Foundational Skills. A critical skill set for those furthest behind by Virginia Ngindiru

We live for many causes but mostly causes that rest close to our hearts. Causes that leave behind a lasting positive impact on the lives of those we come across. For Zizi Afrique, this cause will be shared with her partners and friends during the launch of her inaugural strategy 2021-2025, ambitious, but who doesn’t live to surmount hard things? They say, if your dream does not scare you, it isn’t worth living for.

Our work with children focusses on the many children who attend school but fail to learn. Just like we celebrate the first words a child makes, so should we celebrate the basics of reading and the ability to understand what is being read. Previously, assessments have shown that a tenth of learners exit primary schools in Kenya without the basics of reading, with those furthest behind bearing the greatest brunt of this disadvantage. Those from poor households, arid and semi-arid regions, informal urban settlements or rural settlements are always at a disadvantage. In most cases, these are first generation learners in their communities and families. When they fail to read at the right time, we perpetuate a cycle of illiteracy, poverty, disease and shattered dreams.

This lack of competencies is a cause close to our heart as a foundation, and we have committed to identify those lagging furthest behind and hasten their acquisition of foundational competencies. The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), one of the Foundation programs, was launched in 2018 and aims at supporting children to read with understanding and reason with numbers. To date, the initiative has benefitted over 20,000 learners from rural, poor performing schools in Turkana, Bungoma and Tana River counties. The choice of these counties was informed by the Uwezo 2015 assessment report, which ranked them among the bottom 10 counties in basic literacy and numeracy assessments, thus befitting our criteria of furthest behind. Through like-minded partners, similar initiatives have been implemented in counties such as Marsabit, Migori, Nairobi, Kajiado, Laikipia, among others, with promising results. Within 30 days, more than half of children enrolled in the learning camps become independent readers.

On the occasion of the International Literacy Day, we celebrated the milestones made by these children. Not only the ability to read, but the sense of confidence and self-belief so evident during their presentations. The opportunity to connect with each other virtually, across the 3 counties, enjoy the poems, songs and stories opened a new chapter for each of them. ‘I have learnt something new today,’ one was quoted saying.

The conviction that they are meant for greater success is also evident in the excitement witnessed in the community-based digital learning initiative currently happening in Bungoma, an initiative championed by selected parents who organize peer learning in their households. In some clusters, the champions have succeeded in nurturing this hunger for knowledge as their clusters have attracted guest learners during the peer reading sessions. This creates room for them to appreciate each other as well as advance their comprehension as they engage with varied materials in groups.

These are just but a few stories of the impact that investing in foundational literacy and numeracy skills can have. Being able to read has revived dreams that would otherwise have never been realized.

I want to become a doctor so that mothers in this village do not have to travel the long distances to access health care,’ Bakari says.

The period between now and 2025 is one we look forward to with lots of optimism. As the world reflects on the impact of Covid-19, we know that the proportion of learners without foundational skills has increased from the 617 million (pre-covid) by about 25 percent. Other challenges such as low access to technology as an enabler for learning characterize the EdTech innovations space. Parents and communities have been worst hit economically challenging their ability to invest more in education through actions as simple as ‘being there to follow up on their children’s learning. However, we forge forward unbowed, confident that the networks we have created across all levels of implementation, from the grassroots upwards, will converge to facilitate attainment of our vision of ‘A world where all children and youth are endowed to learn and thrive’.

We are curious about many things. For instance, how can technology be adapted to serve those at the bottom of the learning pyramid, including children out of school? How can we sustain the modest gains made during direct implementation to avert risks of these children falling further behind? What competencies would a ‘great teacher’ for learners’ furthest behind espouse in the regular classroom?

We invite you into our space, during the launch and beyond, to dream about these questions and create solutions that are alive to our context. In the spirit of collaboration, we also urge you to start from where you are. What if you adopted a household back in your village and walked with them through the foundational journey? Might that be the spark we need to create a learning community that thrives despite the challenges around us? How can you mobilize the youth around you to champion literacy and numeracy in your community? Our African values call for ‘oneness’ in the upbringing of the child, and this might be the cord we need to strike to bring about better educated individuals, families and communities!

Writer-Virginia Ngindiru, is a Senior Manager at Zizi Afrique Foundation. For feedback, send an email to

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