Photo by Lee Woolcock
Worldreader is a Barcelona-based non-profit organisation that sends e-readers (Kindles) to children in developing countries. It harnesses existing mobile technology to give children the opportunity to access digital books, text books and other content relevant to their development. It was set up by CEO David Risher, who resigned as Senior Vice-President of Amazon.com during a sabbatical to co-found the project, and Colin McElwee, former marketing director at ESADE.
For me, the written word makes an indelible mark on the mind. When I was a young kid growing up in Nottingham, my dad would drag me down to the local library every week and leave me to explore. There I was with access to all these shelves and it was fascinating. So one day, I would think, “Hmm, biology…I’m going to see what that’s about,” and the next week it would be something else. In the end, my dad would have to drag me out.
That element of choice is very important in learning. With e-readers, a child in Africa, Asia or South America can choose the books they want to read, in the same way a child in the developed world can by going to a bookshop or library.
It’s a very recent phenomenon. When David and I had the idea two and a half years ago, it seemed so obvious, we were amazed to find no one was doing it already. Now we work with 1,000 children in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda. Ten years ago, there was only 5 percent mobile penetration in sub-Saharan Africa, now there is 55 percent, so as that connectivity keeps growing, the opportunities will follow.
This project is very much about transformation. Aid is very short term, but we are hoping that this will help people on the ground in poor countries get better educated through power-creating ideas—and technology moves much faster than government policy.
We’ve got some wonderful partners behind us. We went to Amazon and showed them what we thought this device, originally designed for yuppies to read on the metro, could do in the developing world. They were very receptive and initial studies done by the US government have shown the results are better than we ever imagined.
We don’t want this to be seen as second-wave imperialism. Although we have access to the Roald Dahl estate, Penguin and Pearsons, for example, we make sure the kids can access culturally relevant content as much as possible, by using local publishers and authors. By March this year, they could access over 75,000 titles.
It can be very eye-opening. In Uganda, the children were surprised Ugandan books even existed. They expected Kenya, their big neighbour, to have its own books, but they didn’t even know they had authors in their own country.
Children in these countries want to read the same stuff as children anywhere. The most popular are romance, adventure and sport. For our first project in Ghana, we downloaded the Wikipedia entry about the Ghana National Football team and the children were engrossed in learning about Ghana, the statistics and the players.
We went to the Mobile World Congress 2012 to speak to some operators. Their focus is all about smartphones and apps, but we were saying to them: “Look, this may be a billion miles away from your core market, but we’re talking about 320 million kids…in 25 years, there will be 420 million!” The world isn’t thinking about what the impact of 420 million uneducated kids will be.
I’m hoping that in five years’ time we can dissolve the organisation as every child in the developing world has unhindered access to digital books. It may take a little while longer but not that much!
Barcelona has a lot of potential to position itself as a social enterprise hub. There are a lot of creative thinkers here.