Rising to an extraordinary challenge together- VPUU appointed implementing partner for Ilifa Labantwana’s ECD COVID-19 Response Project.


As Karin Schimke aptly writes in the Daily Maverick in her article entitled Who will look After the Children:

“On 18 March 2020 , all ECD centres, playgroups, and day mothers were instructed to stop operating. According to a report by Ilifa Labantwana, Nelson Mandela Foundation, ECD Congress and others, most ECD is supplied by non-profit organisations and micro-social enterprises. Most of the people who work in the sector are black women, “providing a service that is needs-based in poor communities with limited cash flows, which places them below the minimum wage”

The closure had immediate, and devastating effects on ECD sites, corroborated by the survey results sent out to ECD operators and researchers which garnered 8,500 responses within days. 

  • 99% reported that caregivers had stopped paying fees because of the lockdown, 
  • 83% said they were unable to pay their staff full salaries, 
  • 96% said their income was not sufficient to cover their operating costs, 
  • and 68% were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to reopen.

To put this in context, 20,000 to 30,000 ECD operators ran the risk of closure, while up to 175,000 people in the ECD sector stood to lose their jobs without economic relief during this time. Not to mention the millions of children who would not be able to attend ECD. Or would be attending ECD’s that were forced to operate under the radar. 

Rex Molefe, director of Motheo Training Institute Trust and member of the National Early Childhood Development Alliance as well as of the government’s national ECD Inter-Sectoral Integrated Forum was quoted as saying:

“The informal ECD sector contributes to the gross domestic product and it delivers an essential service to parents and the economy, yet there is no relief for the sector because most of the care of children is done as social enterprises, and operators cannot access what amounts to ‘soft loans’ from the Solidarity Fund. They also cannot claim UIF.

He went on to add:

“Meanwhile, I worry about the fact that there are children roaming the streets in townships. I worry about their psychological, emotional and physical regression while they are not being cared for properly. We all worry about stunting and malnutrition in children who rely on ECD centres for food.”

In the same article, Rene King, chairperson of the National Early Childhood Development Alliance, (NECDA) says that during Covid-19, the lack of support from the government for this sector has “once again raised its head in the most alarming way”.

“It dramatically exposes the seriousness of the neglect suffered by this part of life in South Africa. Government just doesn’t have the money, the means, or the systems to invest here, but perhaps this could be seen as a time of change once and for all.”

These are concerns shared by Ilifa Labantwana and VPUU.  Intrinsic to our methodology at VPUU, and one of our key strategies, is ECDforALL.  It is one of our Areas of Expertise and is essential to fulfilling our mission of co-creating safe and sustainable neighbourhoods to improve people’s quality of life.

Children are the touchstone of a healthy and sustainable society. How a culture or society treats its youngest members has a significant influence on how it will grow, prosper, and be viewed by others.

Carnegie Corporation 1996 report entitled Starting Points: Meeting the needs of our Youngest Children.

The first 1000 days are the most crucial in a child’s life, as they set the foundation for proper health, growth and neurobiological development [UNICEF]. Intervening at this stage is imperative, as it can change the course of a child’s life, shape their development, and protect against risk factors [Doyle et al. 2009]. Early Childhood Development [ECD] has been identified as one of the most effective violence prevention strategies [WHO, 1990].

The healthy development of children provides a strong foundation for healthy and competent adulthood, responsible citizenship, economic productivity, strong communities, and a sustainable society. Early Childhood Development interventions such as pre-school programmes, home visits, and open space classrooms have great potential to address risk factors and enhance protective factors in children’s lives, thus ensuring they reach appropriate developmental milestones.

In order to break the cycle of poverty, education should begin early. Early Childhood development makes a lot of sense from an economic perspective.

“On a purely economic basis, it makes a lot of sense to invest in the young…early learning begets later learning and early success breeds later success.”  

James J. Heckman, PhD. Nobel Prize laureate in Economics

Early Childhood Development programmes can develop into beacons of hope for children. If conducted effectively, these safe spaces can enhance children’s resilience, especially in informal communities without access to education and resources. This commitment to ECDforALL motivated us to get involved and support this excellent intervention by Ilifa Labantwana. 

