Uber but for African Schools
In the early days of the era of Silicon Valley disruption, two Harvard University graduates dreamed up a bold experiment in education.
Shannon May, who studied education development in rural China, and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, an education software developer, spied an untapped opportunity for some of the moving-fast-and-breaking-things going on all around them.
“In 2007, we came to Africa,” May explained in a promotional video for the company they would go on to found: Bridge International Academies. “Due diligence had shown us that there were an incredibly high number of enrolled children who were still illiterate upon graduation — and was there a possible business model that could solve this? Was there something that could be done, even though people said there wasn’t anything that could be done?”
The couple did the math and found that parents of impoverished children around the globe were spending many billions a year on schooling. Kimmelman invited his former roommate, Phil Frei, a tech consultant, to join as a co-founder. “We all moved to Nairobi in 2008, and within six months, we had the first school up and running,” May said.
Bridge is the largest for-profit primary education chain in the world.
Over the next decade, Bridge grew into a chain of schools providing a homogeneous curriculum developed by researchers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to hundreds of thousands of students in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India. Today, it is the largest for-profit primary education chain in the world.
As the company mushroomed, it found ready investors. “It was not social impact investors,” May said in a 2016 MIT video case study, “it was straight commercial capital who saw, like, wow, there are a couple billion people who don’t have anyone selling them what they want.”
But the social impact investment crew was behind Bridge, as well. The company is financed today by some of the highest-profile do-good donors in the game — or rather, the for-profit arms of their networks, including Chan Zuckerberg Education, LLC, linked to Mark Zuckerberg; Pearson Education; Gates Frontier LLC, tied to Bill Gates; Imaginable Futures, linked to eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, a major funder of The Intercept; and Pershing Square Foundation, tied to billionaire hedge fund mogul Bill Ackman. The United Kingdom’s development bank, the European Investment Bank, and the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank funded it too.
To become profitable, May and Kimmelman had to scale up quickly while keeping costs down. “Bridge International Academies was founded from day one on the premise of this massive market opportunity, knowing that to achieve success, we would need to achieve a scale never before seen in education, and at a speed that makes most people dizzy,” an early version of the company’s website boasted. To do well with small margins, thousands of classrooms would be needed, because each classroom could bring in a profit of just tens of dollars a month. “The urgency is because the only way you can have a price of $5 a month is if you have hundreds of thousands of customers. We need 500,000 pupils to break even,” May said in 2013.
Their idea of how to accomplish such scale was straightforward: The largest cost when it comes to education is teacher salaries. But if curricula can be centrally produced and distributed on tablets that teachers read to the class, word for word, then teacher pay can plummet.
“You can’t have a brilliant-teacher hypothesis and expect to change the education for hundreds of millions of children.”
That, May believed, would not hurt the quality of education children received. While the school reform movement in the United States at the time was fighting against what it called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” — easier curricula for minority students that reflected racist assumptions about their learning capacity — May argued that in Africa, high expectations are bigoted. “‘Don’t you have to have brilliant teachers in every room in order to have a well-educated child?’ ’Cause honestly, that’s how a wealthy person would think of it,” May explained. “You can’t have a brilliant-teacher hypothesis and expect to change the education for hundreds of millions of children.”
It was also appropriate to pay those teachers less, she argued. “You have to be able to upscale the teachers that would be available within the same community as your child. How are you going to get tens of thousands, eventually hundreds of thousands, of teachers to be working with hundreds of millions of impoverished children? They need to be from the same community. They need to face similar challenges. But also economically, they need to be part of the same economy.” Hiring teachers who are “part of the same economy” meant paying them just a few dollars a day.
Bridge ran into difficulties staffing up quickly. “The operations still have lots of tweaks they need, but they’re working well enough that it makes sense to now blow the business out a little more,” May said at the time. She admitted it was “much more hard to hire” good teachers who could grow as quickly as the business, yet Bridge plowed ahead with its breakneck expansion, hiring less qualified teachers at significantly less cost than rival public schools.
In 2022, Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Kremer conducted a study in Kenya to assess the efficacy of standardized learning at Bridge schools. The resulting report, which Bridge heavily promotes, found that public school teachers in Kenya were paid between $235 to $392 per month plus generous benefits, while Bridge teachers worked longer hours but earned around $80 per month with considerably fewer benefits than their public school counterparts.
“By not requiring post-secondary credentials, which typically represent a smaller share of the labor force in lower-middle income countries, Bridge has been able to draw from a larger pool of secondary school graduates,” the study read.
Bridge told The Intercept that all the teachers it hires meet the changing requirements stipulated by the Kenyan government. According to Bridge’s 2017 administrative data, only 23 percent of its primary school teachers held recognized primary education certificates.
Bridge also whacked away at the second highest education costs: facilities. According to Kremer’s study, while public schools in Kenya were required to have stone, brick, or concrete walls, Bridge designed standardized schoolhouses largely out of wooden framing and mesh wire, enclosed by iron sheeting — derisively dubbed “chicken coops for kids.” “Bridge’s founders recognize that the model deprioritizes physical infrastructure and they have argued that this frees up resources for expenditure on other inputs that can improve school quality,” the Kremer study noted. “Bridge schools are not made of ‘mesh wire’; they have windows with mesh wire,” a Bridge spokesperson said.
“Our biggest challenge is that we need to ensure we standardize everything,” Kimmelman was quoted as saying in “Bridge International Academies: School in a Box,” a 2010 Harvard Business School case study. “If we want to be able to operate like McDonald’s we need to make sure that we systematize every process, every tool, everything we do.” They later revised it for branding purposes to “academy in a box,” May said, “when we realized everyone here calls a private school that’s good an academy.”
