With Digital Technology, Worldreader Brings Knowledge to Africa’s Neediest Children

Donating books to schoolchildren in Africa once meant a costly and difficult process, as bulky, heavy boxes of books had to be sent by air or sea and then transported over rugged terrain. Portable e-readers have eliminated those physical and economic difficulties, making sought-after books instantly available via digital format. With the technology, even children in far-flung villages can access the same books as students in the West.

Worldreader.org, a nonprofit based in Barcelona, Spain and Seattle, Washington, seeks to put digital reading into the hands of needy children in the developing world, by giving them access to international and local digital books on e-readers, like the Kindle, or mobile phones.

David Risher, founder and CEO of Worldreader, is leading the effort to raise money to buy e-readers and e-books, drawing upon his experience in the technology industry. As a former general manager at Microsoft and former senior vice-president for retailing and marketing for Amazon.com, Risher wanted to share his love of reading with children lacking access to books. Holding a comparative literature degree from Princeton University and an MBA from Harvard Business School, Risher is also a Draper Richards Kaplan Social Entrepreneur and Microsoft Alumni Foundation Integral Fellow.

Worldreader has partnered with schools in Ghana, Uganda and Kenya to distribute Kindles, e-books and apps for mobile phones so people can read international books, as well as African books that have been digitized. People have embraced the opportunity, he tells Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, as Worldreader's app traffic is at half a million readers per month reading 24 pages and is growing on average at 20% per month.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows:

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Your goal is to distribute 1 million e-books to Africa. You came upon this idea while visiting an orphanage in Ecuador. What made you decide on Africa as a place that might need the most help right now?

David Risher: I was traveling around the world with my family and we were volunteering at an orphanage in Ecuador when I had an "Ah-ha" moment. I saw a padlocked building with books piled up above the windows, and had to ask what was going on. "That's our library," replied the orphanage's leader. "But I think I've lost the key." The girls had lost interest in the library's books, and new books would take months to arrive — if they ever arrived at all. It was a life-changing moment for me.

E-readers like the Kindle were just coming to market. In fact, we had been using the earliest version as we traveled to help with my own young daughters' reading. Recalling a conversation about e-books with ESADE Business School's marketing director, Colin McElwee, an idea took seed: this can cause major change in countries where the problem of books not arriving is the greatest. As the World Bank notes, only 1 in 19 African countries have anything close to adequate book provision in schools. Right now, there are over 200 million children in sub-Saharan Africa who'll never have books of their own. Over time, though, we hope to expand our work throughout the world.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: One of your goals is to get e-readers in all the schools in Ghana. Why did Ghana's Ministry of Education want to do that and can that happen in other African countries?

Risher: Ghana's Minister of Education saw the progress of our first pilot in Ayenyah, Ghana, and was intrigued with the potential to get textbooks into students' hands more reliably. He had also started a book collective many years before that had tried, with only limited success to get great storybooks into the hands of children. Unfortunately, the cost and the complexity of that effort held him back. But thanks to dropping costs and increased penetration of cellphone technology, we now can change that.

We believe what we pioneer in Ghana can work across Africa. Anywhere there's cellphone coverage is a good candidate for our program. We now have operations in Kenya and Uganda, for example, and right now we are speaking with the Ministry of Education of the Ivory Coast about implementing a program there.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So far, Worldreader has programs in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda. I understand you have to work with the governments to get permission. What are some of the challenges to persuade governments to let Worldreader work with their schools and children?

Risher: Just as in Europe or the U.S., you cannot work in public schools in Africa without explicit permission from the government — usually the Ministry of Education — as well as buy-in from the local communities.

The biggest challenge is simply getting time with senior officials. But now that we have two years of results about how much kids read when in our program, as well as how much teachers appreciate the access to so many books, we've had good success reaching out to ministries and local officials. Our experience is that officials have a fairly open mind about new approaches to education, as long as they are backed up by strong data, and as long as they adhere to the basic curriculum already in use. Because we use local textbooks and storybooks, they welcome our approach.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Worldreader has also partnered with European soccer team FC Barcelona to raise money for the organization. Some of the players, including Lionel Messi and Seydou Keita, have messages on the kids' Kindles to encourage them to read. How did you come up with the idea to use the kids' sports heroes to encourage them to read?

