Launder & Learn

Laundry is rarely anyone’s favorite chore. In the developed world, the burden of the time-consuming chore is often reduced by washing machines and dryers, but in developing countries like South Africa, mothers often spend hours each week washing and sorting laundry. That’s valuable time they could be spending with their children. New social enterprise Libromat, a finalist for the Hult Prize representing Oxford University, aims to help parents spend more time with their children while enhancing children’s development through picture books. Libromats are community hubs where parents can access affordable laundry services and courses in early childhood development. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to co-founder David Jeffery about the innovative intervention.

How did the Libromat team get together?
We were all doing master’s degrees at Oxford, but in different fields. My background is in education like Nicholas Dowdall, who focuses on early childhood education, in the intervention we’re delivering. Jenny Tran is a medical doctor doing public health. Andrew Barnes is in education and Kristijan Jovanoski is in neuroscience. Some people are going on to do PhDs and will be working part-time. Nicholas’ PhD will actually focus on the Libromat program. I’ll be working full-time in Cape Town.

How did Jenny, a medical doctor, get involved?
She’s the ring leader, actually! She brought us all together. She had been speaking to Nicholas about the program he’s working on dialogic book sharing. Then we came to reflect collectively on how we can make it fit into people’s lives and make it financially sustainable. Nick and I studied at the University of Cape Town together, but the others knew each other through the Rhodes Scholar network.

Photo by Justin Woods

Photo by Justin Woods

How did you develop the idea for Libromat?
We started with an education program, dialogic book sharing. There was a randomized control trial in Cape Town that produced phenomenal results. It was the first study of its kind in testing a program that trains parents in how to share books with their children in a developing country context with high-quality research methodology. Then we thought about how to make it fit into people’s lives and make it financially sustainable. I had been working on early childhood education with parents in Cape Town for quite a while, so we spoke to parents and did some focus groups trying to find a good fit for this intervention and the idea of laundry came up. We started going through time use surveys, which break down how people spend their time during the week by country. We found a shockingly large amount of time in South Africa (as well as in India and Ghana) was being spent on laundry. Then the pieces started to fall together. Often laundry and child care fall under the same person in the family, so it was an intervention that could save that person time and energy.

Is there any reason in particular why people in South Africa tend to spend more time on laundry?
South Africa’s average is between nine to eleven hours per week. That’s an equivalent of an entire working day. There’s normally a large wash once a week, and smaller washes throughout the week. The rest of the developing world is typically between six to nine hours. I suspect the reason South Africa’s average is slightly higher is because its median income is slightly higher than the rest of the developing world, and there are a greater number of clothes to wash. But that’s just speculation on my part.

Why did you decide to pilot the program in South Africa? Was it because two of the team members are South African, or was there something else behind the choice?
A lot of it came down to our social capital. I had been working with early childhood development centers in Khayelitsha for a while, so we had a good pilot site. Nicholas had been working with a research unit at the University of Stellenbosch, so we could conduct surveys there. Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to start the pilot so soon.

Photo by Justin Woods

What countries do you hope to expand Libromat to next?
We may have found a partner who is interested in piloting the program in Asia, in a country to be determined, but we are still in the initial discussion phase, so I can’t say too much more about that.

How many Libromats are open now and how many do you hope to open?
For now, it’s just the one pilot site in Khayelitsha, but by January, our first one should be open. We’re deciding on a good location for that. Over the next year, we’re looking at starting between three and six. Not all of those will be run directly by us. A large focus for this year is developing a model that local entrepreneurs can do themselves with support from us. We want this to be scaleable, so we can’t run every single one.

Are the Libromats self-sufficient?
They take between four to six months to become self-sufficient, but there is, of course, an initial funding requirement.

How did you determine the cost of using the service for the mothers?
It varies between communities. We conducted a reasonably large survey in Khayelitsha of two hundred mothers with infants, and that was valuable in gauging interest in the project and learning about potential price points for washing and tumble drying as well as how far people would be willing to walk for the service. When we selected a pilot site, we had a meeting with parents where we agreed on 15 rand, which at the time, was around USD $1.50. Now it’s less as the rand has weakened. We’ll do a similar assessment in each new community as there are differences in income between neighborhoods.

Libromat graduates

How do you entice mothers in the community to use the facilities?
It’s more about enablement than marketing. There are two parts to the Libromat. The book-sharing program is immensely popular. We’ve sometimes been misunderstood when pitching to non-South African audiences as offering the laundry as a carrot for doing the program. That’s not what it’s about at all. In many ways, the book-sharing program brings the people into the laundry project as well. It’s by no means “if you come do this education program, you’ll get the laundry services you really want.” People really want the education program, and it’s just about finding a new way to fund it. We initially worked with an early childhood development center and were able to use their network of parents for meetings to determine first steps.

Why is picture book reading so important for child development?
The key aspect is having a rich and stimulating engagement with the child over the picture book. It’s about the parent and the child talking about what’s happening in the story, and pointing and asking questions. The advantage that picture books, almost ironically, provide is that because they don’t have words, they almost make the conversation easier, and allow parents who aren’t confident as readers to participate in the activity.

Photo by Justin Woods

Photo by Justin Woods

Do fathers also come to the Libromat?
It’s predominately mothers, but we always have one or two fathers out of a class of ten. That’s encouraging because it’s more than we thought we’d get, but we want to grow that number.

What kinds of books are stocked in the Libromat?
At the moment, we’ve been using Helen Oxenbury books – they’re high quality picture books. It’s surprising difficult to find those types of picture books because it’s not only about finding pictures on a page, but finding books that have a strong narrative without using words. We’re working an organization called the Mikhulu Trust, who are developing high-quality culturally appropriate books for South African children.

I’m glad to see that you’re working to provide multicultural children’s literature.
When we’ve got more books, particularly for the older children, if they have words, they won’t be in English. They’ll be in local languages like Xhosa and other common tongues.

Learn more about Libromat’s work here.