Low cost childcare app unites working families in a circle of trust

By Chris Welsch

Eefje Cottenier likes solving problems – so much so, she’s made it her career. From her home near Kortrijk in Belgian Flanders, she runs a social incubator to help find solutions to societal problems.

So, when she realised that her very busy life – operating a business, caring for two children, a being partner to her husband – was causing her to burnout, she started talking to other parents and realised she was far from alone. It was apparent that finding safe and affordable care for children is a near universal issue for working parents.

>@EIB Institute

“I saw that for every type of problem, there’s a box,” Eefje says. “And a set of rules and money to pay for anonymous services – someone to cook your meal, someone to care for your children. The soul has gone from our system. I think it’s better to ask the people living with the problem how to solve it.”

Acting on that philosophy, Eefje, together with a group of parents, decided to create a childcare cooperative network to meet the needs of her own family and families in her neighbourhood. She started by transforming part of her house into a space for childcare. Over three years, with the participation of 250 families, Eefje and the cooperative refined the concept. Using a free room in a school or community centre, two or three parents from the group would watch over 12-14 children outside of school hours. With experience, the cooperative settled on a simple exchange of time for childcare services─for each day spent caring for the children, a parent would earn four days of care for their children. Eefje explains that the scheme was significant as it created a circle of trust for everyone involved.

Scaling up low cost childcare app

As word spread, other parents began asking how they might start their own cooperative group─and so Cokido was born. Cokido is a bottom-up solution that connects families in the neighbourhood to create a participative childcare solution. The organisation secures safe and well-equipped facilities suitable for childcare by working with local governments and institutions and work places. 

Cokido now serves 1 600 families in Flanders and has pilot groups starting in Italy, Hungary, and Greece, and further afield, in New Zealand.

Cokido’s success was recognised by the European Investment Bank Institute’s 2020 Social Innovation Tournament, which identifies and rewards innovative social entrepreneurs tackling social problems, with the scheme being one of 15 finalists.

As a social enterprise, Cokido has an app, an insurance provider, and provides support and a way of working for families, workplaces, and other groups and organisations that want to start using its system. It appeals to companies and governments because it’s very affordable compared to conventional daycare. Cokido charges between €30 and €50 per year per family, and €8 500 per year per group to administer Cokido programmes for companies or other organisations. 

The availability of inexpensive childcare became an even more important issue for families during the COVID-19 crisis. “COVID made a lot of people realise that schools are for more than just education”, Eefje says. “When they were closed, suddenly parents and employers had  to deal with children all day, every day. That brought us a lot of new interest.”

An unexpected benefit of Cokido has been giving economic and educational assistance to the women who participate in the childcare network. “I didn’t realise that gender inequality was as big a problem in Belgium as it is,” she says. “Many women can’t work or get education because the hours don’t align with the availability of daycare. So we’ve found some members use their new-found free time to look for work or take classes.”

Eefje says another benefit of Cokido is how it introduces children to different kinds of families and lifestyles – something that resonated with her. “When, as a child, I would stay with my friends’ families, I would see there were other ways of life, other possibilities,” she says.

The benefits of spending time, not money

Anneliese Loosveldt is an independent entrepreneur in Kortrijk, with two sons aged seven and two. She’s been a Cokido member for three years and says that it’s been great for her children – especially her younger son who is a bit shy. The boys get to know the other children and parents in the group very well in a safe environment. Her sons like it when she’s at the Cokido group once a week. “They really look forward to that and are quite proud it’s their mum there.”

Anneliese says that recently-arrived immigrants to Belgium joined the group too. “We had a woman from Uganda, and it was interesting to see how she interacted with the kids, and they liked it too,” she says. “It’s a chance to learn a little of a new language and see other ways of living.”

For Anneliese, participating in Cokido was also an opportunity to enrich her involvement in the community. “I used to be more involved in activism and volunteer activities, but when you become a parent that becomes difficult. Cokido is a wonderful way to feel a commitment to the community. Normally we’re focused on spending our time making money,” she says. “This is a nice way to see how time can be valuable in itself.”