Ilifa Labantwana’s ECD COVID-19 Response Project

As mentioned, the COVID-19 pandemic paralysed South Africa’s ECD sector, forcing sites to close and threatening livelihoods and child wellbeing.

Unregistered programmes serving the poorest children were most at risk. In a time when households’ food security would be severely constrained, Ilifa Labantwana saw the particular risk that increased acute malnutrition among young children posed, and the negative impacts for millions of children losing out on essential ECD services. Ilifa urgently mobilised resources and partnerships, raising R36m in funds and launching the ECD COVID-19 Response Project in September 2020. 

The Project’s objectives were to provide a humanitarian response to the crisis – ensuring unregistered ECD sites were in a position to reopen as soon as possible and providing nutrition support to vulnerable children – but also to test various hypotheses for longer-term systems change in the ECD sector.

A combination of poor support from the state and highly stringent re-opening protocols meant that many ECD programmes were in no position to reopen once the lockdown eased, especially because parents were also struggling to afford the fees on which these programmes rely.   

VPUU appointed implementing partner in 3 areas: Siqalo, Grabouw and Villiersdorp

Starting April 2020, Ilifa Labantwana, along with a number of partners, were investigating options for intervening positively, not just in the immediate crisis, but also in innovative solutions that could help to transform the sector more systemically in the longer term. 

With the support of four funders, Ilifa has led a highly ambitious COVID Response Project for ECD. We, along with two other implementing partners, SmartStart and The Unlimited Child, joined Ilifa Labantwana in rolling out a suite of comprehensive support measures at almost 1800 unregistered ECD sites across South Africa. 

The support provided by VPUU was to ECD centres and their staff in Siqalo, Grabouw and Villiersdorp.  Thirty-one (31) ECD’s centres and staff benefited from  site level CoCare vouchers. These vouchers were for food to support staff and children nutritional needs and for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to ensure ECD centre adhered to the COVID-19 guidelines provided by the Department of Social Development (DSD).

VPUU’s work focused on three areas: Grabouw, Siqalo and Villiersdorp.  We have been working is these areas for several years, and were well positioned to support. 

Unregistered ECD programmes were chosen as they serve poor communities most in need of support at this time and, while catering for the ECD needs of the majority of children, receive the least support from the state. 

Ilifa wanted to test and demonstrate ways of reaching genuine unregistered programmes by leveraging partnerships with NGO partners. 

The package of support, included a hamper to enable full compliance with COVID protocols so that these programmes could  get back on their feet and reopen as soon as possible. ECD’s in these communities  offer educational and nutritional support to the children in their communities despite the crisis. 

Staff at Sesona Educare Centre receiving their compliance packs.

More than compliance, the initiative revolved around an innovative voucher system in which regular vouchers are issued to the participating ECD programmes, their value based in the number of children registered at the site. 

The ECD staff themselves also received monthly vouchers to assist them get over their loss of income. This voucher system, known as CoCare,  uses  Flash to send vouchers by SMS to beneficiaries. Flash is well known as they work predominantly with small ‘spaza’ shops based in low-income communities, with hundreds of thousands of spaza shops in the Flash network. 

CoCare vouchers were meant for the purchase of highly nutritious foods within local communities, stimulating local demand for healthy foods and supporting the local economy.

The ECD programme staff also received a voucher every two weeks. They signed up to purchase highly nutritious foods with the vouchers and to use them to feed children returning to their programmes, or to distribute food parcels to children if they remain closed.

The ECD COVID Response Project has always been as much about gathering lessons to feed into long-term systemic change in the ECD sector, as it is about shorter-term relief and support to individual ECD sites and the children they serve during the COVID-19 crisis.  

One of Ilifa Labantwana’s goals, through through implementing partners (SmartStart, The Unlimited Child and VPUU), was to gather information on several crucial areas:

  • the ability of unregistered ECD services to comply with health and safety protocols relating to COVID-19 with limited support; 
  • the role of NGOs in supporting and monitoring such services; 
  • the efficacy of ECD site-level food vouchers as a means of providing children with nutritional support; 
  • the ways in which ECD sites can become nutrition hubs in their communities; 
  • and the role of local food supply chains and neighbourhood “spaza” shops in providing for the nutritional needs of ECD services. 