Investors were familiar with the model: The company would understandably lose money in the early years, but as long as growth was steady, profitability could ultimately be reached. And, with enough scale, it might eventually loosen regulatory obstacles in the same way that ride-hailing app companies become too big for a city or state to do anything but accept them and adapt.
And Bridge saw explosive growth, opening hundreds of schools across Kenya and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as India, sometimes without obtaining the bureaucratic approvals and permits required to do so legally.
“Technically, we’re breaking the law,” May said in a 2013 article in the education publication Tes — a quote that was reused in a mostly favorable 2017 New York Times profile of Bridge. “There would be more people and more organizations willing to try and push the envelope and get higher pupil outcomes if the regulatory and legal framework was less restrictive,” May went on. “You have to be extreme. You have to take real risks to work in those environments. Often there are [laws] preventing most companies from trying to figure out how to solve these problems.”
Bridge quickly became the darlings of the Davos world. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim lauded the firm publicly in a 2015 speech. Whitney Tilson, a New York-based Bridge investor and hedge-fund manager, called it “the Tesla of education companies” in 2017.
That year, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof lavished nearly 1,000 words of praise on Bridge schools in the West African nation of Liberia, chastising teachers unions and other opponents of outsourcing public education abroad to for-profit companies. “So, a plea to my fellow progressives,” he concluded. “Let’s worry less about ideology and more about how to help kids learn.”
By 2022, the World Bank noted, Bridge was reaching some 750,000 kids. And the results were encouraging. The Kremer study found that underserved pre-primary and primary school children received more learning and had higher test scores at Bridge than in other Kenyan schools. The study also showed that “higher-order skills” and creativity did not appear to be affected by Bridge’s “highly-structured pedagogical approach” to teaching. And, for the last eight years, Bridge Kenya students have exceeded the national average examination score in their primary school exit exam, according to data compiled by Bridge. The numbers seemed so promising that Liberia even contracted out some of its struggling public schools to Bridge, as the company’s global expansion only accelerated. Had global investors honed in on a business model that could do well by doing good?
Then, in March 2022, the World Bank’s financing arm — the International Finance Corporation — quietly divested from NewGlobe, the parent company of Bridge International. No announcement was made. No reason was given. Just a short disclosure in small print at the bottom of a portal that reads, “Update: IFC has exited its investment in NewGlobe Schools, Inc.”
The World Bank’s financing arm quietly divested from the parent company of Bridge International. No reason was given.
Among locals and within the global network of civil society organizations that work on development projects, rumors swirled that the dark side of Bridge’s success may have played a role — specifically, a series of abuse and neglect allegations in Kenya that had caught the eye of a Nairobi-based human rights group, the East African Centre for Human Rights, or EACHRights, as well as the internal watchdog at the World Bank, known as the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, or CAO.
“I think you are referring to unsubstantiated allegations lodged several years ago,” Bridge spokesperson Philip Emase told The Intercept in February when we first inquired about the allegation of “abuse and neglect” the World Bank watchdog was probing. Emase pointed out that the CAO was duty-bound to assess all allegations pertaining to their investments, but suggested that these complaints lodged by EACHRights, “an organization with a longstanding opposition to the education provision Bridge Kenya provides,” stemmed from a vendetta against Bridge, rather than factual evidence. “EachRIGHTS [sic] has campaigned against Bridge Kenya for many years. Bridge Kenya has been fully cooperative with the ongoing CAO process over the years,” he said.
It’s true that EACHRights has campaigned against Bridge, but behind some of the allegations lodged with CAO was a haunting story of abuse.
An Alarming Discovery
During lunch break on a school day in the spring of 2016, David Nanzai, an eighth-grade teacher at Bridge Kwa Reuben, a school in the Mukuru informal settlements in Nairobi, found an anonymous handwritten note between the pages of a Kiswahili textbook sitting on his desk.
The note, which Nanzai surmised had been left by a girl in the upper grades, described sexual abuse by another teacher. The man had touched her, the letter said, taken her hand and put it on his private parts, and asked her for oral sex and intercourse. Nanzai shared what he learned with a colleague, Andrew Omondi, and the two set out to investigate. They would soon discover that the student had been one of many.
Nanzai met privately with each of the female students in grades six through eight, and Omondi encouraged him to record the conversations so they’d have evidence. “I had developed my own rapport with the kids. They looked at me as a father figure,” Nanzai said.
Eventually, they figured out who had written the note, and as they investigated further, they found at least 11 girls, aged 10 to 14, had been assaulted. They suspected three other girls may have been too frightened to come forward.
Reporting by The Intercept — including interviews with parents, former Bridge teachers and staff, nonprofit workers, community leaders, education activists, and police officers — corroborated the scope and many of the details of the sexual abuse. Many of the sources asked for confidentiality, expressing fear of reprisal from Bridge and concern about a culture of secrecy.
The students’ stories were eerily similar, as relayed by parents and teachers to The Intercept. The accused teacher would instruct them to come to school as early as 6 a.m. for extra prep. He would call them into an office one by one and close the door. His alleged crimes ranged from unwanted touching to rape without a condom.
“We brought him on board. He came for an interview,” Omondi said. “He was a good friend, a close friend.”
Married and a devout church attendee, the abuser had styled himself as a man of God. “He was camouflaged in Christianity,” said Nanzai. “So, he won the trust.”
During an interview at a community center in the Mukuru settlements, Omondi said he received training on how to identify and handle cases of sexual abuse when he first started teaching at Bridge in 2012.
