CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina — When William Kamkwamba was 14 years old, he read a book in his local Malawian library about wind power. Unable to afford school fees, Kamkwamba used the book as his guide. He used scrap metal and junk to eventually build a wind turbine to power his house. His business grew, and soon, his turbines could power the whole village. Today, Kamkwamba is internationally known, serving as a reminder that sometimes all it takes to escape poverty is the right reading material. Today, organizations such as Books For Africa send millions of books to developing countries, giving others the chance to follow Kamkwamba’s success.
Books For Africa
Books For Africa is a nonprofit organization that commits to sending large numbers of high-quality books to African communities. Since its founding in 1988, the organization has donated more than 51 million books, reaching every country in Africa. The process is simple. The organization receives book donations from people around the world. Then, Books For Africa picks a diverse selection of books to go into a shipping container bound for Africa. Each book costs the organization about 90 cents to ship and each shipping container holds anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 books.
The Borgen Project spoke with Books For Africa’s Executive Director Patrick Plonski. Rather than sending the books wherever the organization prefers, the organization operates under what Plonski describes as a “demand-driven” system. Organizations in Africa send out requests for books, which Books For Africa then attempts to meet. The sizes of organizations requesting books range from as small as a village to as large as a country.
Decreasing Poverty With Books
Sending books can have a real impact on a person’s life. World Bank data shows that about 53% of children in low- and middle-income countries are learning poor. This means that 53% of 10-year-old children cannot read and comprehend a basic text. A lack of access to quality learning materials contributes to learning poverty. Studies consistently reveal that when children do not learn to read, every aspect of their education suffers, from language skills to self-regulation. As a result, poor education and illiteracy directly contribute to poverty. When people have access to books, however, education and a higher standard of living become attainable.
Books For Africa especially values textbooks and other technical works of the kind that Kamkwamba found in his library. However, other kinds of books are also in demand. Plonski explains that the organization’s goal is to supply books “that people are interested in, regardless of whether we think the content merits that or not.” For a long period, Books For Africa refrained from sending publications such as fiction books and romance novels because these topics are not directly considered educational. The organization then discovered significant demand for these genres — people enjoyed reading these books to improve their reading abilities. For example, reading “The Hardy Boys” mystery novels may not teach as much factual content as a textbook, but even fiction books improve reading skills and turn children and adults alike into lifelong lovers of reading.
As demand changes, the organization has continued to adapt its model. Recently, it began printing its own books, often in local languages not commonly found among donated books, like Portuguese or Somali. Thanks to the large scale of its operation, the nonprofit can print significant quantities of these books to gradually distribute among the target populations. The organization also distributes French books, which are in high demand in West Africa, from its warehouses in Canada or France. Since the demand for digital reading material has also increased, Books For Africa has also begun distributing e-books on tablets and computers, estimating that 600,000 e-books will be distributed in 2021 alone.
The impact books have on education greatly improves poverty rates. Widespread literacy enables everyone, regardless of age, background or wealth, to gain knowledge that will provide them with the tools to rise out of poverty. Books For Africa helps put an entire continent on the path to achieving this goal.
– Thomas Brodey