Interview: Worldreader – Libraries in Hands of Children in Developing World

BY WENDY HUNG

Years ago, David Risher, a former executive at Amazon.com, took a year to travel around the world with his family. It struck him that regardless where he was, how remote it was, he could download a book in 60 seconds. When he visited an orphanage in Ecuador and saw a building with a padlock, he discovered that it was a library with old books that captured zero interest from local children. David thought, it was such a tragedy, the fact that books arrived to places in a developing world and were so old by the time of arrival. He had an epiphany: to make a change by putting e-readers in the hands of children in the developing world. He circled back to a conversation with Colin McElwee, who had been working in higher education and previously saw the Kindle as a game-changer device in the exact circumstance.

In November 2009, David called his friends at Amazon to donate 30 Kindles. Along with Colin, they performed a pilot with Kindles in Barcelona, to examine if the device was intuitive for children in local schools. The result presented no barriers. Soon, they took the same 30 Kindles to a small town in Ghana, looking for further proof of concept. The schools were shacks, they wondered if the device would work in such bare settings. Not only did they work properly with solar charging; teachers loved them and children adapted within 5 minutes.

Worldreader was successfully conceived with its HQ in Barcelona, where Colin is currently based, and another office in the Bay Area. After their first trip to Ghana, David and Colin followed up with permission from the Ghanian government and Administrative of Education to run a larger pilot with 500 Kindles in eastern region of Ghana in November of 2010.  Immediately, locals reacted, “this is going to change our community.” When return trips are made later on, after 1100 e-readers and 190,000 e-books were brought to the hands of locals, it’s been clear that the community has changed – empowered with knowledge. For example, Kate, a student in the village, has read over 100 books in the past year.

With Barcelona geographically located close to Africa, Worldreader has reached a global image with plans to aid children in the rest of the developing world outside of Africa. The foundation began in Ghana, as opposed to cities like South Africa, because the needs are greater. Susan Moody, Director of Marketing and Communications, explains, “You can walk down the streets in most capital cities, and there will be a library. But in rural areas, kids cannot get their hands on books. Teachers usually have one book, and that’s how they teach reading to 70 students.  The amount of learning that can happen in areas like that is still very primitive. It’s all about access to books.” The focus is Ghana, Kenya and Uganda for now, but more importantly, the goal is reaching 1 million children with libraries in their hands by 2013.

Worldreader currently provides Kindles because it’s a single source device, used solely for reading and books. The capability of using Kindles in different parts of the world has been a huge asset, with its strong connectivity due to relationships with telecoms today. “Three years ago, the cost of a Kindle was $400, now the price has decreased dramatically to $79.” Susan states, “It will get to a point when it becomes cost-effective for this to be in the developing world.  The total cost is $5 for us to get a new book in a new kid’s hands. And even this price is decreasing. At some point, this will be a sustainable project.”

The first time Susan visited Ghana, she felt lives were on the verge of change in an instant. “They knew it and we knew it.” She recalls, “The second time of returning there, it was almost uneventful in how integrated e-readers had become in their lives. I saw kids in the market with their moms, and they were reading. It wasn’t a big deal, it had become an extension of their lives.” Innate, is how Worldreader defines success. For Susan, it’s witnessing a child’s life currently being changed with an e-reader. On the contrary, there’s another kid sitting next to her without one.  A sense of urgency follows, more e-readers need to be in the hands of children.

The digital evolution gives all sorts of ways to give. Worldreader teaches local African teachers to learn the device as a technology tool and incorporate it in classrooms, so relevant content is being used in their course curriculum. They also work with African publishers to provide digital content, as well as working with international publishers, who donate their titles to Worldreader programs for free. The objective is not solely creating a reading culture, but one that is also cross-cultural. In a local classroom, a child reads African folklore stories next to another child, who reads international heirloom tribute.

“The first time I was in Ghana,” Susan remembers standing in one of the schools speaking with a 15-year old boy, holding a Kindle, “I asked him, ‘Are you excited about your Kindle?’  He said, ‘This isn’t mine, it’s my friend’s.  Where is mine?’  I told him that we were working as hard as we could to bring more back. He replied, ‘It will be too late.’” The need is ample. What is known for sure, without education, the future to change is hard to come.

Although Worldreader has a zero tolerance against corruption, the organization rarely encounters such circumstances. It’s been said that, thieves don’t steal education. Both David and Colin can’t imagine their childhoods without mountains of books. As Nadja Borovac, Worldreader’s Marketing Manager, expresses best, “Every person has the right to proper education and proper access to tools that allow them to be more educated. I had this, we all had this, so why shouldn’t we make sure that someone else has it too?”

Check out this video and be a part of Million E-Books Movement with Worldreader and FC Barcelona Katy TX.

It takes only $5 to create a library in hands of children, be a part of history here

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