Bridge told The Intercept that it has been providing “safeguarding training” to teachers and school leaders since December 2008.
Nanzai reported his findings to Josephine Ouko, his school’s academy manager, similar to a principal. Ouko, whom The Intercept was unable to reach for comment, called a staff meeting in her office with the alleged perpetrator in attendance. The other teachers confronted him, seething. Initially, he denied the allegations, according to four Bridge teachers present, but the teachers played audio recordings of Nanzai’s conversations with the students and shared their written testimonies.
Conceptor Shisia, a former teacher at Bridge, dropped to the floor, hysterical, when she heard the recordings. “When you see the kids that were abused, they are very innocent. You feel like a parent,” she said. “These kids, actually, they were tortured.”
“We were questioning why, why, why? Our question was why was he leaving the wife at home and abusing the kids at school?” said Shisia. “And he was like, ‘I don’t know what Spirit is this.’”
The accused teacher eventually admitted his guilt to his infuriated colleagues at the meeting, the four teachers said. The Intercept identified the man but was unable to reach him.
After the meeting, the teachers expected Ouko, the academy manager, to notify Bridge and call the police. But Ouko told them to leave her office so she could speak to the teacher alone, the four teachers said. The next thing they knew, the man had disappeared into the maze of crowded dirt streets that make up the Mukuru informal settlements. He was gone.
The following day, Omondi got the parents involved. He called Daniel Wambua Ndinga, one of the survivor’s fathers who was on the school’s parents’ board, requesting that he come in immediately.
At the school, Omondi told him what happened. Ndinga called his daughter and several other students in, and they verified the story. Ndinga then mobilized the other parents and escorted them to the nearby police station to begin an investigation. The Intercept spoke with a police officer involved in the initial report who confirmed that the incident was reported to the police but did not provide further details.
The girls were taken by ambulance to a nearby Doctors Without Borders clinic for check-ups. One student’s medical records, provided to The Intercept by a parent, describe her testimony to the doctor: She had been forcibly violated by a teacher in the early morning hours before school started and was suffering from anxiety. The records show that she was prescribed prophylaxis for sexually transmitted infections, given vaccines for Hepatitis B and tetanus, and encouraged to attend counseling.
The effects of the serial assault on the students and parents involved has been severe. The aunt of one of the survivors at the Mukuru Kwa Reuben school in Nairobi, an illiterate laundress who was caring for her sister’s child when the incident occurred, said she has never spoken out until now.
Months of being raped by her teacher changed her niece in front of her eyes, she said, and the jovial child who wanted to become a teacher herself grew unhappy and withdrawn. Often, when she came home, the aunt saw that she had been crying.
“I saw that my niece had waited for a very long while before reporting, and the days had passed. I did not know what else I could do,” she said. “No one from the school has ever followed up on the matter. … No one else has come out to ask me about this issue.” Her niece declined to speak to The Intercept about the incident. Her aunt said she wanted to put it behind her and forget the whole thing ever happened.
The abuse could have been caught sooner. Sometime in 2015, a year before the serial assault came to light, two class eight girls had attempted to get help from another teacher, Jackline Anudo. The girls had approached her, she told The Intercept, alleging that the same teacher was sexually assaulting them. Anudo tried to speak with the accused teacher but said he initially denied any wrongdoing. Several days later, Anudo said three class six girls approached her with the same story. Anudo said she spoke with the teacher again, and this time, he admitted the assault, “so it forced me to go to the academy manager.” When Anudo raised the issue with Ouko, she said Ouko warned her not to tell the parents and refused to investigate the allegations.
“I kept quiet,” Anudo said. “I feel very, very bad because when we are there, we, as the teacher — I wanted to make the pupils’ future better, to better their future.”
“These girls, some of them were in class six, and they were very tender at that time,” she added. She said she was subsequently warned by another teacher that she should not talk further to reporters from The Intercept, as the reporters might have her arrested.
In the months following the incident, Ndinga and several Bridge teachers attempted to find the man in the depths of Nairobi’s informal settlements. Several times, they got word from their contacts that he was in a certain location, but by the time they arrived, he had disappeared.
Told that The Intercept had identified the alleged perpetrator by name, a Bridge spokesperson acknowledged the abuse had taken place and confirmed the former teacher’s identity. Asked why the company had previously dismissed our inquiry, the spokesperson said that the company thought we were referring to different allegations.
And, in a letter from Bridge’s attorneys, the company added the threat of a lawsuit against The Intercept, citing the “potential for legal action” if the story was published. “The rare and isolated misconduct of a few bad apples should not tarnish the incredible work that these educators are doing in their communities every day,” read a letter from Andrew Philips, an attorney with Clare Locke LLP, positing that the problem was simply endemic in Kenya. It was, he wrote, “important to acknowledge the sad reality that sexual abuse of students by teachers has historically been a serious problem in Kenyan schools.”
The legal threat was a glimpse into the aggressive posture Bridge had become known for, a reputation that was forged in the global press amid its battle in Uganda with a Canadian graduate student named Curtis Riep.
“You Need to Come With Us”
On May 30, 2016, just weeks after the teachers and parents had reported the abusive teacher to the police in Nairobi, Curtis Riep sat down in a café in Kampala, Uganda. A Ph.D. candidate in educational policy studies at the University of Alberta, Riep was in the city compiling a report on Bridge schools for Education International, a global federation of teachers unions.
He had managed to schedule an interview with a Bridge national director and a regional manager. As the men began their conversation, Riep began recording, as he did for all such meetings, so that he could later transcribe the answers.
