The Team Sayari Partnership: Mixing Global and Local for Success
Lisa Blonder is the USAID Global Relationship Manager for The Walt Disney Company and The LEGO Foundation; and Senior Advisor for Private Sector Engagement in the Center for Education.
Just outside Nairobi National Park, down a bumpy, dusty road, sits WildlifeDirect’s Wildlife Warriors Field Lab. While currently the camp is composed of several temporary structures and tents, WildlifeDirect, a Kenyan nongovernmental organization, has a vision: to use the power of filmmaking, media, and education to shape the next generation’s attitudes and behaviors around Africa’s environment and wildlife.
The Field Lab serves as a learning microcosm for Team Sayari (meaning “Team Planet” in Kiswahili), a children’s educational TV series, digital platform, and school and community- based educational outreach program called Nature Positive Kids. This initiative is part of an incredible partnership between The Walt Disney Company, USAID, the U.S. State Department, WildlifeDirect, and regional partners, including Oceans Alive Foundation (Kenya), African People and Wildlife (Tanzania), and Prime Biodiversity Conservation (Rwanda). Building on WildlifeDirect’s decades of experience working with Kenyan communities and its popular Wildlife Warriors TV series, Team Sayari demonstrates the intrinsic need and value for local perspectives and leadership in internationally funded projects in Africa.
The partners’ goal is to create an educational children's TV program about the environment and conservation that also includes outreach activities through schools, youth groups, communities, and conservation hubs to reach populations without access to the NatGeoWild and Disney+ channels. The show follows an adapted NatGeoKids format and uses Wildlife Warriors themes to educate and engage a younger audience. A key element is that Nairobi-based youth serve as studio hosts for the show along with field reporters from Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Tanzania. In each episode, the hosts and reporters interview National Geographic Explorers and local experts, reflect on real-life situations, and discuss solutions in communities across Africa.
From the outset, Disney wanted to produce local television content hand in hand with African conservationists and creative industries that would appeal to target audiences and meet international industry standards. WildlifeDirect’s leadership as executive producer and the engagement of local partners helped to bring the diverse representation of Africa, its people, and its stories to the forefront. The team produced 20 television episodes of Team Sayari, and the series features topics such as elephants and bees, wildlife in the city, wildlife from sharks to snakes, oceans and plastics, among other exciting educational stories.
The creation of the series encountered unexpected challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, droughts, floods, political instability, and other events that affected the production and educational outreach schedules. The partners also had operational processes and timelines that needed to sync up with each other. To achieve success, partnerships like this require flexibility and sufficient time to help partners align roles and, when necessary, course correct.
USAID partnerships strive to balance business or market-based decisions with development objectives. Together, business and development can help ensure that the reach, impact, and sustainability exceed far beyond what one partner could achieve alone. The challenge often lies in learning to speak one another’s language and finding common ground. To bridge this gap, USAID employs Global Relationship Managers and staff with unique skill sets and backgrounds enabling them to understand both the business and development perspectives. These Global Relationship Managers help to facilitate a shared understanding of the project.
“Business is good for development, and development is good for business. Coming to the table with an open mind and no preconceived assumptions opens the door for creativity and examines problems and solutions from multiple perspectives and areas of expertise,” reflected Lisa Blonder, USAID Global Relationship Manager for The Walt Disney Company and Senior Advisor for Private Sector Engagement.
WildlifeDirect has served as an executive producer for the Team Sayari series and with Disney and White Rhino was responsible for the content creation and production across five African countries. Team Sayari began airing in late 2022 in Disney’s African markets to positive reviews. WildlifeDirect leads the educational outreach efforts to share the series with schools, conservation hubs, and audiences who do not have access to these television outlets.
WildlifeDirect has kept the momentum going and pivoted to figure out solutions to each new challenge to reach 10,000 learners between the ages of 7-12 in Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania by March 2024. They are well on their way, and as of July 2023, they have reached 8,658 children. To build an ecosystem for sustainability, WildlifeDirect has created a network of 200 schools and four conservation hubs. They have trained more than 270 teachers, created curricula and educational materials, and are in the process of distributing solar projectors and other equipment so that the schools and hubs can screen Team Sayari dubbed into Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, or English.
The Nature Positive Kids Outreach Program’s small grants to 50 schools across Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania allow students to take action on what they have learned from Team Sayari. Grants support a range of activities, such as tree-planting initiatives, workshops on conservation education, community clean-up events, recycling of plastics, glass, and other waste, schools using gutters to collect and conserve water, etc. Children learn about the importance of sustainable conservation, renewable energy, and wildlife conservation—and their ability to make a positive difference in each area. They also learn about a wide range of environmental career opportunities, inspiring them to consider these paths and become conservation leaders.
"The Nature Positive Kids Outreach Program is a crucial part of WildlifeDirect's efforts to protect and conserve Africa's wildlife," said Trish Sewe, Chief of Party. “Engaging and educating children can help create a more sustainable future for both people and wildlife."
Meanwhile, on any given Saturday, the Wildlife Warriors Field Lab in Nairobi is abuzz with conversations about the environment and children eager to learn. While some children arrive from school by bus, many local kids walk miles down that dusty, bumpy road from their neighborhoods to the Field Lab. The Field Lab events include a screening of Team Sayari, large and small group discussions about the episode’s theme, a nature walk with volunteer guides examining animal tracks, trees, grasses, and flowers, and the opportunity to catch glimpses of giraffes and impalas in nearby Nairobi National Park. The children then perch on the stools that the Team Sayari hosts use on TV and give presentations that they have written on what they have seen and learned. And at the end, they enjoy a hearty lunch.
Photos, prizes, and lots of laughter later, the young conservationists linger before returning to their homes. While the challenges involved with a partnership of this scale and ambition are not trivial, it is clear that the payoff will continue far into the future. Team Sayari is opening up the minds of a new generation who will see themselves as the stewards of Africa’s environment and wildlife for decades to come.
Team Sayari was made possible through USAID's New Partnerships Initiative as well as through the Agency's biodiversity and education funding. In addition, the Walt Disney Corporation provided 1:1 matching leverage and the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs supported the partnership's activities through public diplomacy and exchange programs.
Interested in more information about how USAID partners with the private sector? Visit USAID’s Private Sector Engagement page.