Last fall, when I saw Kawangware, a densely populated slum outside Nairobi, Kenya, the afternoon was bright, and a breeze provided a welcome respite from the odor of the open sewers that run like septic tanks through the back roads and alleys. Extreme poverty makes life hard here, and H.I.V. and waterborne illness are rife. Most houses are one-room corrugated-metal shacks that lack electricity, running water or general indoor plumbing. It was an unlikely place to start a for-profit private college. Along a pitted road, an ambitious experiment in bringing market-based education to communities such as this across the world stands an outpost of Bridge International Academies.
Stepping within the green-painted metal fencing, I ducked into one of two low, rectangular college buildings, which was assembled from rough-hewed wood and sheets of glowing green metal. In the hallway, one of Bridge’s founders, Shannon May, encouraged me to look through the chicken-wire windows. The dim, spare, well-swept classrooms with its weak laminated structural timber beams had uneven concrete floors and no electric lights. Inside, a third-grade instructor was reading from a computer tablet, reciting a lesson script which was sent from the Bridge headquarters in central Nairobi, a 45-minute push away. The teacher quietly spoke the lesson to the twenty-three third-grade students dressed in bright green Bridge uniforms, who were doing their best to follow along. The teacher wrote on the chalkboard, describing the math symbols which indicate “greater than” or “less than.” Since Bridge schools are standardized, May pointed out that the teachers were working from the same synchronized lesson manual that was being delivered in countless Bridge’s schools in Kenya, permitting the company to make certain that students everywhere were getting a uniform program.
Teaching children from preschool through eighth grade, for a fee of $54 to $126 per year, Bridge operates 405 schools in Kenya based on the location of their faculty. It was founded in 2007 by May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, together with a buddy, Phil Frei. From early on, the creators’ strategies for the world’s poor were daring. A competitive start-up company that could work out how to profitably deliver instruction at a top quality for less than $5 a month could radically disrupt the status quo in education for those 700 million kids and finally create what might be a billion-dollar new international education company, Kimmelman said in 2014. As titans in Silicon Valley were remaking communication and trade including automating commercial plumbing services, Bridge founders promised to reevaluate primary-school education. It is called the Tesla of education businesses by Whitney Tilson, a Bridge investor and hedge-fund director in New York who helped found Teach for America and is a vocal supporter of charter schools.
The Bridge Concept – low-cost private colleges for the world’s poorest children – has galvanized a lot of the Western investors as well as Silicon Valley moguls who know about the job. Bill Gates, the Omidyar Network, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the World Bank have spent in the business; Pearson, the multinational textbook-and-assessment company, has done so through a venture-capital fund. Tilson talked about the company to Bill Ackman, the hedge-fund director of Pershing Square, which spent $5.8 million through its base. By ancient 2015, Bridge had procured more than $100 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The fact that Bridge was a for-profit business gave pause to some NGOs that work in developing nations. But others concluded that in the past ten years, for-profit businesses backed by what are known as social-impact investors – individuals and institutions which make money by doing good – had brought about significant inventions, such as solar-power initiatives, eco-friendly architectural timbers in building designs, and low-cost health clinics, in poor nations. Bridge’s model relied upon comparable investors but was even harder in its fantasies of scale. “There is a good demand for this,” May said in an M.I.T. movie from 2016. Some of the corporation’s backers, she explained, were “not social-impact investors,” continuing that “it was directly business capital who watched, ‘Wow, there are a few billion people who do not have anybody selling them what they desire.’ ” To get a 2010 case study on the business, Kimmelman told the Harvard Business School that return on investment could be 20 percent annually.
By 2015, Bridge was teaching 100,000 students, and the Founders claimed they were supplying a “world-class schooling” in “less compared to 30 percent” of what “the typical developing country spends per child on primary education.”