are committed to focussing national attention on the needs of America’s forgotten communities, while bringing cutting-edge science and evidence-based programs directly to children and families there. Working with national and local partners, we employ a collective impact approach and build local capacity to deliver high quality early childhood education programs to those who need them the most. Vroom®, a Bezos Family Foundation innovation, is a critical resource in our work to advance early learning in rural communities. Vroom translates research on early brain development into meaningful, actionable activities for families to do with their young children. As families spend more time together at home than ever, Vroom’s science-based tips and tools inspire families to turn their shared, everyday moments into Brain Building Moments™. We have integrated Vroom into multiple facets of our pandemic response.

During this extraordinary time, we demonstrate our organizational commitment to collaboration, creativity, integrity, accountability and ambition daily in home offices, school cafeterias, warehouses, and front porches around the country to ensure that rural families have the resources and supports they need to foster healthy childhood development. While the pandemic has spurred us to innovate more rapidly, increase our use of technology, and accelerate our partnerships, we’ve also returned to our organizational roots: We’re leveraging our history of meeting the needs of children in rural communities, which began in the United States during the Great Depression.  

In 1932, Save the Children got its start in America serving children and families in Harlan County, Kentucky – the heart of coal country – by providing hot meals to children in coal camps. The impact was immediate. Undernourished children were better fed, school attendance increased and grades improved. This effort became the model for the federal hot lunch program. A decade later, children in more than 70,000 schools across the United States were served publically funded hot lunches. Now, almost 90 years on, in response to COVID-19 our local early childhood staff are working tirelessly to address food insecurity by supporting school meal preparation and distribution during school closures. In some communities, our staff facilitate daily “grab-and-go” meal pickups in school parking lots, elsewhere they ride school busses for hours to reach the most remote corners of their districts – all to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry while schools are closed. We have always recognized the importance of health and nutrition to children’s overall development and learning.

We’re also committed to providing educational and mental health supports along with our meal distribution activities. In collaboration with partners, we’ve paired educational resources within the meals, including Save the Children’s Weekly Learning Activity guides and Vroom’s curated Tips™ for activities – At Home, Calm & Connect, and Resources for Stressful Times. We are also connecting families with other critical resources such as cleaning supplies, diapers, books, school supplies, games and toys. We are taking every opportunity to make personal connections and share brief moments of joy with those who may be feeling lonely and isolated. Our staff members smile, wave and greet children and their families by name as they distribute meals and resources. Some have included personalized notes with the meals, while others have organized ‘parades’ to follow the buses distributing them; teachers and staff honk from their cars decorated with signs of encouragement and streamers, while families stand at their doors and gates to wave and cheer!

To support parents and caregivers enrolled in our early childhood programs, we’ve developed strategies to engage families that comply with social distancing guidance and we’re tailoring our training and technical assistance offerings to address the needs of our local staff.Because our early childhood staff are local hires, they often face the same challenges as those of the families they serve – they too are members of the same community struggling with a lack of resources and services, increasing rates of drug addiction and incarceration, and limited economic opportunities. We’re providing more training on psychological first aid and on psychosocial support for caregivers to our front-line staff so that they can manage their own health and wellbeing, as they work to support so many other caregivers in their communities.

Our alternative program strategies allow our local staff to maintain communication and support families through telephone calls, text messaging, social media platforms and video conferencing to regularly check-in with families, identify their needs, and share information on local resources. To advance caregivers’ knowledge and capacities, our staff are reviewing information on child development with them and encouraging caregivers to engage in activities that promote healthy developing and learning while at home. In addition to regularly scheduled communication, our staff are offering “office hours” when families know they will be available to connect and receive support in the moment.

Mindful of the impact of the digital divide on rural communities’ access to online information, resources and supports, our alternative approaches include high-, low- and no-tech strategies, and have the flexibility to accommodate variation in access across our program participant population, as well as our local staff who themselves may not have reliable access. This work is informed by a recent technology needs assessment conducted by West Ed (2018) in the rural communities that we serve. It demonstrated that although a vast majority of our program participants have access to a smart phone, many lack access to broadband internet and reliable cell phone service. Additionally, many families struggle to cover the cost of their digital device and internet service, while paying for basic needs such as food and utilities. To meet the needs of these families, our staff are making printed materials and other resources available to families via mail, by home delivery, or by pick up at a central community location – such as a local grocery store.

