Long Term Impact of a Global Crisis in Nairobi’s Marginalized Communities

Deborah Kimathi, Executive Director of Dignitas which is based in Kenya, returns to GlobalEd Leadership to share her thoughts about non-state schools in Nairobi during the COVID-19 crisis.  And congratulations to Deborah and her team—Dignitas’ Stawisha Instructional Leadership Institute has just been announced as a finalist for the 2019-2020 WISE Awards. That is quite an achievement!

A Community’s Answer to Gaps in Education Provision

As schools around the world have closed their doors, and children have been sent home in the world’s response to COVID-19, our hearts and minds have gone to a particular group of schools and children.  APBET schools (Alternative Providers of Basic Education and Training) are a significant provider of education in Kenya; particularly in our urban, informal settlements.  In Nairobi alone, there are said to be upwards of 3,500 of these schools – largely community based, single owner schools who, without any government support, educate more than 60% of Nairobi’s urban informal settlement population.  These schools survive month to month, reliant on parents’ meagre contributions to keep their schools open.  What does the COVID-19 crisis mean for them?

26% of Kenya’s population is urban (estimated 52% by 2025), yet urban service provision has not kept pace.  Poor, rural families who migrate to urban centres like Nairobi can only access informal housing, employment, and services.  Children living in Nairobi’s informal settlements not only face greater risks to their well-being, but are typically excluded from government’s provision of health and education services (World Bank).  Only 37% of Nairobi’s slum population can access public schools.  In response, community leaders have opened up small community schools to provide education to these excluded children.  (Formally known as APBET Schools) However, educational disparity between slum residents and non-slum residents persists, with slum residents being at a disadvantage relative to their non-slum Nairobi counterparts (APHRC).

Most of these community schools are under-resourced, lack skilled leadership, and trained teachers to help them realise their educational goals. Sadly, as a result, children who are desperate to learn and fight their way out of poverty are deprived once again of a quality education.

Education gains can help young people escape poverty, and it is for this reason that Dignitas invests in the quality of education to ensure a generation of young people have the opportunity to learn, thrive, and reach their potential.  Dignitas delivers innovative training and coaching programs to community school leadership teams to improve instructional leadership, learner engagement and classroom culture so that all schools can become vibrant places for children to thrive and succeed.  Dignitas’ programs build the capacity of community school leaders and teachers to transform children’s opportunities.  To date, Dignitas has partnered with 300 schools, 1500 educators and impacted the learning of 87,000 children.

COVID19- Related Challenges

Students and their Families:  The Government of Kenya made the decision to close schools nationwide as soon as a case of COVID-19 was discovered within the country’s borders.  For the 60% of Nairobi’s population who currently live in urban informal settlements, this was the first in a series of steps that, whilst necessary, have significantly threatened the well-being of children and families.

Children living in marginalized communities such as informal settlements are already furthest behind in learning metrics, and now risk being left even further behind.  Moreover, risks to child well-being have significantly increased with concerns over basic provisions such as food and livelihoods, and additional risks such as child and domestic abuse. 

These are important issues and need our urgent attention.  However, let’s turn our attention for a moment to the APBET school sector in these same marginalized communities. 


Typically, in these Community Schools, teachers are only paid for the months they work.  This is already a challenge during the regular schooling calendar as teachers struggle to survive the year through and often have a second income or small enterprise to make ends meet.  With the arrival of COVID19 in Kenya and the resultant school closures, teachers lost all income immediately and without warning.  Moreover, this loss of income has no predictable end, in a time of global economic hardship.


Community Schools typically rely on weekly and monthly student fee collections.  This source of income halted immediately and without warning.  Most of these schools operate from rental premises.  Without regular income, these schools will be unable to pay rent, and may even lose their school assets in the ensuing tenant-landlord battles.  Some landlords may be kind given the nature of this global crisis, but most will be desperately fighting for their own survival.

Distance Learning

Dignitas is working with the school leadership teams from our partner schools in these communities to equip and support Leaders of Learning – educators who will take on the role of community champions, and support learning and well-being for the children furthest behind, remotely and at a household level.

We are very excited to announce our partnership with Safaricom PLC, Team4Tech, Synthetic, and others who are making this possible.

It’s also been fantastic to see other resources become available at low or no cost – KICD Radio and Educhannel broadcastingEneza Education, Ubongo KidsLonghorn Publishers and more.  Dignitas will be integrating the use of these resources into our support for households and learners.

Of course, there are many households in the urban informal settlements who do not have online access, whether because of poor infrastructure or connectivity, or a lack of devices.  Dignitas has made plans to assess this and reach them also, so that no child is left behind.


When school reopens, beyond the questions of exams, progression, catchup and assessment, there is a fundamental question as to how many of these schools will actually be able to reopen.  Students may have disengaged from learning completely – perhaps because of lack of access to learning resources, perhaps as a result of parental support that was lacking, perhaps because they’ve been literally starving and fighting for survival.  Students in marginalized communities may need to help their families recover economically as a priority over education, potentially leading to high drop-out rates.  Even in households where return to school is a priority, there is a question as to whether families will be able to pay fees given the economic devastation that is unfolding.

Further, if schools do fail to remain financially viable and reopen, there will of course be a question of where and how learners will return to school.  Currently, these community schools cater for more than 60% of this population. The role of the non-state sector is a hotly debated topic and whilst at Dignitas we do advocate for quality public education provision for all children, we also recognise the massive gaps in the public system and the current work of the APBET sector to bridge those gaps.  If these schools were to suddenly close, would the public education system be able to accommodate and offer quality education to the hundreds of thousands of children left standing outside the school doors?


The APBET sector needs a plan – who will support them for this season?  The sector needs partners who will help them weather this storm and ready them for the road back to stability.  Why?  So that the children who are furthest behind, don’t get left further behind.

Here are links to learn more about Dignitas’ work in Kenya and here’s Deborah’s bio

Since millions of non-state schools are operating in low and middle-income nations, we need to support their work as much as we support the work of state schools.  It’s all about supporting ‘good schools’ regardless of their status as public or private.

Thanks for reading!

Paula & Maxie

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