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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Road to Marondera

Alice Chitumba Pangwai is a lovely African lady, just entering her sixth decade, with a big smile that belies her steely determination. Her mission: to deliver private high-quality education for those in the lowest economic bracket in Zimbabwe, some of the very poorest families in the world.

As one of several children of unemployed field workers back in 1975, her education was affected by constant fear of economic disruption and political rebellion.

“I had to work for my school fees at the age of 12 as well as those of my two siblings, who were too young to work on the school farm,” Alice tells me. “Such mission schools, now long vanished, at least back then allowed us to work our way through.”

The load was huge, and she says it is still with her today. She burns with a dream that no poor child should go through the roller-coaster education she suffered. She also has an ironclad belief that in education the private sector clearly outperforms the government sector.

The result is both counterintuitive and astonishing—a private school for mostly poor boys and girls located in a deeply rural part of a basket-case country.

As James Tooley’s ground-breaking and award-winning book, The Beautiful Tree (Cato Institute), informs us, millions of poor children are getting a superior private education thanks to educational entrepreneurs such as Alice. (See Tooley’s Freeman article on the subject here.)

“Low-cost private education in developing countries in Africa and Asia is playing a hugely important role,” Tooley told me. “Research has shown that in urban areas such private schools are serving a majority of the poor and outperforming the government schools—at a fraction of the cost. Schools run by people such as Alice are part of a good news story coming out of Africa that deserves our attention and support.”

He named Alice as one of his most inspiring educational entrepreneurs for the poor because “she is a woman entrepreneur who is battling against the odds in extraordinarily adverse circumstances with great tenacity and endurance.”

On my recent visit to Zimbabwe, my driver Harold and I set off east on the “freeway” to visit Alice at her school in Marondera. The road, the major link to Mozambique, has one lane each way and is narrow and badly paved, albeit with tarmac.

We headed east through farm land that had once been hugely productive. Looking right and left the whole way I never once spotted a single fully functioning farm. “The soil is rich and the water is plentiful,” observed Harold, “but the war veterans are just not interested.”

This country has had a long voyage from its conception as Southern Rhodesia, then Rhodesia, through to the modern Zimbabwe. Its potential is astonishing, and given the right free-market incentives and property rights under the rule of law, this nation could rocket.

However, in 2000 President Robert Mugabe began a campaign that has so far driven out some 280,000 whites, many of them farmers. Today their population is reported to be a mere 20,000. Their confiscated farms have been handed over to black veterans of the so-called Zimbabwean National Liberation War, along with assorted cronies, judges, ministers, and girlfriends.

“The war veterans farm enough to subsist with a few small plots by their houses,” Harold told me. “The rest of the land they simply ignore.” It would not be unusual for a veteran to have received a 200-acre farm, work just 5 percent of the land, and let 95 percent go to rot.

“This used to be good for tobacco farming and cattle ranching,” observed Harold, who had driven the road often in earlier, more prosperous times.

We passed hundreds of traders by the side of the road. At least somebody was growing something, I thought. But I was mostly wrong about that. The wild honey, carrot, or lettuce vendors were selling locally produced items, as were the toy makers. But according to Harold, the same didn’t apply to the many women with sacks of potatoes or oranges on display. “They buy from wholesalers—this food is not from here,” he explained.

Zimbabwe is currently ranked last of all countries for which data are available in the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom of the World Index.

After passing through all this on a bone-jarring road amidst nerve-wracking traffic, the journey had left me depressed. We entered Marondera (population 30,000), passed a mass of Kombis (the ubiquitous white minibuses that provide most people’s only alternative to walking), and came to the agricultural show ground where the Early Bird Learning Centre is based.

Twenty years ago Alice, by then 30 and a qualified primary teacher, started her own school with three pupils in a log cabin at the back of her home. Five years later she had 15 students—nine primary and six secondary. She started searching for space to rent and hit on a great idea: The agricultural show ground sat unused and totally empty save for a few days in the middle of September each year. Its several acres of open area and various structures would provide an excellent site for a school. She cut a deal with the owners in 1998 and moved in with 30 pupils.

In the Zimbabwean school year August is normally a holiday month, but Alice saw no reason that it could not be September instead. And so each year in late August every single desk, chair, book, blackboard, computer, and file has to be moved into temporary storage to make way for the agricultural show. Everything is then returned in early October for the school’s reopening.

Most parents in Africa are poor. They struggle to feed, clothe and even house the children for whom they are responsible. They are often not the biological parents in a country where average life expectancy barely hits 40. “Easy access to a decent education is a difficult challenge,” Alice says. Education is often low in their hierarchy of needs. But to Alice it is imperative. “The eradication of poverty will remain a pipe dream without proper education,” she says. In her view a combination of academic rigor and some technical skills is the road to “total freedom, self esteem, and self reliance.”

The school enrollment soared to over 600 pupils in 2005. “But the conversion in April 2009 from the Zimbabwe dollar to the U.S. dollar hit us very hard indeed,” she explains. “People woke up one morning to find they had nothing in the bank.”

Today Alice still rules the roost at the agricultural show ground though with a lower enrollment of 200. But it has not dampened her infectious enthusiasm.

The pupils wear smart blue uniforms, except for the juniors and seniors, who are in red. As we toured the campus we entered half a dozen different classes. The entire room promptly stood. Their discipline and respect for Alice were impressive.

I reduced a class of 13-to-14-year-olds to a fit of giggles when I asked, “How many of you are driven to school and how many take a bus?” It turned out that of the current student body of 200, only five are carpooled in and the remaining 195 walk up to seven miles to school.

