Can E-Readers Play a Role in Global Literacy & Development?

Remember when you were growing up, your school or church collected used books to mail to African children living in poverty? Well, this charitable act has also evolved in the digital age.  Literacy nonprofit Worldreader works to provide digital books to children throughout the developing world.  They recently launched an initiative to get one million e-books, which will then be downloaded onto Amazon Kindles for distribution in Africa.  Worldreader is seeking donations of US$5, which each pay for one e-book. So far they have collected 100,000 e-books for kids in Kenya, Ghana and Uganda.

Worldreader was founded by marketing expert Colin McElwee and former Amazon.com executive David Risher in 2010.  The two wanted to bring together Risher’s love of literature and the widespread use of mobile technology to underserved youth worldwide.

The nonprofit began delivering e-books to Ghana two years ago.  At that time, it also launched a USAID-funded study, measuring the first implementation of e-readers into classrooms in poor areas. The study found performance on standardized test scores jumping between 12.9 percent and 15.7 percent.

The donated e-books include literature by both African and international authors and publishers, as well as newspapers from around the world.  Most of the e-books are downloaded onto Kindles mainly because of Risher’s connection with Amazon and its ease of use internationally.  They recently began looking beyond e-readers and into mobile phones, with an e-book app created by cloud developer biNu.

This is a great concept on many levels. The kids get Kindles pre-loaded with hundreds of books, newspapers and, most importantly, a tool for learning new technologies and a connection to the world.  However, the first question to pop into our minds was how are these Kindles being recharged, as one-third of the estimated 1.6 billion people living without access to electricity worldwide live in Africa.

The lack of electricity is recognized as a major impediment to development on the continent, ranging from health care, education, water access, sanitation and women’s rights.  Also, the lack of Internet access in many parts of the African continent continues to be a problem.  While one doesn’t need the Internet to read already downloaded e-books, the Internet would give kids the options to download e-books – many of them for free – they were interesting in reading.  Luckily, the popularity of solar energy has really taken off in the last few years, but there is a need for a larger discussion about how ICT infrastructure needs to start developing at the same rate as mobile technology penetration on the continent, as well as involving the voices of African technologists working to improve digital access.

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