For families with access to digital devices and reliable internet access, our alternative program strategies have allowed us to rapidly innovate and increase our use of social media and online platforms to engage our participants and their communities further. To address variation in our local staffs’ proficiency in using technology, we are providing coaching and peer learning opportunities to identify and scale successful strategies across our program communities. Staff are rising to the occasion. Despite their initial apprehension, many quickly acquired new tech skills and have reported the success of their first virtual meetings with their program participants. The rewards have affirmed their hard work: Caregivers are connecting and sharing ideas and strategies for incorporating learning and engagement into their new daily routines at home and children are excited to see familiar faces and to also engage! For some families, these virtual meetings have provided an opportunity for additional family members to participate in our programming, such as parents previously unable to attend home visits or parent-child groups due to their work schedules.

In order to reach and engage caregivers across our rural partner communities, our staff are using social media to make resources and prerecorded programming publically available, including virtual book readings, and Vroom Tip activity demonstrations. Community partners, school staff and local officials have joined as “guest readers,” and in some communities, local officials and businesses have provided gift cards to encourage participation in our virtual programming.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is creating new challenges for families and providers around the world and is exacerbating the existing inequities facing children and families in rural America – Save the Children, together with our partners, is innovating and adapting to provide caregivers with the tools, resources and support needed for families to be safer and learning at home.

Highlights from the field:

Alma Rodriguez, Early Childhood Coordinator, shares a book and Vroom Tip with her home visiting families and engages them online.


In California, Save the Children is connecting with families on social media and pairing favorite children’s books with Vroom Tip activities to keep families engaged in shared reading while at home. Families respond to posted questions and share their experiences of Brain Building at home! One home visiting participant shared a video of her daughter joining in the #SAVEWITHSTORIES campaign! In the recording, her daughter sat proudly on the living room rug, carefully turning each page of her favorite book and retelling the story – complete with characters’ voices and lots of facial expression – just as she’d seen multiple celebrities do online!

Kim Bolling, Kindergarten Readiness Ambassador, delivering meal baskets and educational resources to local families.

In Kentucky, Save the Children staff are demonstrating the countless learning opportunities available while families prepare food and share meals together! Staff are boarding Rosie the Kindergarten Readiness Bus to deliver meal baskets that include ingredients for a family dinner paired with a printed booklet of Vroom Mealtime Tips! In a neighboring community, staff have created a weekly cooking show posted on social media featuring a caregiver and child demonstrating a Vroom Tip cooking activity.

Lacey Montgomery, Kindergarten Readiness Ambassador, fills a community resource box with educational resources.

In Mississippi, Save the Children is helping families to blend Brain Building Activities™ into their home routines to develop math skills and keep families healthy! Staff are distributing learning resource kits to program participants, local Head Start partners and families throughout the area through a local community resource box at the entrance of a playground closed due to COVID-19 (featured in photo). The resource kits engage caregivers and children in Vroom Math Tips and include measuring cups, rulers, ice cube trays, and Play-Doh. Additional kits include cleaning and hygiene resources, such as wipes, tissue and soap, all paired with related Vroom Tip activity cards.

Jennifer Blackwell, Early Childhood Coordinator, delivers disinfectant wipes and resources to first responders and local childcare providers.

In Tennessee, Save the Children staff are meeting a critical community need by providing local law enforcement officers, first responders, local child care providers and program participants with disinfectant wipes and educational resources.  Across the state, staff are sharing a recorded book reading every day on social media, modelling dialogic reading practices for caregivers and engaging children during the shared reading. Parents have reported that each time the Play & Learn Group leader pauses to ask a question, the children excitedly shout their answers back to her… eager to engage again with their group teacher and to connect the story back to their lives!

Michelle Hipp, Early Childhood Coordinator, delivers resource bags directly to families’ homes.

In West Virginia, Save the Children staff are ensuring that families have what they need to promote learning and healthy development at home by bringing resources directly to families’ front porches! They fill Vroom bags with food, books and printed learning resources – including Vroom Tips – for families who don’t have broadband internet or reliable transportation.

Key Resources

Coronavirus and Kids: Resources from Save the Children:

  • Weekly Learning Activity Guides for children under 5, students in grades K-1, and students in grades 2-6 (English/Spanish)
    • How to talk to kids about coronavirus (English/Spanish)
    • How to help kids cope with extended school closures (English/Spanish)
    • Five tips for adults for self-care and coping with stress (English/Spanish)
    • Relaxation activities to do at home with kids
    • Best practices for reading with your child (English/Spanish)
    • Fun ways to incorporate math (English/Spanish)
    • Ten family learning activities (English/Spanish)
    • Five tips for grandparents on staying connected
    • Our Picks: Free educational websites and apps (English/Spanish)
  • Vroom®:
    • New Vroom Tip™ collections (English/Spanish): Calm & Connect ages 0-5, At Home ages 0-5, Tips for Stressful Times
    • Vroom COVID-19 eNews
    • Vroom Moments at Home – new video playlist
    • Weekly Tip videos on Facebook (Facebook.com/joinvroom) every Tuesday at 10am PT