Risher: The idea occurred to us in Ghana distributing Kindles and we saw first-hand the moment when kids turned on their device and saw screensavers with famous authors such as Virginia Woolf and Jules Verne. Then, you look out of the window at the schools and there are kids running around with European soccer jerseys. Soccer is more than a sport in many parts of Africa — it's a passion. We are looking for ways to inspire kids to read more: with great content, easy access but also by having their heroes encouraging them to read more. FC Barcelona's values are in line with what we stand for. They promote hard work, education and working together to achieve greatness. We were thrilled to partner with them.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Can you tell me about Worldreader Kits? It's a partnership program to design reading programs based on the Kindle?

Risher: Exactly! Our kits program is our way of helping other organizations reach their educational literacy goals with a method that we know works. Every day we get e-mails from people all over the globe asking about starting Worldreader in their country, so we packaged up all of our know-how and created Worldreader Kits. Kits contain e-readers for between one to three classrooms loaded with local and international e-books, ruggedized cases, lights, certificates, and tested training and support materials to help local schools implement Worldreader programs everywhere, improving the lives of children and families in their communities.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: As part of iRead, you're also measuring the impact of your program with standardized test scores. Why did you feel testing was important to incorporate?

Risher: It's important for us, governments and of course, our funders that we monitor closely the effect of e-readers on the student's performance. And it helps us understand what is working and how to adjust our program so we get more children reading.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Egmont UK, Rosetta Books, Hardie Grant Egmont and Ripley Publishing have all donated e-books to Worldreader, bringing your digital library to more than 900 books. Do you also have to get permission from authors specifically to distribute their books for free?

Risher: That depends on who has the rights — if the publisher does or if the author does. We've run into all cases and in general, we find that the authors are thrilled that their craft is being used for social good. Mary Pope Osborne, author of The Magic Tree House series, sponsored a kits program in Rwanda. Seth Godin heard about our program and called on authors to join him in donating his books to the Worldreader program. Who knows, maybe JK Rowling is next….

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: About 500 titles are African textbooks and storybooks, while another 425 originate from publishers in the United States, Britain and elsewhere. One of your milestones is to digitize African books. Does that take fundraising to pay for translators and digital conversion?

Risher: It does take funds to pay for digital conversion and most African books haven't been digitized yet, although we get nicely reduced rates.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: It was interesting that kids were downloading foreign newspapers like The New York Times and El Pais. What does that tell us about the kids?

Risher: It's one of the great things about our program: that kids have access to the entire world's library of information. You can walk down an aisle in a classroom and see that no two kids are reading the same thing. Kids are curious everywhere… and now our kids have access to great content.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Children can take it home at night and share it with their family or use the text-to-speech function so illiterate relatives may also benefit from digital books. When you take your statistics for books that are read, do you account for the shared usage?

Risher: Our published statistics do not account for shared usage aside from some qualitative data, although we do realize the positive impact of the e-books at the family and community levels, and are starting to think about how we assess that impact and capture that data.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How do you deal with the power issues? In some places with high cellphone penetration, are people charging them in kiosks or solar power? Can they do the same with e-readers?

Risher: E-readers have an extraordinary long battery life, but they do need charging. In our first pilot we partnered with an organization to use solar power and we're working with other organizations to create solar-powered cases for the e-readers.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You're now going through other platforms besides Kindle like the cellphone application, stating that you'll remain device-agnostic. What made you decide to do that?

Risher: Our core mission is to enable folks all over the developing world to read. We do that by using new technology to deliver thousands of books to those who previously had few to no books. Last year, Worldreader began to investigate the development of a book app for mobile phones as just another way to deliver more books to more people. Mobile penetration across the developing world is skyrocketing and in many African countries, including Ghana, it has reached over 80%. Our book app is essentially a personal library on a device already in billions of people's hand. And the growth is staggering: Our app readership now is at half a million readers per month reading 24 pages and is growing on average at 20% per month.

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