So Riep’s recorder was rolling when moments later, a plain-clothed police detective dressed in a suit — or, at least, a man identifying as one — and two self-proclaimed officers in militarized uniforms carrying assault-style weapons approached the table. Riep later transcribed the resulting exchange verbatim in his dissertation.
“I work with the police — the Uganda police,” the “detective” said to Riep after exchanging pleasantries with the executives. “I’m going to be taking you now.”
“I need you on the case of trespassing.”
“Trespassing where?” Riep asked.
It would later emerge that Bridge officials in Uganda had accused Riep of gaining access to Bridge schools by impersonating a teacher.
“There’s a school where you went to,” the plain-clothed man claiming to be a police detective said, telling Riep he “must come with me now.”
“I’m sorry but could you explain why? Where did I trespass?”
“Bridge International schools,” the man said.
“Bridge International schools? I’m speaking with these gentlemen right now, they come from Bridge International schools,” Riep said, naively and momentarily believing the mix-up would quickly be resolved.
“Those ones I’m not concerned with,” the detective said, “but you, you need to come with us.”
Riep again suggested confirming with the Bridge men at the table that no crimes were being committed. “Maybe we can speak to these men as well because they are the directors of Bridge International,” Riep responded.
“We are moving to Kyengera police. The details you can know from there,” the man said.
Riep demurred, saying the detective had no right to take him. “I’m telling you. You trespassed at their school,” the detective repeated.
“I had permission to be there,” Riep insisted. “These are the directors of the schools, so maybe we could have a conversation here.”
The Bridge national director’s voice finally entered the recording. “I, umm, this has nothing to do with me. You have your issue here. As for me, I’m out of this,” the man said, who Riep referred to later in his dissertation under the name Mr. Snow but has elsewhere been identified as Bridge executive Andrew White, a U.K. expat and a top Bridge official in Uganda. White was also later part of the Bridge team that responded to the investigation into serial assault in Kenya.
“Did you make a complaint to them?” Riep asked. There was no answer from the national director. He asked again.
“I don’t know what you mean. This has nothing to do with me, personally. I don’t know what it is,” the Bridge national director said, sipping his coffee.
The detective suggested the Bridge director would come to the Kyengera station with them.
“Yes, no problem. We will follow you there,” he said.
“I feel very uneasy about this. I should make a call before I go anywhere,” Riep interjected. “Can I ride with you?” he asked the Bridge director. “Because I have a few questions.”
“You can go with them,” he said. “We’ll follow you guys.”
“This seems fishy.”
“Yeah well, we’ll follow you.”
Riep asked to be able to send a message first. “OK, I’m just going to send a quick email to my family in Canada so they know if anything happens,” Riep said.
“Let’s go now,” the detective said.
Riep asked to see his badge as he opened his laptop to send his family an email.
There was no response. He turned to the Bridge director as he typed. “So, my friend, what is going on here?”
“All I know is what I’m seeing in front of me. The police have come and they’re asking you to go and answer questions about the charges that have been raised against you.”
“And that’s all you know?”
“What I’m seeing is what I know.”
“So, you haven’t had any contact with the police?”
“Do I know these three people? No, I don’t know these people.”
“No, that’s not what I asked.”
“It’s my first time seeing them.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Riep tried a different version. “So, it was just a coincidence that we meet here and then just a few minutes after, the police are here too?”
“Can we go now?” the increasingly impatient detective asked.
“OK, just give me a moment to send this email.”
The Bridge director stood up. “I guess we’ll have to finish our conversation another time,” he said.
“I thought you were coming with us?”
“We’ll see,” he said.
Riep hit send, and the email to his fiancé went through. He reproduced it in his dissertation:
… being escorted by police for something related to my research, not sure what is happening. Think its an inside job. Dont freak out. everything will be fine. but just wanted to let u know. If you dont hear from me within 24 hrs than take action. BUT PLEASE I WILL BE FINE!! PROMISE!! LOVE U
None of the three men with guns would identify themselves, and Riep made one last bid to connect on a human level with the Bridge director. “Please, I don’t know if these are real police. I mean, I don’t want my life to be in jeopardy. So, if you feel like you really need to protect yourself and Bridge to this extent, I think it is a mistake. Let’s not make this more of an issue. You are the director of Bridge so obviously we can sort this out another way,” Riep pleaded. The director was silent.
“Can we get moving?” the detective asked.
“Sure, well it was nice to meet you and I think we will see each other again very soon,” Riep told the two Bridge executives, and then turned off his recorder.
He was escorted to an unmarked car, noting that the men bore a “striking resemblance” to the private security guards the Ugandan elite hire to protect their homes and businesses.
Inside the car was another man, who identified himself as an attorney for the government of Uganda, but whom Riep later told the press he learned was a lawyer working for Bridge. They passed the Kampala Central Police Station and kept driving for more than an hour and a half, arriving at a two-room, clapboard police station in Kyengera, home to a front office and a holding cell. Four media outlets waited outside, filming Riep’s arrival. Two Bridge officials held forth about the danger Riep represented to the community. Riep, in his dissertation, said that the station’s police were confused about why he was there, which raised further questions about who the men who had “arrested” Riep at the café were.
He was interrogated by the police for several hours and told that Bridge had taken out an advertisement in a major local paper a few days earlier, on May 24. The ad warned the public Riep was “wanted by the police,” underneath a photograph of his face.
Riep in his dissertation later described the ad as “a very risky proposition in a country with an upswing of violent mob justice happening in the streets of Kampala.”
