Too often, the e-book conversation in the major media revolves around business issues. But for a sense of how truly transformational e-books are, look no further than Worldreader, the nonprofit dedicated to bringing e-readers and e-books to Africa. In 2014, two new reports showed how Worldreader’s digital reading efforts can effectively boost literacy rates, and how a reading culture can flourish in the developing world thanks to the march of mobile technology and some generous new publisher partnerships.
Founded in 2009 by former Amazon v-p David Risher, along with Colin McElwee and Mike Sundermeyer, Worldreader aims to harness technology to combat a key problem: there are 740 million illiterate people in the world (according to UNESCO), including 250 million children of primary school age. And, in Africa, roughly 50% of schools have few or no books at all. Worldreader's goal: "to bring digital books to every child and her family, so that they can improve their lives."
Risher says Worldreader has come a long way since its early days five years ago, when it first introduced the Kindle in a small pilot program in Ghana. Today, Worldreader provides e-readers to schools, through both sponsorships and sales. It offers book collections from some of the world’s top trade and textbook publishers, including African publishers, for its library. It helps both African authors and publishers translate and digitize their titles. And, with ever-powerful smartphones prevalent in the developing world, Worldreader has created a mobile app, Worldreader Mobile, to enable books to be read on cellphones.
And it’s working: In Ghana, 65% of second-graders couldn't read a single word in their mother tongue (let alone English) prior to the arrival of e-readers, notes Dani Zacarias, senior digital publishing manager at Worldreader. But according to a November report, among the children in Worldreader’s iREAD 2 program, that figure dropped to less than 11% – in just 18 months.
The results are similarly dramatic in Kenya, where, with the support of the Gates Foundation, Worldreader launched Project LEAP (Libraries, E-reading, Activities, and Partnership). “Overall, the project has exceeded expectations,” notes a midterm report released in September. As many as 10,000 people have been impacted by the program, many of them children. Additionally, public library patronage at the participating libraries has jumped by 66%.
The mobile app has had a major impact as well: in a December post on Worldreader's blog, the Literacy Legder, Worldreader’s Elizabeth Wood noted that this year alone, people across Africa and Asia have spent more than a million hours reading on Worldreader Mobile. “This arguably would not have been possible if Worldreader’s free digital library weren’t handily available on cellphones – devices that more and more people have access to, even in the poorest parts of the world,” Wood writes.
Meanwhile, publishers have been joining the cause.
Throughout this month, Rosetta Books has been offering discounts on 152 books, and donating 10% of all sales to Worldreader. The promotion ends on December 31. Zacarias says Rosetta approached Worldreader with the idea, which Worldreader welcomed. In addition, Rosetta has donated 135 books to Worldreader’s digital library. “To us it might just be a wonderful book, but to the kids and families in the Worldreader program, it's life-changing," Rosetta CEO Arthur Klebanoff said in a statement.
In August, e-book publisher Open Road also donated 262 books to Worldreader’s library, Zacarias says, including some classic books for young readers. And Zacarias says Worldreader is in “the final stages” of talks with Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House to renew long-standing partnerships.
In 2011, Random House gave Worldreader access to 150 titles from its digital catalog, including the entire Magic Tree House series, and Puffin gave Worldreader free access to works by Roald Dahl, including classics like Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Zacarias says Worldreader is grateful to its publishing and library partners, and eager to hear from any publishers who want to help make a difference in the lives of children and their families in the developing world. She will be in New York in January for the Digital Book World conference talking to publishers (and can be reached here).