April 07, 2014

E-Readers Bring Magic to Thousands of Kids in Poor Parts of Africa

Photograph courtesy of Worldreader

Fourth-grade schoolchildren in Kenya pour over their e-readers during class.

After David Risher read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a boy, he crawled into his mother’s closet and tapped the back wall—like characters do in the book—to see if he could enter the magical world of Narnia.

“I was a book kid,” says Mr. Risher, a former executive at Microsoft and Amazon.

Thousands of children in Africa now have the chance to be book kids, too, with the help of World­reader, an organization Mr. Risher helped start four years ago that seeks to end illiteracy in the developing world.

While Mr. Risher thumbed though paper books, the second-, third-, and fourth-grade students today use Kindles that Worldreader provides. Physical books are expensive to deliver and often take months to arrive, while e-readers can hold hundreds of thousands of titles in many languages, he says.

To get help from Worldreader, schools must have access to some form of power, and the organization urges them to build rudimentary charging stations.

“There is a massive problem in developing countries with reading and getting access to teaching and learning materials,” says Rebecca Winthrop, director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. She added that it is important that technological solutions such as Worldreader be easy to adopt and sustain, with local repair options and support available for teachers.

Worldreader or the organizations it works with train teachers and students on how to use and care for the e-readers. The breakage rate has been reduced from 30 percent to 5 percent through the use of sturdier cases and better hardware. When devices do break, the group ships them back to the manufacturer or works with local businesses to make minor repairs.

The group now works in nine—soon to be 10—African countries. Its $2.5-million budget comes from individuals, foundations, governments, and fees from other groups that purchase Worldreader kits—50 e-readers, 100 e-books, cases, and lights—for their own programs. Donations of e-books, e-readers, shipping, and other items account for another $2-million.

In addition to providing the works of C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and other authors who write in English, the group works with a dozen or so African publishers to guarantee a wide selection of books in the children’s native languages.

Last year Worldreader partnered with biNu, an Australian software company, to develop a cellphone application for reading books and other materials, such as information on how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Five million phones in 60 countries, including India and Ethiopia, now carry the application, World­reader Mobile.

“Being able to carry around a library of hundreds of books everywhere you go, compared to walking five miles to a library that might be open or not, or might not have any books, is a win,” says Mr. Risher. “If we can make it easy for people to read, then people will do more of it.”