After being released on bond, Riep was required to return the next day for more questioning. Fortunately for him, he had consistently signed into logbooks at schools under his own name and affiliation, according to reporting by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Bridge could produce no staff witnesses or other evidence to sufficiently back up the claim that he had impersonated Bridge personnel. The police dropped the charges, he later wrote, but they warned him that Bridge may “come after you again.”
“The police cautioned me not to go out at night, to move to a more secure hotel, not to interact with anyone I didn’t know, to restrict my movements, and to protect the research data I had collected,” he wrote. Two days later, he went to meet with the permanent secretary at the Ugandan Ministry of Education in Kampala, and coincidentally spent 20 minutes in the visitor’s lobby with White, who also had a meeting. He said White seemed less than pleased to see him as a free man. From there, he was escorted by Uganda teachers union colleagues to the airport and, cutting his visit short by two weeks, fled the country.
The British version of the World Bank had invested several million dollars in Bridge, but it withdrew its support following this incident. Bridge has stuck by its claim that Riep impersonated a Bridge employee, but it offered scant evidence to back up that claim. It provided The Intercept with a screenshot of a handwritten note by a Bridge teacher in Uganda making that allegation, though the note did not include the name of the author and Bridge declined to name the person or put The Intercept in touch.
Riep’s subsequent report for Education International, the teachers union coalition, did not paint Bridge in a positive glow, but Bridge offered a confounding response: “It is important to mention that our Academy staff members were especially open with Curtis Riep when he visited the Academies because they were led to believe they were speaking to a colleague,” Bridge said in a statement at the time. “They freely discussed work-related grievances, as one usually does with co-workers.”
“It is also important to note,” Bridge said, “that our teachers voluntarily choose to work with Bridge and can resign if an opportunity more suited to their current needs and interests arises.”
The High Court in Uganda soon moved to shutter 63 Bridge schools on the basis that they were “operating illegally because they have no provisional or other licenses.” Bridge fought the order in court but lost, though it has continued fighting and has not closed its schools.
Bridge has deployed the story of Curtis Riep to build its image as an aggressive corporation that offers no quarter for critics.
Bridge has deployed the story of Curtis Riep to build its image as an aggressive corporation that offers no quarter for critics. One Kenyan man looking into Bridge recalled Anthony Mugodo, Bridge Kenya’s legal director, coming to his workplace and making a casual reference to what Bridge had done to Riep, leaving him with a clear implication of a threat. (A Bridge spokesperson denied Mugodo intimidated critics.)
Bridge wasn’t finished with Riep, however; in October 2016, it filed a complaint with the University of Alberta accusing him of violating the university’s Code of Student Behaviour by allegedly misrepresenting himself. Riep said that a two-month investigation resulted in the complaint being dismissed. A university spokesperson said privacy rules barred him from commenting, though he said Riep received his doctorate from the school in 2021.
Riep, reached by phone, said that the campaign against him by Bridge was that much more outrageous given what The Intercept uncovered was happening at the same time. “They basically tried to paint me out to look like some perpetrator, which I find obviously just full of irony, especially given this new news that they had a sexual perpetrator within their own ranks, sexually abusing their students at this point in time.”
World Bank Watchdog
The stories coming out of Bridge’s work in Africa did not go unnoticed by investors — civil society and nongovernmental organizations working in the region, like Oxfam, made sure of it.
Bridge had been battling a growing coalition of opponents for years, establishing a reputation as a sharp-elbowed company that responded aggressively to any hint of criticism.
In 2014, a Kenyan court ordered Bridge schools closed in one county for not complying with the minimum safety and accountability standards for educational institutions. When the county education board moved to enforce the court’s decision two years later, Bridge responded by suing the board and its director on the grounds that they had not followed the required process.
The following year, in 2015, more than 100 national and international organizations across the world released a joint open statement addressed to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, expressing deep concerns about the bank’s support for the development of Bridge in Kenya and Uganda.
In March 2017, Bridge sued the Kenya National Teachers Union and its leader, Wilson Sossion, in response to a 2016 report the union released called “Bridge vs. Reality.” Bridge requested a temporary injunction against Sossion speaking out against the company that was dismissed the following year.
Also in 2017, over 170 unions and civil society organizations globally released a statement calling on investors to withdraw support for Bridge, and the following year, 88 groups wrote an open letter to discourage current and potential investors from doing business with Bridge.
“It is clear that Bridge is a contentious partner,” a House of Commons report concluded, recommending that the United Kingdom’s development bank divest from Bridge.
In 2018, the Kenyan nonprofit EACHRights filed a complaint with the World Bank’s watchdog about general noncompliance with country regulations, labor abuses, unfair fees, and unqualified teachers on behalf of current and former parents and teachers.
That complaint kicked off an investigation that quickly mushroomed and, five years later, is still ongoing.
The investigation of the Bridge investment has become the center of a controversy at the World Bank over investor responsibility when it comes to “negative externalities” — the euphemistic term for damage that results from investments — and the nature of the accountability process inside the IFC, the World Bank’s financing arm.
The IFC’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman was created in 1999 amid pressure from the anti-globalization movement for accountability related to private sector projects financed by the World Bank Group. In 2014, the CAO produced a damning report linking IFC funding to the murder of Indigenous people in Honduras, a scandal that would captivate the globe after the murder of celebrated activist Berta Cáceres. Under the tenure of CAO head Osvaldo Gratacós, which began later in 2014, the ombudsman completed a litany of hard-hitting investigations, uncovering major scandals.
