Quietly, in some villages in Africa, out of sight of the bustling global book industry, a revolution is unfolding.
In those communities, like in most parts of the developing world, there are lots of people, including children, who have limited or no access to books and other reading materials. Perennial transportation and logistical problems along with poverty and other social issues have continuously hampered efforts to alleviate the situation. An organization called Worldreader.org thinks it has found a solution.
Worldreader is a US and Barcelona-based not-for-profit organization founded by David Risher, a former executive at Amazon.com and Microsoft Corporation and Colin McElwee, former Director of Marketing of ESADE Business School. Their goal is to put “a library of books within reach of every family on the planet, using electronic book technology.” For now they’re focussed on making books easily accessible to readers in the developing world.
“We believe that just as mobile phones have leapfrogged landlines across much of the developing world, e-readers will become the easiest, least expensive, and most reliable way to deliver books to underserved areas and underprivileged peoples,” says David Risher.
Risher left Amazon in 2002, before it launched the Kindle. Clearly impressed with his skills, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos praised him for his performance, from the store launches he oversaw, to his “focus on customer experience.”
Even back then Risher was said to have been taken by the Kindle’s ability to sharply reduce the cost and complexity of delivering reading material to readers virtually anywhere in the world.
In 2008 he and his family set out on a year-long trek around the world to learn, teach, and explore. En route through the East they stopped off in Xian China where they volunteered their time as teachers. They also did volunteer work and donated resources to two orphanages – one in Danang, Viet Nam and the other in Guayaquil, Ecuador. While visiting the latter, Risher spotted a building made of tin and noticed that the door was padlocked. He asked to see what was inside, only to discover stacks of dusty books. It was the local library which had fallen into disrepair through lack of new materials.
Risher recalled a conversation he’d had with a colleague about using e-reading devices to deliver books to families around the globe. It dawned on him that unlike his children who used ebooks as a primary reading source when travelling, many kids around the world have no access to books at all. At that point he had an epiphany. Thereafter Worldreader was born.
The organization has approximately 8 fulltime staff. It solicits funds from donors that go toward subsidising the cost of e-readers and content, which are then made available to schoolchildren in selected communities. The funds are also used for administrative, training and logistical support. Worldreader also partners with local governments who contribute to the program financially and in-kind. Ultimately, the aim is to make the technology more affordable by ensuring the unit prices of the e-readers fall below the appropriate local market price. Since e-readers use the mobile-phone GSM network to provide near instantaneous access to hundreds of thousands of books, newspapers, and magazines at a very low cost, that makes them ideal for the Worldreader project.
Initially they come preloaded with books. The books are supplied by publishers who offer discounts and they’re included in the subsidised prices paid by local schools and communities. Some are donated free of charge. Worldreader says bestselling books on average range from one-third to one-half of the retail price of paperbacks. Although e-reader prices have been dropping, particularly in the US, for much of the world they’re still expensive and beyond the reach of many.
Nevertheless, Risher and his team are optimistic. “We expect these prices will continue to fall rapidly, but near-term will remain too high for most of the world to afford. Our donors help subsidize the gap between the cost of the e-readers and the price local governments are willing to pay … At the same time, we are firm believers that market forces can help achieve a sustained, long-term impact. For that reason, we intend to sell (rather than give away) e-readers at a subsidized rate, work with local and international publishers to create low-cost (but not necessarily free) digital content, and create self-sustaining business ecosystems to support our efforts.”
The hope is that as more publishers offer to come on board, it will keep donors enthusiastic and encourage both parties to work together to bring down e-reader and ebook prices in the developing world and further spur demand for the technology.
How will they measure success? “We will declare success if we have not only improved reading rates and demand for books, but also have helped create a sustainable business ecosystem to create content for, distribute, and support e-readers in developing communities,” says Worldreader.
In 2010 the organization launched its first trial in Barcelona, Spain. Other trials followed in a village near Accra, Ghana. The pilot projects in Ghana, dubbed IREAD, involved junior and senior high school students in six schools and was supported by the Ghanaian government. Approximately 428 Kindles were distributed to the students. They were preloaded with textbooks and supplementary reading materials, including works by African authors and English language classics. They also have added features like text-to-speech, which is great for new readers and the vision-impaired, and for children whose parents cannot read or whose native language is not the language of instruction. Built-in dictionaries and access to Wikipedia are also helpful.
David Risher told the Wall Street Journal, “Making books as easy to get as getting a phone call really does change the way that they think about reading.”
The Worldreader team had to overcome some technical challenges. They had to set up a 10-megabit internet link at the schools to allow downloading over WiFi because of the enormous amount of data that had to be downloaded to each Kindle. Even then they weren’t able to load more than 50 Kindles at a time.
They also encountered some DRM issues. According to their report complied after the trial, Amazon’s systems imposes a maximum of 6 Kindles sharing the same book simultaneously to protect publishers from users over-sharing their books. Worldreader was able to negotiate the rights to use the books across hundreds of e-readers but they had to set up multiple accounts to accommodate the 6 user restriction. (Download a copy of the trial report and conclusions here.)
All the same, the kids’ were evidently thrilled with their Kindles and enjoyed the excitement it brought to the classroom. Some teachers allowed them to take the Kindles home after classes to continue their reading. Worldreader went further and tried to engage and win the support of the communities to impress upon the children’s parents and guardians the importance of encouraging the youngsters to make time to read not just in the classroom, but also at home.
Based on their initial experiences with the IREAD program and the feedback received following the trials, Worldreader has managed to gain some useful insights that should help them fine tune their processes and improve the logistics and user experience in an effort to adapt IREAD to the socioeconomic realities of the developing world. Among the things they’re keen to learn is whether having an e-reader encourages young people to read more books over the course of a school year, and whether their reading level improves over time.
Additional IREAD programs have since been launched in Ghana with continued support from the Ghanaian government. Some 500 students and teachers have been participating in the program. To date Worldreader has made approximately 40,000 books available to Ghanaians.
They have expanded the program further to include Kenya and they’re looking to bring hundreds of Kindles and thousands of e-books into schools around the country. As with Ghana, they have the full blessing of the Kenyan government.
The organization has now caught the attention of some major governmental agencies and international organizations, including the World Bank and US Agency for International Development (USAID). Risher said their agreement with USAID allows Worldreader to, among other things, “ship e-readers, cases, and the like as diplomatic cargo.” He added, “Our work in education means that customs duties (which can be as much as the value of the e-readers themselves) don’t apply, so our donors’ money can go directly to funding program costs instead of paying fees.”
International publishers like Random House have given IREAD thumbs up and are donating books to the program. A number of African publishers have come on board in a big way, including Afram Publications, Sub-Saharan Publishers, EPP, Woeli and Smartline. IREAD has also won over several authors who are keen to offer their personal support. They reportedly include writers like Ellen Banda-Aaku, Justina Chen, Janet Wong, and Cory Doctorow. They have all signed on to make some of their books and stories available to students and families free of charge.
Cory Doctorow told Publishers Weekly that participating in Worldreader is “a no-brainer.”
“It’s the first inkling of the real promise of electronic publishing, the realization of the ancient and noble drive to deliver universal access to all human knowledge,” said Doctorow, adding, “it’s “a situation in which a writer can do good at no cost to himself, no cost to his publisher.”
Worldreader’s first e-reader trial in the village of Ayenyah, Ghana.