Albert Einstein once said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” Having Albert on my side was a huge confidence booster at the recent O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in Frankfurt, as I prepared to tell conference goers that the best way to tackle illiteracy and poverty in Africa is to give children and teachers e-readers loaded with donated e-books. Because, as absurd as that idea may sound, it is brilliant—and, best of all, it is working.
At Worldreader.org we have a mission—“books for all”—because we believe in the power of reading to change lives. We launched our effort in 2010 around a simple idea—that the e-readers that enable us to buy books without leaving our beds, that make our carry-ons lighter and heighten our overall convenience, can have a more vital impact on lives in the developing world. Children who would never have owned or even had access to a single book can now have any book they want.
We believe e-readers present a historic opportunity. No one would disagree that literacy is key to breaking the cycle of poverty, yet most children in the developing world have no books. And before e-readers and GSM technology, the only solution to the dearth of books in Africa was shipping donated paper books from abroad—but it’s costly, messy, and the right books often never get to the kids. Recently, in Senegal, for example, I found a donated copy of the Michelin Guide to Paris, 1995 on a school shelf. In Ghana, I found All About Utah.
Today, however, with increasingly inexpensive e-readers, growing mobile penetration, and, often, solar power, we have the means to deliver any book to anyone in the world cheaply and instantly. If a child can receive a text message or a phone call, she can receive a book. As a consumer, you know how great that is when you have a long layover at Heathrow. Now, imagine how life-changing this could be for children in the middle of the Maasai Mara in Kenya.
After our first efforts in Ghana and Kenya, we’re already seeing a positive impact. Hundreds of children in Kenya and Ghana are now using e-readers in the classroom and at home, and they are devouring books, one after the other. And their lives are already changing. Independent testing of our project has shown that Worldreader children are reading more and better. Their comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary have all increased dramatically. They are more articulate in class and better able to write and spell.
Most importantly, however, the kids’ passion for reading has skyrocketed. Among our current international publishing partners are Random House, which offers Worldreader children access to 150 titles from its digital catalogue, including the entire Magic Tree House series, and Puffin, which just last week signed on to allow our kids free access to the genius of Roald Dahl. What child wouldn’t be captivated by Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? These are the books that will make the children in Africa and beyond into lifelong readers, that will grab kids’ imaginations and change their lives. We are also bringing great African literature to the kids by partnering with local publishers and authors.
E-readers also offer a historic opportunity for publishers: to establish a new market and a born-digital publishing infrastructure where currently there is no real market. We are nonprofit, but we are not a charity. Our goals extend beyond education and literacy to the creation of a strong leisure-reading culture that can ultimately sustain a vibrant publishing industry.
When I first arrived in Frankfurt, I was a bit daunted at the prospect of presenting at ToC—a conference that has for years charted the cutting edge of e-books and e-readers. I needn’t have worried. The response to my talk was overwhelmingly positive. As soon I finished, publishers and agents approached the stage, business cards were exchanged, and I had a realization: who wouldn’t want to be a part of something so positive and uplifting?
Elizabeth Wood is director of digital publishing at Worldreader. If you are a publisher or author and would like to contribute digital content that will change lives, please e-mail Publishing@Worldreader.org.