Skip to content

Changemaker Honoured For Africa Education Nomination

Grace Matlhape, CEO of early learning programme SmartStart has said that she is honoured to be a finalist nominee for the Africa Education Medal 2023 – Africa’s most prestigious education accolade. The award, founded by T4 Education and HP in collaboration with Microsoft, is given to outstanding individuals who have demonstrated impact, leadership, and advocacy in the field of education. Matlhape is one of just two South Africans named as a top 10 finalist for this year’s award.

“For those of us who work in education, the success of the country’s youth is one of the most important indications of how well we are doing. In addition to being a personal milestone, this nomination is confirmation that SmartStart is making a real and measurable impact on people’s lives. It also highlights the essential nature of our mission, which is to enable the potential of children and women by providing affordable access to quality early learning across South Africa,” says Matlhape. 

Matlhape is a veteran in the social impact and development space. Before SmartStart, she was the CEO of loveLife, an organisation that tackled the high rate of HIV infections among young people in South Africa. A qualified social worker, Matlhape also has experience in forensic psychiatry, mental health, and psycho-social support. Previously, she served as the Executive Director for the Wits Mental Health Society for seven years, as well as the Director of Programmes at the Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa. 

“Grace is driven by deep care and commitment towards social justice by enabling the potential of young children, youth, and women – she is a pioneer in effecting change. Under her leadership, over 145 000 children have been enrolled in the SmartStart early learning programme. This number represents only a fraction of the actual impact made by the organisation, when it comes to expanding access to early learning and enabling the creation of livelihoods, for predominantly young black women in poor communities,” says Executive Chair at Yellowwoods Group, Adrian Enthoven, who motivated for Matlhape as a finalist. 

Since its inception in 2015, SmartStart has built a network of over 90 000 parents and caregivers across all nine provinces. Leveraging a decentralised social franchise model, the organisation has trained over 15 000 early learning practitioners – of which the majority are women – and set up over 9 000 of them in micro social enterprises to fill the gap in early learning service provision. By 2030, SmartStart aims to reach one-million children between the ages of three and five annually. 

“Education has always been important in the Ulundi Community, and in partnering with SmartStart we have been able to provide education for younger children. Grace Matlhape has shown herself to be a leader of exceptional qualities. She is dedicated, thorough and patient, as she goes about the work of introducing ECD in the KwaZulu Natal Province with her team,” says lnkosi of the Buthelezi Clan, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP.

“The African Education Medal recognises that education is the foundation of an inclusive and successful society. I celebrate and admire the work of all of the esteemed finalists – we all share a common vision of a better, more equitable world where access to learning is a given, not something to be fought for,” says Matlhape.

The award recognised Matlhape as a pioneer working to transform education on the African continent. Fellow South African Mary Metcalfe, Executive Director of the Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes, is also one of the finalists. Finalists will be assessed by a Jury comprising prominent individuals based on rigorous criteria. The winner of the Africa Education Medal will be announced in July.

To find out more about SmartStart, visit