SAN FRANCISCO, California – There are few who would argue that Internet usage is still increasing since its inception in the 1950s. Though the statistics demonstrating this surge are hardly necessary, they are still astounding: use of the Internet jumped 566% since 2000. The trend is mirrored by the boom in e-commerce and, especially, e-publishing. Digital reading devices, online newspapers and e-books worked their way into everyday life in many countries. In some countries, however, the spread of the Internet and digital technologies has proven the potential to do more than entertain.
Dave Risher was an Amazon.com executive before he decided to harness digital technology for educational purposes in developing countries. During a trip to Ecuador, Risher realized his Kindle could be utilized to circumvent some of the problems developing countries have in accessing literature. Publishers are often limited by expensive printing, distribution and storage – all of which drive up the price of printed books. Subsequently, books are not a priority for the 47% of Sub-Saharan Africa subsisting on less than $1.25 per day.
Unfortunately, literacy is an important component for development and is often an indicator of wages. In 2011, almost 775 million adults were reported as illiterate. Over three-quarters of those reside in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and in both regions, approximately two-thirds of all adults were unable to read and write. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization reported that maps showing levels of illiteracy and poverty closely correspond. The problem is cyclical. Low incomes contribute to children leaving school early, which affects the lack of literacy that contributes to affecting the concentration of impoverished individuals in low-paying jobs of no education requirements.
With the rise of cellphones and the Internet, there is an opportunity to circumvent expensive printed books to improve literacy rates. While worldwide Internet connectivity jumped, usage in Africa skyrocketed 3,606% since the millennium’s beginning. More than 160 million people in Africa using the Internet do so mostly via phones, a convenient and useful tool for more than basic communication. Risher seized this combination to create Worldreader, a non-profit “to help the developing world leapfrog paper books.”
Worldreader aims to reach children as early as possible, before they fall behind or leave school. The organization is funded by corporate matching programs. Where donations are derived from both money and publishing rights as well as partnerships with local groups, giants such as Random House, Hulu and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have also contributed. Publishing companies are often particularly keen to support digital books because it is significantly cheaper. This is a trend seen by the myriad of Worldreader partners including Simon & Schuster, Penguin and HarperCollins Canada. Authors like Roald Dahl are also involved via direct donations of e-books or stories.
The outpouring of support has allowed Worldreader to distribute 721,129 e-books to over 12,000 children in nine African countries, typically via schools. The organization also reaches out to anyone with a cellphone through a mobile app Worldreader Mobile. Users of all ages are able to access textbooks, fiction, children’s books, classics and a full spectrum of other genres of literature via phones or e-readers. Since only 50% of schools in Sub-Saharan Africa have sufficient books, the program boasts that one year in a Worldreader program is the equivalent of two years in typical regional schools.
One of the unique aspects of the organization is its attention to local languages. Regional authors and stories are given special priority, a tactic that generally keeps the youth more engaged. Furthermore, nearby businesses are taught how to repair the e-readers, creating a more sustainable economy. Worldreader’s attention to detail and intensive evaluation system makes it all the more likely that it will reach its 2015 goal to have 1 million e-readers in Africa. Risher and his powerful partners have tapped into a golden opportunity to combine technology and social change.
– Katey Baker-Smith