Photography of Zeal Covenant Kindergarten, in Kawangware, Nairobi. The centre an example of an excellent Early Childhood Development Centre in Kenya, run by a Franchisee of Kidogo. Note that at the time of the visit this centre is NOT funded or supported in any way by Theirworld.
Photography of Zeal Covenant Kindergarten, in Kawangware, Nairobi.

Unlocking big change for children in Kenya


In 2015 world leaders set a target that by 2030 every girl and boy should have access to quality early childhood development (ECD). Ever since then Theirworld has been determined to keep that target on track, believing that providing the right childcare and pre-primary education for our youngest children is fundamental to their long-term success and fulfilment.

In recent times Kenya’s leaders have shared that belief, and in many ways the country is a success story for ECD. In the years prior to the declaration of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, which included SDG4 of quality education for all, the government introduced a significant expansion of preschool education.

Unfortunately, children from the most marginalised and discriminated communities continued to lose out, and despite some progress, government levels of investment in preschool remained at 1.8% of its total education budget (UNICEF 2021), significantly below the internationally agreed target of 10%.

Over several years, Theirworld developed strong connections with Kenyan civil society organisations. We commissioned research from local partners on the amount of early education provided in Kenya that included recommendations for improvements.

Kenyan celebrities were recruited to make the case for the early years as Kenya became a key country for our campaigning.

The groundwork had therefore been laid for an early years campaign in Kenya, launched in 2019 in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and local organisations to encourage decision-makers to address that investment imbalance.

Reaching its conclusion in late 2023, the ‘Unlocking big change in pre-primary education in Kenya’ programme had a multifaceted approach: raising public awareness, creating dialogues with officials and local decision-makers, building evidence for policy change and galvanizing action through our 199 Global Youth Ambassadors in the country.

The programme embodied Theirworld’s model of championing transformative change through local partnerships, while amplifying grassroots and regional activism into global messaging and campaigning.

We were delighted that it achieved some quick and notable successes in the form of new government funding commitments to early education.

Background and Context

Wherever a child is born or raised, the first five to six years are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is when 90% of brain development occurs and patterns of learning and behaviour are set for the future. When the early years are done right, a child’s future – their health, employment and ability to contribute to their community – can be transformed.

There is also a clear economic case for investment. Research has shown that every dollar spent on early childhood education is likely to yield up to $17 in return. For countries in sub-Saharan Africa, this return can be as high as $33. Early years interventions can help narrow the wide gaps that exist between children from higher and lower socio-economic backgrounds, as identified by the G20 in its 2018 Initiative for Early Childhood Development.

The challenge in Kenya

Research in 2021 by UNICEF showed that Kenya invested only 1.8% of its education budget in early years education and development. This is much lower than the target set by Theirworld in 2016 that governments and donors should devote at least 10% of their education budgets to the early years – a target then taken up internationally, with all UNESCO member states committing to the target in 2022.

Improving levels of investment was complicated by the fact that responsibility for early childhood development and education rested with Kenya’s 47 County Governments thanks to a highly devolved political system. This meant that different counties adopted different strategies, resulting in variations in the quality of early years education.

Achieving change meant working at the county level to ensure the early years were appropriately represented in strategic plans and budgets. But, as in other countries, public awareness of the importance of the early years was relatively low in Kenya, prompting the need for a public-facing national campaign to raise the issue up the political agenda. Our campaign sought to ensure that every child received the same high-quality service no matter their background or where they came from.

Campaign outline and strategy

The partnership with the Hilton Foundation demonstrated Theirworld’s core campaign strategy and tactics, creating change on the ground through local partnerships to unlock wider-scale opportunity, and using the local network of our Global Youth Ambassador (GYA) programme to lobby decision-makers.

In collaboration with local partners such as the ECD Network for Kenya, the lack of early childhood care and education was identified as the root cause of Kenya’s learning crisis. Their on-the-ground expertise meant we were able to apply vital contextual knowledge to our work.

A campaign goal was set of advocating that leaders should increase investment and meet the 10% early years budget target. We were able to fund further local research, build an evidence base, develop tools and resources to empower local campaigners, and work with them to reach local influencers and build relationships to advance the campaign.

As with any effective campaign, timing was key: national Presidential and County Governor elections were taking place in 2022, and after the polls, all 47 Counties were required by law to undertake a strategic planning process to determine policy and investment priorities for the new five-year administrative cycle. We saw an opportunity to contribute to that process.

We started by mapping our targets and opening a dialogue with officials and elected members at six counties which became the focus of the campaign because ECD was already a live political issue. They were: Nairobi, Machakos, Kilifi, Wajir, Turkana, and Bungoma. These discussions helped us understand the challenges faced by counties when it came to investing in ECD.

Working with a local children’s rights lawyer, and consulting further with local officials and civil society organisations, we produced a political economy analysis that identified pathways for change. This analysis was adapted into an advocacy toolkit for campaigners to first understand and then target the counties’ planning and budgetary processes.

In late 2022 and early 2023, we held training sessions with community activists in Bungoma, Kwale and Kalifi Counties to disseminate the toolkit. The sessions focused on engaging with the public to ensure increased prioritisation for and investment in early childhood development and education centres.

A Theirworld campaign often starts with a hunch or anecdotal evidence gleaned from our network that a key issue or policy area is being ignored or underplayed. We then use fresh research and evidence-gathering to test the theory, and follow that with engaging, public-facing content that simplifies complex jargon into tangible requests that resonate with the wider public.