Alice is full of stories of alumni who have done well. Tirvanhu’s parents paid his fees in grain from a rural area over 100 kilometers away. He is now a banker, while his brother Blessing prospers as a caterer in a top hotel. Orphan Dunmore is now an accountant.

“Most parents come and help in some way,” Alice says. The most obvious contribution during my visit was from the local tailor, Mr. Diamond, who was busy sewing school uniforms to pay part of his children’s tuition.

So how does the Early Bird Learning Centre work? Alice’s enrollment appears to be 25 percent middle class paying $600 a year and 75 percent poor paying $150 a year. It is a system of cross-subsidization. Tooley commented to me, “In good times it is a for-profit concern. Given the bad times they’ve been through, it’s probably barely breaking even at the moment, but definitely it should be noted as a for-profit concern.” He continued: “In common with many of the low-cost private schools, the school manager, often on the advice of teachers, uses some discretion on what fees to charge. The fees might be set at $10 per month. In a typical school, 75 percent might pay the $10, while the remainder have varying degrees of concession, depending on their perceived circumstances.”

Alice is disparaging about the State sector: “Government teachers are always on strike, sometimes for two terms at a time.” At such times her enrollment soars but then plummets once the strike is over. Understandably this pains her.

She claims that standards are a lot lower in the State schools and classes are huge, with as many as 40, 50, or even 60 being taught together. Her classes contain no more than 20 students at primary level and 35 at secondary. Not one of the classes I saw had more than 25, and some only contained 10 or 12 students. She also abhors the government policy of hot-sitting, which teaches children in multiple daily shifts. This system explains why there had been so many children in different-colored uniforms walking to school as Harold drove me along at around 10:00 or 10:30 that morning—they were second-shift State-school kids on their way to class.

In contrast Alice’s school day begins at 7:30 a.m. (8:00 in winter so that even the children who live a long way from school are not walking in the dark) and finishes at 4:00 p.m.

Alice is achieving impressive results. Her pupils achieve a better pass rate than other local students with good grades. There is no dumbing down here. These are tough exams, which put her graduates at least at U.S. sophomore level. “I’m not handing out fish and making them dependent. I’m giving them all fishing rods,” she proclaims loudly with a big beaming smile.

“It used to be that the boy child had preference and that at the end of Grade 8 (age 13) the girls were married off,” she continues, “but that has changed.”

Early Bird alumni are now to be found in banking, catering, hotels, teaching, and abroad in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Namibia. But many also graduate and “sit at home,” as Alice puts it, or work as house maids for $30 per month because the cost of a university degree is far beyond them.

The ever-restless and ambitious Alice has two new initiatives in hand. She has sold her own home to purchase a 12-acre stand next to the show ground and has started to build her own campus. Her home, she tells me, “was big and beautiful. Now I am living in a durawall temporary shelter with no electricity for the past five years. But that cannot be compared to the land I have for the new campus.”

She continues: “If only I get help to build, then my heart can go to rest. It is one thing to have great ideas but being poor they add up to nothing as they starve to death before your eyes. That is the situation I am in. With all this land strategically positioned in a central business district of a major town but with no money to complete the construction, this eats me up day and night since I live here on the campus.”

It is all on hold following the enormous inflation and ensuing dollarization. Even so, I came away surprisingly hopeful that Alice will succeed and create a great campus.

Her second project is to add a vocational or skills element while maintaining high academic standards. Welding, carpentry, and tailoring are planned. Computers and video are already on offer to a limited degree. An entrepreneurship element is soon to be launched.

I returned to Harare inspired and dusty.

Later, at his request, I met the minister for education, Senator David Coltart, a white member of President Mugabe’s much-vaunted “inclusive” government and a constitutional human-rights lawyer of distinct classical-liberal leaning. He expressed admiration for people such as Alice, though he had yet to meet her, and admitted that many of her sharp criticisms of the State rang true.

He explained how the collapse of the currency and dollarization in 2009 had left the education system with literally no resources. “We started charging for State schools because the education sector has been seriously underfunded by government for two decades,” he explained.

So there sits Alice Chitumba Pangwai in Marondera, Zimbabwe, a rural town in one of the poorest and worst-run countries in the world.

To one side of her there is a vibrant, independent private educational sector. These include boarding schools with names like those of Oxford or Cambridge colleges and whose rugby and cricket matches are reported in the sports pages of Zimbabwean national newspapers. They charge as much as $15,000 a year, and their parents are the well-heeled elite—ambassadors, ministers, and expatriate businessmen.

To her other side is the State sector, which under Coltart’s leadership has been forced to introduce a form of pricing and is acting in a much more consumer-responsive manner. Good teachers are making twice what other teachers make, I was told. A State sector with fees is a very different creature from one where everything is “free” at the point of consumption.

In the middle is Alice, who for two decades has done all she possibly can—even selling her own luxury house and moving to a slab bungalow—to give the very poorest children a top-notch private education. (She can reached at alicepango[at]

“I have a photograph of Alice on my desk, which I look at whenever things get difficult,” Tooley told me. “If Alice—and the many educational entrepreneurs such as her—can rise above everything that is stacked against them and serve disadvantaged children, then who am I to complain? She inspires me to keep up the struggle and to help liberate education from the dead hand of the State.”

  • John Blundell (9 October 1952 – 22 July 2014) was a British economist who served as Director General and the Ralph Harris Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.