In February 2020, responding to EACHRights’ 2018 complaint, CAO staff and experts traveled to Nairobi, the ombudsman later reported. There, investigators found something worse than what had been alleged. “The investigation team spoke to community members who raised concerns regarding several instances of alleged child sexual abuse at Bridge schools by school teachers,” according to a preliminary report published almost three years after the initial complaint.
Around the same time, in 2020, African civil society groups brought their concerns to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., one of the more outspoken congressional advocates of human rights in Africa and the Caribbean. Waters, as the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, wielded enormous influence over U.S. policy on the World Bank, which was looking for new capital from Congress. Waters conditioned the new capital on a series of demands, including the bank divesting from Bridge. Her letter cited EACHRights, which worked directly with some of the victims. The pressure from Waters led to the IFC’s eventual divestment from Bridge. (The IFC maintains an indirect $200,000 holding in Bridge as a limited partner in Learn Capital Fund, which itself is invested in Bridge.)
Meanwhile, the sheer length of time the CAO was spending on the investigation began to capture the attention of the global civil society community. But CAO’s head, Gratacós, was dedicated to pursuing it. Typically, CAO investigates allegations when a complaint is filed by a third party, but given the stigma surrounding sexual assault, such complaints are rarely filed. In September 2020, the investigative outfit announced the extraordinarily unusual step of effectively filing its own child sexual abuse complaint involving Bridge under Gratacós’s own name.
The decision to move ahead with the sexual assault investigation at Bridge ratcheted up the tension between the bank and the CAO. It was the last major decision Gratacós made at the bank. In October of that year, the World Bank announced that Janine Ferretti would be taking over as CAO head. Reached by phone, Gratacós, now listed as a realtor in Northern Virginia, said that he was unable to comment.
Ferretti’s appointment was alarming to many observers. Gratacós had been inspector general at the Export-Import Bank and had experience leading independent investigations of complex and sensitive publicly backed investments. Ferretti had a very different background; she came from the management side, and spent most of her career as an executive at the Inter-American Development Bank, where she set environmental and social policy — precisely the type of management official she’d now be tasked with investigating.
Three U.S. senators had even sent a last-minute open letter to David Malpass, the Trump pick to head the World Bank. Sens. Patrick Leahy, Chris Coons, and Tom Udall all expressed “concern with the selection process” and urged Malpass “to ensure independence” in the appointment.
Human rights and advocacy group leaders worried that the move to part ways with the head of the watchdog was connected to the fight over accountability for the IFC and other mission-driven investors.
“I find it deeply suspect that CAO uncovers explosive child sexual abuse allegations in the course of a compliance investigation and shortly thereafter, the World Bank president unexpectedly terminates the head of the CAO,” said one well-placed civil society representative whose clients have complaints before the CAO, asking for anonymity for fear of reprisal against those clients.
“He appoints a management insider without experience in accountability or oversight to head the office, a decision that many of us in civil society questioned at the time,” the source said. “Meanwhile, three years after the child sexual abuse allegations came to light, the CAO has still not produced an investigation report.”
“CAO uncovers explosive child sexual abuse allegations in the course of a compliance investigation and shortly thereafter, the World Bank president unexpectedly terminates the head of the CAO.”
Then, Ferretti unleashed a storm of protest when she tried to bring in a new head of compliance, Emmanuel Boulet. Boulet currently oversees the grievance process at IFC, meaning that he is the point person when it comes to defending the bank in the face of CAO investigations. Ferretti proposed moving him to the other side of the table.
Outside organizations protested to the World Bank, with the heads of eight civil society groups — Inclusive Development International, Accountability Counsel, Center for International Environmental Law, Center for Financial Accountability, Arab Watch Coalition, Bank Information Center, Recourse, and the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice — sending a starkly worded letter to Ferretti in September of last year, a copy of which was obtained by The Intercept. It described “Mr. Boulet’s current role with IFC management, which is defensive of IFC’s positions and practices,” and which he had held for 15 years, as incompatible with a watchdog function.
“Our trust and confidence is now deeply shaken because we fear that the appointment of someone to the role of Head of Compliance who is so irredeemably conflicted will seriously erode CAO’s independence, impartiality and integrity.”
A different letter was sent to the World Bank’s chief ethics officer, urging the hiring be paused pending an investigation. “This is the third recent senior level appointment at CAO from the Director General’s former unit at [the Inter-American Development Bank],” that letter noted.
The appointment was ultimately blocked, and Boulet remains at the IFC. But civil society groups are increasingly encountering former management figures as they interact with the CAO. “The whole office is just stacked now with management people, people who’ve spent their careers defending financial institutions against allegations of impropriety and environmental and social harms,” said the civil society source. “It’s very sad, because the CAO has always been the kind of beacon of accountability of any kind of institution, public or private. No more.”
Margaux Day, policy director at Accountability Counsel, a nonprofit that works closely with impacted communities who’ve filed complaints against the IFC and other international financial institutions, said she was grateful Boulet was withdrawn and expressed support for his replacement, but said the trend was worrisome. “It is concerning to us to see additional hires with that type of bank background,” she said. “And if you have too many people who are IFC- or bank-minded, communities will start not trusting the mechanism and it will be seen as just an arm of the bank.”
On top of that, said Day, “The IFC’s track record for remedying findings of noncompliance is bleak.” Her organization looked closely at 41 cases where the CAO had found the IFC culpable, and in only nine of them did they commit to any type of remedy. In those cases, rather than offering meaningful compensation to victims, they often simply made promises of improvement.
After the CAO found that a company funded by the IFC in India had harmed a fishing community there, for example, the IFC fought a lawsuit from the affected fishermen, taking its claim of absolute immunity from liability all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it lost that shield.
