Making Inroads to Impact in Africa

Making inroads to impact in Africa

June/July 2017

June/July 2017

After 6 weeks of training and practice in Laos, I was tasked to launch a directed search of the opportunity space in Africa. I set off alone in June 2017 on an explorative mission to Lusaka, Zambia. After successfully trialling a reading & writing program in Laos, we were looking to make a first move into Africa – to learn about the needs of people there, and to stress-test our existing programmes in a radically different culture.

We set out with 3 big questions:

  • What are the prospects and opportunities for children in urban Zambia?
  • What skills could we equip them with that would have the largest impact on their futures?
  • How conducive an environment is this for developing and implementing our programmes?

Initial Exploration

On day 1, I attended an event put on by a local non-profit. I interviewed many of the attendees, and made connections with several non-profits who later provided valuable introductions to schools and interesting people. Following this, first days were spent getting a lay of the land. Walking town, scouting out schools, following up connections made and conducting interviews to understand the macro-economic situation.

Walking to school


roadside fruit seller


blue science classroom

Visiting schools and observing classrooms

Through connections with other non-profits, I was able to be guided around the lower-income ‘compounds’, visiting homes and local businesses getting an insight into the lives of ordinary people. These non-profits also allowed access to schools early on. With this, I could interview directors and spend time in classrooms – observing teaching methods and running class-wide diagnostics. Such exercises revealed information on students’ economic situations and aspirations, and surfaced useful indicators of writing and reasoning ability.

student writing


About 1 week in, I’d learnt enough to know what schools might be viable, and have some ideas about where we might be most effective. The majority of Lusaka’s low-income families live in the compounds: densely packed shanty towns scattered around the city outskirts. Most of these cannot afford government secondary schools. Instead they send their children to community schools: private, community-run schools, funded largely by donors and outside aid. As well as being worthy places to invest time, these were much more receptive to my presence, welcoming outside help.


Ng'ombe Compound


I narrowed my focus to a single area, Ng’ombe compound. A shanty town on the North side of Lusaka. Its constituents represent the lower income majority of Lusaka, a demographic most in need of better education. Its large quantity of community schools also gave easy, welcome access to classrooms – maximising productive time spent running experiments.

With a shortlist of candidate schools, I could spend more time in classrooms, doing more directed observation and conducting classes to probe students’ skill levels, in areas like business, literacy, reading and speaking.


Business ideas workshops
Generating business ideas from your family's problems. Presenting them to the class.

Business ideas workshops

Generating business ideas from your family's problems. Presenting them to the class.


Computer lessons
Gauging students' computer literacy.

boy in class

Writing exercises
Understanding students skill at expressing their ideas and communicating in written English.

Testing our existing programmes

Over the following two weeks, my focus increasingly narrowed on two schools: Ng’ombe Open Community School and Aisha Project School. Both allowed me to work closely with a small group of students: Grade 8s, aged 14–16, in one; Grade 12s, aged 18–21, in the other. With these students, I could re-run and test many of the exercises developed in Laos.


Absorbing correct grammar rules and vocabulary.

Struturing writing

Generative writing
Using mindmaps to generate ideas and plans for your future.

Speaking with confidence practice

Speaking with confidence
Public speaking practice – designed to build a ritual of practicing and acting on feedback.

Reading letters

Written communication
Letter writing proved a great way to spark a sense of care in students' writing.

productive struggle

Writing & prepositions
Using prepositions to enrich reasoning.

What's next?

Throughout the investigation, I’d report back and discuss findings with the team. Each day was a continual process of feeding back information and adjusting course according to what we’d found. When the time came to leave, I flew back to meet the team in London, to decompress a little and figure out next steps. Two weeks later, we were on a plane back to Lusaka for a more development focused trip.

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© Sam Stephenson 2017