Roger Dickinson’s dream to shift education in Africa led him to found - and become the CEO - of the African Spelling Bee. The literacy programme is gaining traction across the continent, with a current footprint in 20 African countries. ESG Global recently caught up with Roger to learn more about the programme that promotes English while integrating African languages.

ESG Global: How did the concept come about?

Roger: We had been running Spelling bees as part of our literacy programme since 2010. In 2015 we started the National Spelling Bee in SA with the Department of Basic Education and then in 2016, we invited 8 other countries to start the African Spelling Bee with us.
It has always been my dream to shift education in Africa and the Spelling Bee is proving to be one of the ways we can do that.


ESG Global: Please provide an overview of the operating model.

Roger: Each country runs their own competitions and then selects 3 juniors and 3 seniors to come to the annual event.

The African Spelling Bee has been registered as an NPO and is in the process of formalising a Federal structure with all the partner countries.


ESG Global: What were some of the challenges in getting the organisation off the ground?

Roger: Faith and imagination are always the biggest challenges at the start of things. I needed to believe it was possible myself and then convince people who didn’t know each other to come together to do something that had not been done before. Once we got past that step and built our relationships we found ways to get things done. We still are figuring out how to do things together despite all the challenges.


ESG Global: How many employees are there and what are their basic roles?

Roger: We have a very small team that runs the day to day operations of the organisation. We then use volunteers and contracted workers to help us run the events. As it is quite a simple event, the big roles are set up and logistics. Then we have our competition team who runs the actual competition.


ESG Global: How do you recruit volunteers and for what roles?

Roger: Yes. We use our networks to find people who can support us. They mostly help with the competition logistics, set up and the like.


ESG Global: In which countries does the African Spelling Bee operate?

Roger: We currently are in over 20 countries across Africa. These are South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Benin, Guinea, Gambia, Ivory Coast.

We will also be joined by eSwatini, Namibia and Tunisia shortly


ESG Global: Why were these African countries chosen?

Roger: Initially I sent out invitations to spelling bee organisations I could find on social media and Google. Now countries contact us to join.


ESG Global: Do the experiences within these African countries differ? 

Roger: Yes, all countries have their particular realities but in general I have been surprised at how spelling bees get people excited across the continent. In many countries they are bigger than ours in SA and whole communities rally around their spellers.

Language and words are also quite explosive issues in many parts of the continent and I have learnt a lot about how important it is to be sensitive and respectful to these dynamics.


ESG Global: Do you work only with English words across all countries? 

Roger: Our programme is an English promotion programme, while still including words from other African languages.

English is the business and dominant communication language of the planet currently. For our African children to be employable, confident and able to stand in our modern world they need to speak English.


ESG Global: Do you partner with literacy or educational projects or schools in-country? 

Roger: Yes, we do. And, in fact, the spelling bee is only one of our offerings. Most of our work, in South Africa, for example, is in remedial reading and literacy programmes. Our partners across the continent also have ECD and teacher training programmes.


ESG Global: How do you choose the projects to partner with?

Roger: We partner with programmes that share our same goals and values. We also look for partners who could help us to strategically reach our ultimate goal of ensuring that all African children can read.


ESG Global: What socio-economic factors do you aim to address through the African Spelling Bee?

Roger: Our goal is that every African child will be able to read at an international level of at least Grade 4. Research has shown that this is the critical level of reading required in order to complete your schooling. When we are able to get this right, the lives of our children and communities will be changed forever.


ESG Global: Since its establishment, what changes have you seen in the countries in which you operate in terms of literacy and spelling?

Roger: Unfortunately, we are still a young organisation and the challenges in literacy across the continent remain immense! We have only scratched the surface but the real shift I think we are bringing is showing that real collaboration across the continent is possible. If we remain true to this and innovate and continue to build and learn, we can be part of shifting the destiny of every African.



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