Low Cost Private School Firm Bridge International Keen On Liberia Despite Opposition

Written by Kevin Mwanza

U.S.-based Bridge International is still keen to make a deal with the Liberian government, which wants to try out a pilot project that will see some of its primary schools run by low-cost private schools firms, despite mounting opposition from civil society and teachers union in the country.

The government of Liberia announced in January it plans to turn its troubled pre-primary and primary school system to Bridge International and other private companies, in possibly the largest and most ambitious education privatization scheme in Africa.

The plan is however facing opposition from the United Nations and could cause a nationwide teachers strike in the West African nation.

Bridge International, a company founded in 2007  and funded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and World Bank’s private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), already operates a chain of for-profit low-cost private primary schools in urban slums and rural areas in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and plans to venture into India soon.

“In Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and India we operate a chain of schools, and in Liberia we will be implementing our model into public primary schools,” Lucy Bradlow, Bridge International’s director of public relations, told AFKInsider in an emailed response.

“While our basic model remains the same, our operations differ according to the needs of the communities and countries. Also, the content of the teacher and learner resource materials (teachers’ guides and books) changes in each country as we follow the national curriculum of the country of operation,” she added.

Bridge schools charge as little as $6 per month per pupil.

The company runs more than 400 private schools with about 100,000 pupils in Kenya and has expanded to Uganda, where it has 63 academies, and Nigeria, where it currently has 6 academies.

It plans to educate 10 million children across a dozen countries in Africa and Asia by 2025, specifically targeting low-income families.

The model has however come under criticism from aid agencies and civil rights groups, including ActionAid and Education for All, for taking away money that could have been invested in improving “universal, free and compulsory basic education”.

Bradlow said this allegation were “incorrect” and that IFC’s investment in Bridge helps to contribute to all education, not just its academies.

“In Liberia we are operating free public schools, not only helping create access to free primary education, but create access to a high-quality free primary education,” she said.

Liberia’s Education Minister George Werner said the country would launch the first phase of the project in September, when 50 of the nation’s 5,000 schools will be taken over by Bridge International Academies, which will also design curriculum materials, Africa Middle East reported.

Phase two would have the company and other selected private firms roll out mass implementation over five years that would have initially costed the Liberian government an estimated $65 million.

‘Pilot Scale Down’

According to Bradlow, the Liberian government scaled down the pilot phase of the program to one year at an approximate cost of $11 million that will be entirely funded by external donors.

“The Government will pay what they pay already for all current public schools. The pilot is budget neutral,” Bradlow said.

About 1.5 million pupils are enrolled in the country’s primary schools but only about 20 percent of them complete 12th grade.

Werner said the previously war-torn country that was ravaged by an Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, decided to turn to the private company to save the country’s education system, which has been “in a state of decay for the last three decades”.

“Eventually the Ministry of Education is aiming to contract out all primary and early childhood education schools to private providers who meet the required standards over five year period,” he told Liberia’s FrontPage Newspaper.

The United Nations has come out fighting against the decision to privatize education in the country, with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, saying in March that it was “unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed and violates Liberia’s legal and moral obligations.”

Liberia’s teachers unions have also threatened to go on a national wide strike if the government goes ahead with the proposed deal with Bridge International, Front Page Africa reported.

Bridge, which has devices a way around the electricity and internet challenge facing many rural and slum schools in Africa to enable teachers access material and instructions over tablets, halted expansion in Kenya earlier this year to allow the government to come up with clear regulations on low-cost private schools in the country.

“In Uganda and Nigeria, there are multiple step registration processes, which we are in the middle of in both countries,” Bradlow said. “We never open an academy without proper planning and building approval or without the support of the local community.”

Sign up for the Moguldom newsletter — business news you need to know about economic empowerment for the digital age, delivered to your inbox.