This persistent problem is one that the Good Work Foundation is striving to solve. The social enterprise has a mission to make sure that children living in rural South Africa are not left behind if what they want is to learn.
It’s lucky for them, therefore, that they have Kate Groch as their champion and motivator-in-chief, otherwise known as the CEO.
Growing up during Apartheid, Kate was aware of the inequalities built into the system, but these persist many years later, especially for those living in poor communities: “These young people move into a hopeless space where they just don’t feel like there’s any reason to work hard or move forward, so they get stuck.”
Kate, a former maths, science and biology teacher, didn’t want any child to get stuck and there was a very personal reason for this. In 2008, she became a mother overnight when she adopted a baby girl born to a teenager who felt she couldn’t afford to raise her. It was only a chance meeting with a social worker that led to her life being suddenly upended. “I never had any preparation, so really it was a pick-you-up-and-knock-you-on-the-head day,” recalls Kate.
Maya is now 12 years old and is blooming into the best version of herself. “I’ve always understood the disparity in South Africa,” says Kate frankly, “but to have Maya in the house and to see a little baby, a little girl and now a young woman, sort of explode with potential … I know there’s only one Maya, but there’s hundreds of young people like Maya out there.”
With her “pilot light ignited”, Kate set about making sure others could have some of Maya’s opportunities. Years before the Good Work Foundation came into existence in 2006, the CEO had found herself in a Free State town working to immerse young people in meaningful community projects. Called Future Nature, the education company was set up by Kate and business partner Shan Varty.
In the afternoons, Kate would switch tasks, to help final year students pass some of their exams. At the time, the pass rate was something like 23 percent, on top of the fact that only about 50 percent of students even got to the final year. “It was just dismal,” remarks Kate from her home in South Africa.
After only two years, Kate and her small team were able to get the pass rate to 97 percent, an incredible result. “As much as one would like to think it’s because you’re a great teacher, that was not really the issue,” Kate tells Invest for Good. “The point was that we were showing up for those kids. Somebody was showing up, being present and working with them, meeting them where they were in their journey.”
Not long after that, two of their students got into university, a watershed moment that meant it suddenly became possible for everybody. Future Nature still exists today, but some of its work became subsumed by the Good Work Foundation. Originally set up to accept money from former Future Nature students hoping to pay something back, Good Work Foundation’s education arm is non-profit. It’s also part social enterprise, enabling the team to raise revenue that is reinvested.
The Good Work Foundation is now a network of six digital learning campuses. It’s an impressive operation primarily managed by a dedicated team of 150 locals who are passionate about helping others. But it all started with one derelict banana barn, which grew into a state-of-the-art digital space in Hazyview, Mpumalanga. A sub-tropical farming town, Hazyview is renowned for bananas, macadamia nuts, citrus fruits and avocados. It also serves as a gateway to the Kruger National Park, one of the largest and most distinguished game reserves in South Africa.
Kate says she’s happiest when she’s walking through the former banana barn, seeing the kids diligently working with the facilitators. Anyone is welcome to walk into one of their campuses, both children and adults alike, but it must be a choice they’ve made themselves. GWF started with 70 students and it’s now up 10,000 learners going through their programmes every week.
For young adults, GWF acts as a bridge from school to a job or further studies. There are courses in computer skills and English for the workplace, for example. It’s a blended-learning approach that teaches young people skills that are relevant for the region. There are no fees for children and only a small fee for adults, who can study travel and tourism or sign up to an IT academy at heavily subsidised rates.
“We’re looking to create an ecosystem of learning and working that can really positively affect South Africa,” confirms the CEO, “and to inspire other places to do the same.” On a more emotional note, Kate adds, the enterprise creates a sense of belonging. “I think for a lot of young people coming to the Good Work Foundation, it’s the first time they’ve felt like they’ve belonged somewhere, that they’ve been seen for who they are and nurtured to become who they’re meant to be.”
Leading the mission
In the early days, Kate was more hands-on, but her role is now a mixture of guarding GWF’s mission, telling its story, inspiring others and fundraising. There are also unforeseen challenges that require her attention. The latest is Covid-19, a global threat that has closed all the campuses for the time being. Kate and her team have not stopped despite being in lockdown in their homes. A Covid-19 education video in seven of South Africa’s 11 official languages was created and distributed to thousands of South Africans of all backgrounds.
GWF teams have been gathering online reimagining how to support schools once they open – all that is needed is a tree, a tablet, and a group of children. Learning has not stopped for young adults, with classes being conducted via WhatsApp, Zoom and Google Classrooms in the most remote and rural of homes. Something which Kate never expected was that her team, together with a network of non-profit organisations, would help to distribute food supplies to the most vulnerable people in the communities where GWF’s campuses are based. The visionary leader believes GWF will be able to adapt to and reimagine new ways of bringing wonder-filled learning to young people, regardless of circumstances.
But Kate does predict that fundraising will take a big knock: “The world is now going to be pretty tight. I think everybody is going to be pulling in the purse strings, especially in the tourism space, which we do get a lot of funding from.” GWF now has a team to help with fundraising but it remains a constant priority, and it sends Kate to various parts of the world. “The early days were exhausting,” she recalls, “just knocking on doors and finding people. We’re always looking for partners and we’re always aware of that space as different sectors of the economy go up and down.”
Some of her partners come from America and there are some, naturally, from South Africa. “We work hard to keep our partners, and we feed back to them how the programmes are really working,” Kate says. Now that the results are tangible, it has become a bit easier to raise capital than it was in the beginning when most of GWF’s possibilities resided only in Kate’s head.
There’s always more that can be done, though. Scaling up is one of the foundation’s current goals. It’s something that the CEO almost sees as a moral obligation: “We’ve found something that works in a country that is really looking for solutions in the education space. How do we make sure that more young South Africans get the chance to use the environment which we have been able to create?”
South Africa is incredibly important to Kate. In chasing her vision, she always keeps in mind the place from which it springs. She explains how ancient wisdom in Africa is handed down, a collaborative process that includes the community. Informal learning often takes place under trees with elders and teachers. “We don’t want to lose that,” she emphasises. “So, there’s all this tech and all this cool stuff, which is wonderful, but if you have that without the other roots, then there’s a problem.”
A symbol of this is a digital learning tree inside the Hazyview campus, which reminds their students to be both proudly African and great. “We start every morning in a circle under that tree. We meditate together, the whole of GWF, it’s wonderful,” the leader smiles. Even when Kate travels, no matter the time zone or the country, she always remembers the hour when they all come together.
A true test of whether you have followed the right path in life is whether you could ever see yourself doing anything else. For Kate, the answer is no. Even winning the lottery wouldn’t change her motivation to keep going. “Obviously we’d be a lot less stressed on funding if I won the lottery,” she laughs, “but tomorrow I would still do GWF.”
And what does Maya think of her mother’s mission? While Maya is a firm believer and supporter of the Good Work Foundation, she does think her mum is sometimes too busy. A perk, however, is accompanying her mother on fundraising trips, both near and far. “Maya is much better at fundraising than I am, so I let her lead at most events,” smiles Kate. When there is downtime and no fundraiser looming, the pair escape to the wide-open spaces of the Kruger National Park, basking in a breath-taking view that you can't help but slow down for.
To find out more about the Good Work Foundation and its work in South Africa, visit the website.