Elana Berger, executive director of the Bank Information Center, an outside watchdog that monitors the World Bank and other international financial institutions, agreed. “The real problem is the management of the IFC has never been committed to providing a remedy to communities harmed by the projects they finance, and this is particularly evident in their response to the Bridge Academies case,” she said.
Originally, the CAO expected to finish its health and safety-related investigation of the Bridge investment in September 2020. The CAO’s most recent update in the Bridge investigations was published in January 2022, an extraordinarily long delay.
“Progress on the investigations has been slower than expected due to CAO’s heavy caseload and staff turnover. CAO expects to publish the results of both investigations in the fall of 2023,” CAO spokesperson Emily Horgan wrote in an email to The Intercept. “While the investigations are in process, however, we are not able to share specific details.”
Photos: Brian Otieno for The Intercept
Seven years after David Nanzai discovered the note on his desk, the case remains unresolved and officially unsolved, and the victims uncompensated. The teachers we spoke to for this story have all left Bridge schools. But the IFC is working on a new framework to deal with such “negative externalities.”
In late February, the IFC put forward a new draft proposal addressing what it calls its “Approach to Remedial Action”: its effort to respond to the ongoing pressure to take responsibility for any harmful outcomes associated with its investments. “If harm occurs, they are committed to facilitating and supporting clients’ and stakeholders’ remedial action to address the harm,” the report read.
Dozens of civil society organizations panned the new proposal. The IFC’s proposed approach “falls short of expectations and fails to provide a comprehensive plan for delivering remedy to affected communities,” read a statement from a coalition of civil society organizations in February. “If IFC and [the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency] cannot guarantee remedy for project-related harm, they should not be funding development projects in the first place.”
Margaux Day also noted that the proposal would only cover future investments begun in 2024, “which leaves people harmed by the Bridge investment, among others, out.” Day does not have clients impacted by Bridge but has been following the case as a proxy for the global investment community’s willingness to take responsibility for its role in the world.
“Getting accountability right is critical for IFC and our clients,” said a World Bank spokesperson, though they denied the Bridge divestment was due to outside pressure. “Feedback from stakeholders will be considered as IFC refines” its approach to remedying harm and also to how it responsibly exits from investments. (The public can offer feedback, as well, the spokesperson said.)
The IFC has not offered the survivors of the serial assault any compensation.
The Intercept also asked the IFC, Chan Zuckerberg, and the Gates and Omidyar funds what, if any, responsibility investors had to remedy the situation. “Any instance of harm to a child is unacceptable,” said a Chan Zuckerberg spokesperson. “We would refer you to the letter from Bridge Kenya on the practices it has in place to safeguard students and immediately investigate reports of any safety issues.”
A spokesperson for Omidyar’s Imaginable Futures said the fund owns a 2.7 percent stake in the company. “We refer you to the statement provided to you by Bridge Kenya,” the spokesperson said.
Even the best schools can find themselves in a situation in which a teacher or other school employee has broken the law and violated the trust placed in them by students. The question is what safeguards the school had in place and how the school responds in the wake of an incident.
Bridge provided The Intercept with a bullet-point list of nine action items the company took in the wake of the revelations of the abuse.
The serial assault, a Bridge spokesperson said, sparked the creation of the Critical Incident Advisory Unit, which advises schools on how to respond, and led to additional training to “recognize ‘grooming’ behavior” and otherwise stop abuse before it occurs, or report it as quickly as possible. “Since 2020, all staff are asked to affirm their commitment to child safeguarding every year by re-signing the ‘Child champion promise,’” the spokesperson said.
Students now learn “magic number cheer,” which teaches them to remember a phone number — also posted on walls of classrooms, signposts, and fliers — they can use to report abuse. The company takes a hard line, the spokesperson said, on failures to report abuse: “If you do not report a safeguarding concern and that is subsequently discovered it is a gross misconduct offense for which you are dismissed.”
When Bridge learned its academy manager, Josephine Ouko, had not reported the crimes, the company said, she was suspended and then fired.
Bridge said Nanzai was terminated in 2020 for defrauding parents who needed birth certificates; Nanzai said he suspects he was retaliated against for beginning to cooperate with the CAO investigation into the sexual abuse, which began in February 2020.
The company commissioned an education consultancy, Tunza, to evaluate its practices and policies. The report, published in 2020, found that public schools faced far greater rates of abuse than Bridge schools, though the methodology betrays an extraordinary confidence in Bridge’s reporting systems. For public schools, the study relies on anonymous surveys of students. For Bridge schools, the report largely relies on actual cases that were reported to higher-ups and investigated. The report, funded by Bridge, gently suggests that Bridge ought to, at some point, also survey its student body to find out if its assumption about nearly universal reporting through official channels is accurate.
The Tunza report also pointed to a lack of sufficient training and education for academy managers like Ouko: “From the academy manager interviews, we discovered that the academy managers did not fully understand that there was expert support provided by the CIAU or that Bridge would provide them with additional resources during the investigative process such as legal advice when going to court as a witness or financial support to cover associated expenses such as medical tests or transport to health facilities for the children.”
Many of the other actions that Bridge claimed to have taken were carried out by Bridge teachers, and parents, including taking the girls to the clinic and reporting the case to the police. The bullets also claim, “Bridge partnered with local institutions to provide ongoing counseling.” That counseling continued for months, Bridge said, and “would have continued as long as it was needed.”