Ilifa Labantwana visit Siqalo ECD sites:

All implementing partners were tasked with conducting visits to all  participating ECD sites in November 2020. Part of these visits was to conduct extensive surveys and establish the bona fides of the ECD sites. 

Ilifa Labantwana joined us on the 26th November 2020  on a visit  to an informal settlement called Siqalo near Philippi in the Western Cape. 

We were supporting  four ECD sites in Siqalo. The Ilifa Labantwana team  were keen to observe the conditions in these ECD sites, and to see how they had managed to use their COVID compliance support pack and the food vouchers.

As the Ilifa Labantwana team eloquently noted, “Siqalo is a small and fairly recent informal settlement adjacent to the Philippi horticultural area, where many of its residents seek part-time employment. It is characterised by closely packed tin shacks and wooden wendy houses on the undulating Cape Flats dune sand. Siqalo is on private land, but is serviced with portable toilets by the City of Cape Town. Stand pipes have yet to be provided, but many residents have arranged illegal connections to City water pipes running through the area. Likewise, Siqalo is not electrified, although a few residents have managed to tap into passing cables along the nearby Jakes Gerwel drive.” 

On this visit, they visited  three of the four sites they were supporting: 

  • Sesona Educare Centre;
  • Masincedane;
  • New Beginnings.    

 Sesona Educare Centre is the best provisioned with a surprisingly large outdoor play area, complete with wooden play equipment, and a small vegetable garden. Three wooden wendy houses serve as the classrooms and kitchen. The site operators are clearly proud of their work, displaying their qualifications on the wall along with other educational and health posters.

All three sites usually have  around 20-25 children under normal circumstances. During the visit, they were operating with  less than half of their normal cohort attending regularly.

In all three cases, principle and teachers reported  that parents have been reluctant to send their children back to ECD sites due to concerns around COVID-19 or their inability to pay fees. 

Those who have sent their children back are not yet in a position to pay fees, but the support from the COVID Response Project has allowed these sites to reopen and to serve the children anyway. 

The three sites had clearly benefitted from the compliance support packs they have received through the project, which has allowed them to reopen.

 During their visit, they noted the Sesona Educare Centre had impressive COVID safety protocols in place. They had a number of handwashing stations (enabled by the provision of tippy taps), hand sanitiser, and posters displayed on mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing. The staff and children were wearing masks and tables appropirately distanced. A register of everyone entering the site is kept, complete with the required symptom checks. 

Clearly, with support,  Sesona Educare Centre  proves that unregistered ECD services are willing and able to comply with the health and safety protocols and standards, even in an informal settlement context.      

Masincedane crèche, by contrast,  had limited safety protocols in place, despite having received a compliance support pack. Some handwashing stations are set up, but the register and posters, along with masks, were not well enforced.  The VPUU team subsequently engaged with the staff and this situation was improved. 

New Beginnings  did have handwashing and registration stations, while all children and staff wore masks.  The compliance pack had allowed the site to meet the reopening requirements. 

The food vouchers received through the project had also been gratefully utilised. In the latter two sites, the staff are cooking daily meals for those children who attend, while at Sesona they are cooking for attending children and providing small food parcels to the families of other children who would normally be attending. None of these sites have experienced any difficulties in receiving their vouchers and redeeming them at local spaza shops. 

At all three sites, the operators are hopeful that the support they have received will give them momentum to reopen fully in the new year, and to attract their full cohort of children back, with the parents once again able to pay fees. 

Without this assistance, they would not have been able to reopen, or provide nutritional support to the children in their community.

Ilifa Labantwana visit Villiersdorp ECD sites:

VPUU is active in Villiersdorp. We run the Villiersdorp Youth Cafe on behalf of the Department of Social Development and in partnership with the Villiersdorp Municipality. We built the Villiersdorp Neighbourhood Centre as well the Toy Library in the informal settlement.

