Every month 450,000 people in the developing world are reading books and stories on their feature phones via the Worldreader Book App. It’s been fun to see that our readers have an insatiable appetite for love stories. It might seem a little far-fetched, but it’s possible that these readers, falling in love on their phones, are making the world a more peaceful place.
Today is International Literacy Day and the theme for this year’s celebration of the power of literacy is Literacy and Peace. UNESCO, which started the celebration over 40 years ago reminds us that literacy is “at the heart of basic education for all” and that “the consolidation of democracy requires people’s participation” but that if “literacy is to become an enabler of democracy it cannot be confined to basic skills, and thus to functional literacy”. What Worldreader is trying to accomplish, in all our projects, and with our Book App, is not just to increase literacy but build a culture and a habit of reading. We want to make reading not just educational, but fun, so that it may also be inspiring.
Two years ago, Worldreader began tackling the dearth of reading materials in Sub Saharan Africa by distributing e-readers and e-books to children in schools. Each e-reader holds up to 3500 e-books, has an impressive battery life and can receive new books instantaneously over the mobile phone network.
In just 2 years Worldreader has brought over 200,000 e-books to children in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda and the results have been inspiring. We are seeing lives transformed before our eyes. Okanta Kate, a 17-year-old student in Ghana, devoured over 100 books last year and has decided she wants to be a writer. She’s off to a good start. You can read her poem “Agony of a Woman” and hear her describe her ambitions and transformation here.
Worldreader is not just focused on increasing the volume of reading material available – we are also committed to bringing high quality, relevant books to students – books that these children will actually want to read. Not surprisingly our students want to read stories about children like them, as well as current international best-sellers. We can offer them thousands of great local and international books thanks to our partnerships with African publishers like Longhorn and Moran in Kenya and Smartline and EPP in Ghana and international publishers like Penguin, Random House, and Hardie Grant Egmont. With the push of a button we can send the Zac Power series, generously donated by Hardie Grant Egmont, to a hundreds of children in Uganda. You can see our growing library of books here.
With our Book App for mobile phones, our audience is slightly different – we’re not targeting children, but young adults and adults. We work with biNu, an Australian app developer, who’s patented technology helps turn feature phones into smartphones by compressing data in order to speed up internet access on slow connections. 2G penetration in the developing world is high and mobile phones are ubiquitous. Why not deliver books and stories to folks on inexpensive devices they already own? That was the thinking behind the launch of our newest digital platform.
To get fresh content for our book app, we work directly with authors and partner with publishers like Harlequin, who have been quick to see the potential in an audience hungry for romance. Astoundingly, the stories from Harlequin Mills & Boon (the publisher’s UK operation) account for around 50% of page views in the App.
Interestingly, the book that Okanta Kate first fell in love with was Peggy Oppong’s The Shark, a Ghanaian romance story published by EPP. Her own writing isn’t overly romantic – it’s darker and of an entirely different genre – but it just goes to show that the journey a girl begins once she starts reading can take her anywhere; what matters most is that initial spark. In the context of International Literacy Day, this might just mean that the spreading of love over the mobile network might be going a long way to making the world a more peaceful place.