As a poor girl in rural Zimbabwe, Bridget Moyo padded barefoot behind her friends to the school gate "just to see what it was like". Then a charity stepped in to pay her school fees. She worked hard, went on to study business at university, and when she graduated last year, so many people in her home district gathered to cheer her success "that I could not believe that they were all there for me".
Now she's setting up a business selling airbeds, while devoting her free time to working as a mentor and community volunteer, encouraging other girls to aim high. And the Cambridge-based organisation that picked up the tab for her seven years ago is fast moving on to the global stage as the go-to agency for governments and funders in search of educational development that really works.
This year it out-bid UN agencies and major international charities to win £12m of new British aid money to extend its work in Zimbabwe and, with funding from the MasterCard Foundation and Google, is setting up a training programme in Ghana that will benefit a million people. It is consolidating a new schools programme in Malawi and fielding a growing number of requests from African governments to work in their countries.
It has caught the attention of world leaders like Bill Clinton, gained the backing of Hollywood superstars such as Morgan Freeman, won awards for social entrepreneurship and reeled in top bankers and lawyers as supporters. Yet the unsexily titled Camfed (the Campaign for Female Education) International does nothing unusual. It pays for girls in poor rural areas in Africa to go to secondary school and gives them training to set up small businesses afterwards, aiming to give girls the same chances as boys, and to foster the multiplier "girl effect" (girls who finish secondary school earn more, delay childbirth, avoid Aids and have fewer children and keep them healthier and send them to school, thereby creating a better future for everyone).
It is how it does it that makes the difference – and after 20 years working in rural Africa it can show that its unique model prompts transformational changes even in the most disadvantaged areas on earth.
The organisation has few UK staff and runs through national offices in the countries in which it works: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi. These set up committees of local leaders to decide which students most need bursaries, often orphans living in dire poverty. "It's easy to work with children who have potential," Angeline Murimirwa, executive director of Camfed Zimbabwe, says. "But we take on the downtrodden, disliked and disowned."
Groups of community volunteers support these girls through secondary school, after which the girls join an alumnae network – Cama – which offers training, support and friendship. As a result, 90,000 teachers, parents, students and local officials are actively working together to help vulnerable local children. Camfed doesn't work with the community. It is the community itself. Then ripples spread. Cama women set up small businesses, farm their fields better, volunteer in their communities and club together to support more poor students in school.
"I buy and sell clothes and have many plans," says Tambudzai Kashoti, who lives a two-hours drive east of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. "People now see what I am doing and come to me for ideas, and I also help pay my husband's fees while he is training as a teacher."
Older mothers and grandmothers, spurred on by their example, set up their own support groups. "In my district they work in the fields all day, come home and clean themselves, and then go to school to clean the boarding house and the toilets," Rosemary Mukwenya, a mothers' leader from northern Zimbabwe, says. "They also pay for soap, sanitary towels and footwear for students."
This prompts the men to make classroom furniture, dig latrines and build school dormitories. "We were challenged by what the mothers were doing," admits Lovemore Chiriga, from a fathers' group in eastern Zimbabwe. "What I learned from Camfed is that you can help children who are not your own."
Attitudes change, skills develop, solidarity grows and even in the face of great difficulty these changes hold. In the darkest days of Zimbabwean political upheaval and hyperinflation, villages with Camfed programmes kept their schools open by banding together to pay and feed the teachers who worked in them.
"We are funding girls' education in a way that builds a community's power and social capital," says Ann Cotton, an executive director and a former teacher who founded Camfed after working in Zimbabwe as an educational researcher. "When people get involved like this they learn about their rights and responsibilities, and realise what they can do."
But even this does not fully explain Camfed's impact – other organisations have copied its model without success. "It's because everything we do is based on personal relationships and respectful partnerships," Lucy Lake, CEO of Camfed International, says.
"Camfed treats us as partners, not as problems to be fixed or crooks to be avoided," says Lawford Palani, a district commissioner in Malawi, where the programme is being nurtured by Camfed activists from Zimbabwe. "We are not micro-managed. We are supported and challenged to do more and better all the time. Camfed really consults us and listens to us."
"And in Camfed we value a child as a child," Faith Nkala, deputy executive director of Camfed Zimbabwe, says. "We deal with every child, not with all children." Bursary recipients are individually tracked and are given clothes, toiletries, books and stationery while in school. They are checked on regularly, coaxed back if they drop out, and allocated a teacher mentor to protect them from bullying and sexual abuse.
As a result, young lives are transformed. "Cama is full of amazing women," Melody Jori, who has launched a business magazine in Harare, says. "We respect ourselves, our families and our communities. We give strength to each other, defy the odds and break through barriers, because where people think something is not possible, we believe it is and we do something to make it happen."
But involvement with Camfed appears to prompt personal journeys for everyone. "In our culture we used to pay for things with girls," Chief Hata, a traditional tribal leader from eastern Zimbabwe, says. "I myself would settle cases by awarding someone a girl. But through Camfed I saw that girls are human beings, too. We were doing the wrong thing, and must support them. Now many fewer girls drop out from school because of pregnancy. And I too am supporting a child through school."
The organisation has helped 1.5 million girls and vulnerable boys in school, put 60,000 girls through secondary school and trained 5,000 teacher mentors; 1,000 girls have been helped through college – including women who are now doctors, lawyers and community leaders – and 7,700 businesses have been helped; 17,500 young women belong to Cama and last year they helped support 96,000 students through school with their own money.
And research shows Camfed's work has a wider general influence on civic standards, lowering school drop-out rates and encouraging local philanthropy. The organisation is now looking to help raise school standards and foster job opportunities, knowing that fledgling ambitions must not be thwarted. "We have to keep moving forward," Cotton says, "always bearing in mind what is best for the child."