by Credit Suisse

"A little push can really do wonders"

How the Roger Federer Foundation empowers local communities in Southern Africa

Shortly after winning his first tennis Grand Slam at Wimbledon at the age of 22, Roger Federer decided to pursue a very different goal.

“Because of my success, I was making some money on the tour and was able to pay coaches by myself,” he says. “It was time to think about what I could achieve, not just as a tennis player but also as a human being. I have been very fortunate and privileged in my life, so it was a good starting point to share that with the more unprivileged people in this world.”

The Roger Federer Foundation was born. Influenced by his visits to South Africa – his mother’s country of origin – he wanted to give less privileged children, who are at the beginning of their education path, access to quality education, with a geographical focus on Southern Africa and Switzerland. Currently, there are more than 300,000 children enrolled in the Foundation’s programs.

“We believe in the empowerment of children through education and that every child should have the opportunity of a good start in education,” says Roger Federer Foundation’s CEO, Janine Händel. “The two regions we are focusing on seem very diverse, but when it comes to education, and the needs of children, they are the same around the world. All young children learn through play. This is the same in Switzerland, as in Southern Africa, and that's why our approach to improving the quality of early education is universal.”

The power of local engagement

On the World Bank’s new measure of education, which combines quantity and quality of schooling, most countries in Southern Africa rank among the worst performers globally. Attendance and completion rates remain low.

Lack of community engagement compounds the problem. In many cases, education is regarded as a public good to be delivered by the government, with little to no involvement of local communities or parents. As a consequence, many schools lack funding, good governance or parental support, with a detrimental impact on the quality of education they offer.

Many of these schools operate in remote rural areas, where income levels are low and tuition fees are often beyond the means of parents. To ensure the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of projects, the schools need to generate external income streams.

We have a community engagement approach – you need the whole community to participate to guarantee quality education in a sustainable manner.

That is why local communities lie at the heart of the Foundation’s strategy. “We have a community engagement approach – you need the whole community to participate to guarantee quality education in a sustainable manner. And also, once empowered, poor communities can take responsibility in their own hands. They might not be in a position to realize and develop it. So, they need that first push of empowerment,” says Händel. “The most sustainable solutions are those developed by the beneficiaries themselves. African problems require African solutions.”

In Malawi, for example, the Foundation has provided local community members, such as volunteer teachers or preschool committee members, with business and financial skills. It has also provided seed funding for a revolving fund at preschool level, which provides nano- credits to volunteer teachers as an incentive.

The interest rate has, at the same time, created a revenue stream for the preschools to invest in further improvements and maintenance. In 80% of the cases, preschools are able to pay back the seed money, which is used for further scaling of the initiative.

The Foundation only works directly with local NGOs to find solutions that are designed and implemented locally. The communities that benefit take a leading role in the improvement of the quality of education.

The Foundation’s work in Malawi is part of 10-year initiative in the country, made possible by a long-term partnership with Credit Suisse.

Measuring the Foundation’s long-term impact

Over the past 15 years, the Foundation has expanded its activities, working on the basis of an investment strategy and contracting external impact assessments. “Last year was special for us because our first eight-year strategy to help communities develop on multiple fronts came to an end and we achieved our ambitious goal of reaching one million children,” says Händel.

An external evaluation of the strategy’s long-term impact has confirmed its significant influence on general health outcomes, community participation and even business development in the targeted communities. The Foundation has also managed to break down cultural barriers between parents and schools, welcoming parental participation. The external evaluation has confirmed that education with a strong community engagement can lead to significant improvements in other areas, too.

Scaling up through political outreach

Starting in January, the Foundation will formally roll out its second multi-year strategy. Given the funding gaps in education and in particular in early learning in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is little need for a change in geographic focus. However, the organization wants to increase its systemic impact and also use innovative approaches including digital solutions to widen the scale of its projects and their impact on communities and regions. It will have a particular focus on early learning and a giving children a good start in primary school.

“Interventions in early childhood educations are always a package of measures,” says Händel. “It's never just about delivering a book or having good teachers. It's about having a child-friendly learning environment which is stimulating, safe and healthy, including a nutritious meal every day. There is an African proverb that says it needs a village to raise a child. The same is true of education. It needs everybody to provide an environment that is favorable for the child to be educated: parents, the community and the government.”

Beyond the benefits of better outcomes in education and related areas, the most powerful gift the foundation has given the children and families it supports is a new sense of self-belief. “A little push can really do wonders,” says Federer. “And we’re only at the beginning of what is to come for the Foundation”.

We think you'll like this

More from FT The Value of Knowledge channel

Discover more content on the topics that inspire, engage and inform the world we live in today at the FT Channels hub.

Discover more​

FT The Value of Knowledge

FT Channels, a partnership destination that combines impactful and enriching multimedia content to spark curiosity and encourage discovery. Each vertical brings expert insights from the Financial Times and our Partners into the most pressing issues of our time.

The Value of Knowledge is a Financial Times multimedia series on how to meet the world’s changing knowledge needs. It explores the skills, education and investment strategies that will prove critical to global sustainable growth. With reporting from specialist FT journalists and the insights of leading learning experts, the series also includes original research from Credit Suisse on the ‘multiplier’ effect of education and the role impact investing can play.