Model & Strategy

The Problem
Quality early childhood education programs are a proven vehicle for academic success and economic mobility. Yet, countries that do not already have a nationally supported early childhood system struggle to find ways to move from the status quo to a scalable, replicable, and evidence-based program. In South Africa, 80% of lower-income households do not have access to any form of early learning for their children aged 0-5. Over 1 million South African children ages 3-4 are not in any early learning program, and an estimated 2 million more children are in unregistered, informal child care or early learning settings that do not have the resources or support to provide quality programming. The lack of early learning opportunities for these children prevents them from starting school with the foundational skills and knowledge they need to realize their full potential. Millions of children start school behind and never catch up — leading to increasing cycles of poverty.

The Solution
SmartStart is proving that it is possible to deliver affordable, accessible, and high-quality early learning at a national scale in low-resource settings. SmartStart has developed a unique social franchise model, using coaches and clubs to recruit and equip economically disadvantaged women with the training, curriculum, and learning tools to deliver SmartStart’s evidence-based early learning programming. SmartStart provides extensive training and resources to childcare providers to help them understand the work of caregiving and its importance for children ages 0-5; to introduce them and train them in evidenced-based daily routines and curriculum for children ages 3-5; to ensure that they have first aid/CPR training; and to provide them with business training to improve the management of their micro-enterprises. SmartStart’s Early Learning Practitioners — typically under or unemployed South African women — gain both critical early childhood development training as well as the know-how to access government funding and support as micro-entrepreneurs. Children who attend SmartStart programs see dramatic improvements in Early Learning Outcome Measures and are prepared for learning and schooling. SmartStart is simultaneously achieving two bold goals: strong early learning outcomes for underserved young children across South Africa and sustainable livelihoods for women at the base of the pyramid.

Government partnership is at the heart of the SmartStart model and vision. In 2022, SmartStart signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding with the National Department of Basic Education, which will provide the framework for testing new arrangements for co-delivery, funding, and significantly accelerating early learning program access in the next phase of growth.

At a Glance
Founded: 2015
Founder & CEO: Grace Matlhape
Location of work: International, Africa
Johannesburg, South Africa
Giving every child the power to succeed
Meet Grace Matlhape

Grace Matlhape started her professional career as a social worker in forensic psychiatry. She spent the first 15 years of her professional life in mental health, including running a mental health organization. She has spent her professional career working in health, youth leadership development, and education. Grace joined SmartStart as its founding CEO in 2016 to lead innovation on expanding access to quality early learning for 3-5-year-old children in South Africa.


Since 2015, SmartStart has recruited, trained, and supported 14,800 Early Learning Practitioner franchisees, reaching 172,000 children with quality early learning.

Studies show 32%-62% improvements in Early Learning Outcome Measures in children who attend SmartStart programs.