That message didn’t always get through. Ndinga said his daughter never received counseling from the Wangu Kanja Foundation, a Kenya-based nonprofit focused on gender-based violence; Hope Worldwide, another nonprofit; or Bridge. “They did not take these children to counseling for the betterment of their lives in the future,” he said.
Ndinga was one of the parents who encouraged the others not to pursue the case, legally or in the media, because he feared that the girls would be stigmatized and shamed if the incident became public. And after his daughter went back to Bridge to finish her schooling there, Ndinga said he felt scared. He used to “monitor” her, checking in and investigating when she went to school early in the morning or came home later at night.
Bridge Kenya provided a statement from its director of gender and child empowerment, Lillian Wamuyu: “Bridge Kenya is appalled by any safeguarding breach. We have always treated safeguarding as our number one priority. All Bridge teachers and school leaders have been continuously trained in safeguarding since Bridge Kenya opened its first school in 2009 and students are recognised as safer in our schools. If any safeguarding concern is reported, swift and decisive action is taken, including alerting the authorities and providing full support to students affected. It is horrifying if any indecent act takes place in a school and it is the duty of all those that work in education to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice as quickly as possible.”
Wamuyu’s statement pointed The Intercept to the Tunza report and the list of measures it claimed to have taken in the wake of the 2016 incident to improve child protection at Bridge schools. “In 2022, Bridge Kenya became a founding member of the Child Safeguarding Association of Kenya (CSAK). Bridge continually ensures that safeguarding policies and practices are reviewed and updated, so they remain best in sector.”
Despite its efforts to address these issues, there have been other troubling cases at Bridge Kenya, both before and after the 2016 incident at Mukuru Kwa Reuben.
Court records show that in 2017, several prepubescent female students were sexually harassed by a teacher at another Bridge school in Mukuru. The teacher was arrested, and the case is still being adjudicated in court.
In one particularly gruesome case, a Bridge teacher at a third school was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for cutting the genitals of a 7-year-old student with a razor. After publication, a Bridge spokesperson, in a request for a correction, insisted to The Intercept that the man was found “innocent” on appeal and his conviction was overturned. His conviction was indeed overturned, but the court did so, it ruled, because the child was too young to give sworn testimony and the testimony was not corroborated. Nothing in the opinion declared the teacher “innocent.” The case, despite its made-for-the-tabloid details, was hardly reported, nor did The Intercept find any announcement or statement by Bridge International Academies pertaining to the incident.
One morning in September 2019, the mother of a Bridge student at another Nairobi school was startled to find a crowd of her son’s classmates outside her home. They were there to deliver harrowing news.
After the school’s daily assembly, her son, a young student named Bernard, reached up to touch a wire that was dangling inside from an adjacent building into school property. It was a live wire, and he was electrocuted and killed.
Another 9-year-old boy was badly hurt and rushed to a nearby hospital. His mother, Halima Ali, is currently fighting to get monetary compensation, support for her son’s ongoing medical care, and an apology from Bridge. The financial burden of the incident was devastating to Ali’s family, she said, but, at the time of her interview, Bridge hadn’t budged an inch.
“To be honest, I have so much pain,” she said, crying during an interview in her family’s one-bedroom shanty house in the informal settlements. “I wish it happened to me and not my son.”
The case around Bernard’s death was settled through a mediation process, with CAO bringing Bridge and the student’s mother and her advocates together to agree on terms. Throughout the process Bridge was reluctant to give her even the most basic remuneration for her son’s death, according to people briefed on the talks who could not speak on the record because the negotiations were confidential. The mother wanted to know exactly what happened to her son and to get back the sweater he was wearing that day. She also wanted a public apology. But the company fought to keep from admitting liability.
Bridge and the mother ultimately agreed to an antiseptic public statement that acknowledged the child’s death. “This is a joint statement between Bridge International Academies Limited and the Complainants on disputed circumstances related to the death of their child, who while attending a Bridge School was electrocuted by a live connection from a building adjacent to the School,” the statement reads. There was no apology, no detailing of events.
“It is clearly stated — and agreed — on the CAO website that Bridge was not at fault,” a Bridge spokesperson said, adding that the confidentiality agreement barred the company from commenting on the talks. Bridge argued that the wire was dangling from an adjoining building, and therefore Bridge wasn’t responsible.
Emily Horgan, the CAO spokesperson, pushed back on the claim that anything CAO had produced exonerated Bridge. “It is not correct to say that CAO’s website states that Bridge was not at fault. Neither CAO’s site nor the documents on the site state that,” she said.
Bridge said that it was bound by confidentiality not to discuss what was shared during the mediation, though it did share what a company spokesperson said was a statement it provided to CAO. It meticulously avoids any suggestion of culpability:
The safety of Bridge’s pupils is its absolute priority and we are deeply saddened by the tragic accident. This was a unique and terrible accident that has been devastating to the family and to all members of our community. As educators, parents, and members of the greater school community, it is difficult to comprehend the suffering that such a tragic accident causes. We know that many staff, parents and wider community members remain devastated after their desperate efforts to save the child’s life were sadly unsuccessful.
Bernard’s mother never got his sweater back.
Correction: April 1, 2023
This story previously stated that the UK development bank divested from Bridge. In fact, the House of Commons recommended a divestment but the bank did not divest. It also previously said that Bridge filed a complaint with the University of Alberta in December 2016; the complaint was filed in October 2016. The story has been corrected.
The story has also been updated to add that the conviction of the teacher in the 2014 case of genital cutting was ultimately overturned because the testimony of the young victim was not corroborated. We also clarified that the wire that electrocuted Bernard was hanging from an adjacent property, though Bernard was on Bridge school property when the incident occurred.