On Friday, the 23rd of April 2021, Ilifa Labantwana’s ECD COVID Response Project team members, Andrew Hartnack and Sithembile Dube, accompanied our ECD Project Manager (now ECD Lead) Phethang Mabeba on a compliance monitoring visit to the eight ECD sites in Villiersdorp. 

Aerial view of Toy Library and Informal Settlement in Villiersdorp
Aerial view of Toy Library and Informal Settlement in Villiersdorp

The ECD sites in Villiersdorp demonstrate an interesting array of conditions in which ECD programmes can be offered. A few are located in shacks in a crowded informal settlement huddled up against the steep mountainside. There are some in the small town centre, including one in a church. One site is located in the formalised residential area, and another is on a farm down in the valley. 

The team managed to visit six of the sites and speak to their owners. Some ECD programmes cater for Afrikaans-speaking children, while others have isiXhosa or seSotho-speaking children.

Typical of most towns in South Africa, conditions vary greatly between the formal areas and the informal settlements. 
In the formal area Maja Ruiters and her husband own Maja’s Spielskool, which is located in the bottom section of their house.

Using her husband’s pension, they have recently invested heavily in extending this area and making it suitable for ECD. They are in the process of registering this ECD site. Because they have put so much of their own resources into improving the infrastructure the Ruiters are very grateful for the assistance the project has provided: “The government puts all these rules but gives us no support, so your assistance is crucial”, says Mr Ruiters.

They have used the food voucher to provide daily meals for the 10 children who currently attend. They also found the COVID compliance pack very useful, given that they are currently investing all their resources into the site’s infrastructure.

The Ruiters’ daughter-in-law, Gheanine Ruiters runs her own ECD site – Vrolike Voetjies – on a fruit farm just outside the town. Having worked in Maja’s Spieskool for a number of years, she started her own ECD programme two years ago on the farm. She has grown from 5 children to 42 in 2021.  The farm owners have allowed Gheanine the use of a farm building and fenced grounds, but do not support her otherwise. She was deeply grateful for the COVID compliance materials and food because the families whose children she teaches struggle to pay fees.

Gheanine and her staff did not offer meals to the children prior to this project. Because of the site voucher, she hired a cook, and they put together a meal plan for daily feeding.

Across in the informal settlement, Thembi Xhantibe runs Lithalethu ECD centre. She has also introduced a nutrition component into her services due to the voucher, and hired local women as cooks. Thembi is highly enthusiastic about the CoCare vouchers and helped other ECD site owners to redeem theirs when they struggled. 

The local spaza shops did not have the capacity to redeem these vouchers and so Thembi, like others, travelled to Worcester where the Flash store has a wider range of goods. The Villiersdorp sites offer an important learning opportunity for the project given their location in a small rural town in the Western Cape, and their diversity of situations.


During this project, VPUU was rolling-out with the Towards Building a Circular Economy, which was an extensive COVID-19 response programme across 8 areas. It also involved Flash vouchers, and infrastructural support. Both projects showed the strategic value of partnerships based on shared values. A clear implementation plan with robust monitoring and evaluation systems guide these complex projects to success. Most importantly, to be effective you need to be adaptive, and you must work with existing leadership structures to get the buy-in needed.

The project also showed that authentic engagement requires frequent touchpoints, mutual respect and trust. It also showed that more needs to be done at various levels to ensure ECD centres and practitioners are properly valued and capacitated. Our children’s lives literally depend on it.

VPUU strategic alignment:

Other videos to watch:

Ilifa Labantwana ECD COVID-19 Response Project Webinar:

The Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown had a devastating impact on the Early Childhood Development (ECD) sector in South Africa. Ilifa Labantwana implemented an ambitious response project that had a dual purpose: to provide immediate humanitarian relief to unregistered ECD programmes and young children in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdowns; and to test and demonstrate various longer-term systems innovations.


  • Ilifa Labantwana’s Chief Executive Officer Zaheera Mohamed;
  • DG Murray Trust’s Chief Executive Officer David Harrison;
  • Project Lead, Andrew Hartnack;
  • Ilifa Labantwana’s ECD Expansion & Financing Support Officer, Sithembile Dube;
  • Ilifa Labantwana’s ECD Expansion & Financing Support Officer Laura Brooks.