Several years earlier in Kenya, we tested the validity of a big push for the early years, producing a 2015 report with KANCO, a national network of NGOs, businesses and learning institutions. It found that nearly 40% of Kenyan children aged three and four were not reaching their development milestones and made 14 recommendations for action to invest in the early years.

The report helped prepare the ground for our global #5for5 campaign in 2016, which promoted five key elements – nutrition, health, learning, play and protection – for improved early childhood development; partnerships in Kenya were a key element of the campaign.

Recruiting celebrities to support our messaging is central to our tactical approach, and Kenyan celebrities have been important messengers for the early years. During the #5for5 campaign, comedian Teacher Wanjiku dressed up as a baby in support of the campaign, while in 2023 television star Jacky Vike threw a tantrum in support of our recently launched Act For Early Years campaign.

Carolyne Wanjiku

Carolyne Wanjiku is best known in Kenya as Teacher Wanjiku (Theirworld)

Media outreach and social media amplification are other campaign imperatives. We developed a key relationship with the Nairobi-based communications company Livestream Impact, which helped ensure early childhood education and development were featured in prominent discussions in the national media and on social channels.

Livestream magnified the expertise of our partners, arranging a press huddle with Dr Teresa Mwoma, Executive Director of the ECD Network for Kenya, to outline the importance of investing in the early years. Livestream also took journalists to Bungoma County to speak to early years educators and parents about the importance of funding and investment and secured coverage in the Business Daily newspaper. It also won national print, television and radio spots for county officials concerned about ECD.

Galvanising national action through deploying Theirworld’s powerful and passionate Global Youth Ambassadors is pivotal to our work, so we harnessed the voices of the 199 Theirworld GYAs located in 29 of Kenya’s 47 Counties.

GYAs made significant media appearances and interventions. Early in the campaign, we secured an appearance on national television for Ahmednoor Bashir Haji to discuss ECD. He later wrote an opinion piece in the national paper The Star calling for greater investment in young children.

Ann Mwaniki met the press to outline the importance of the early years ahead of the 2021 Global Partnership for Education’s replenishment summit, co-hosted by Kenya and the UK, a major event in the global education calendar.

To target the summit, 174 young people from across sub-Saharan Africa produced an open letter and recorded campaign messages addressed to Uhuru Kenyatta, the former president of Kenya who was trying to encourage donors to invest in early education. The letter was presented by a group of 30 GYAs ahead of the summit.

The letter said that funding pre-school education was, “one of the smartest, most crucial investments our countries can make”. It drew attention to the low levels of investment that pre-primary education received as a portion of global education budgets and highlighted the national potential for investing in the early years in Kenya.

Campaign Successes

In September 2022 – days after his inauguration – the new President William Ruto announced a new Working Party on Educational Reform. Theirworld participated in the public evidence process to ensure that the needs of younger learners were central to the discussions. Through this, we secured a new annual capitation grant allocating KSH 1,170 to individual learners and an annual allocation of KSH 70,200 for each pre-primary centre. This is in total amounts to around US $130m in new investments. (Report of the Presidential Working Party on Education Reform, 2023).

Separately, following meetings with activists trained in our toolkit, Bungoma County agreed to include a capitation grant for young children in its County Integrated Development Plan for the first time, and agreed to increase the early years budget allocation for 2024.

How Kenya fits into Theirworld’s global campaigning

All our work in Kenya, and in particular the programme with the Hilton Foundation to unlock change for the early years, has exemplified how regional and national campaigns can feed into our global targets and campaigns, and vice versa.

In a particularly direct example of local-to-global success, in 2022, just a year after GYAs delivered their letter to GPE’s replenishment summit, GPE itself agreed to commit to Theirworld’s 10% early years target in all its funding, which amounts to $4 billion until 2025.

Kenyan voices have since in turn been prominent in a campaign that started at a global level – the Act For Early Years campaign, launched in April 2023 to make the case for a worldwide transformation in how the youngest children are provided for.

Building on the partnership with the Hilton Foundation and local organisations, and on our earlier work in Kenya, #ActForEarlyYears featured Jacky Vine, a leading Kenyan comedian and actor, who recorded one of our popular “Global Tantrum” films, where leading performers threw a pretend toddler’s tantrum to emphasise how young children’s needs are being ignored.

Actress Jacky Vike takes part in Theirworld's Global Tantrum in support of the Act for Early Years campaign. For the Swahili version of the film, Jacky reprised her famous character Awinja from popular Kenyan TV show Papa Shirandula.

Actress Jacky Vike takes part in Theirworld’s Global Tantrum in support of the Act for Early Years campaign. For the Swahili version of the film, Jacky reprised her famous character Awinja from popular Kenyan TV show Papa Shirandula.

When the campaign was taken to the UN General Assembly in September 2023, Theirworld organised several events with influential audiences that included bilateral and multilateral donors, government ministers, major child rights organisations and leading corporations. One of the panellists invited to speak was Harriette Chiggai, President Ruto’s Advisor for Gender. During her presentation she said:

There is no better investment in the world than investing in our children. The future of all our countries is dependent on the children we bring up.

Harriette Chiggai, Gender Advisor to the President of Kenya.

There could be no better summary of the belief that drove our early years advocacy campaign in Kenya, and which will continue to motivate us there and around the world to secure a better future for the world’s youngest children.