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Book Love Starts a Mobile Reading Revolution in Africa

Posted by David Risher

SVP Partners are doing amazing work here in Washington and beyond.  Read on to find out how David Risher is using two decades of technology expertise to increase literacy around the world.

I can see it in Mery’s eyes. She’s hooked. There’s no going back now.

The 11-year-old student from Arusha, Tanzania region has found a book she loves, and we’re both pretty sure it will shape her future. She read the World Atlas, one of hundreds of books she’s discovering on her Kindle. Now, she wants to see the world, convinced that she’s destined to be a pilot. I’m convinced she will see the world–and change it.

Later that day, I have the slightly surreal experience of sitting down with Tanzania’s Prime Minister Mizengo Kayanza Peter Pinda about the challenges his country faces. In a place where average literacy rates hover about 73 percent–far below the worldwide average of about 84 percent–we’re wondering out loud how e-book reading programs and low-cost, energy-efficient technology can fight illiteracy and drive social innovation in Tanzania and other parts of Africa.


David Risher with Tanzania Prime Minister Pinda


I hit my mental pause button. I’m having another one of those moments–one of those “pinch me” moments that need to be savored.

Many years ago, when I was in Seattle working at Microsoft and later at Amazon, I couldn’t have imagined that one day I would be sitting in rural Africa talking to young girl and a head of state about the importance of books and the power they have to improve lives. But, here I am. ”Books for all” is happening, and the idea is spreading quickly.

It all started when Jen, Zoe, Mia and I volunteered at orphanage in Guayaquil, Ecuador, back in 2009. We wanted to know the story behind the uninviting building with bars on the windows and a rusty padlock across the door. The woman who ran the orphanage said it used to be the library. The girls had lost interest in the dusty, outdated books piled in the back of the room, and since new books take so long to arrive (if they ever arrived), there wasn’t a good reason for anyone to visit any more. The woman said she didn’t even know where the key was, even if someone wanted to go in.

I thought then, as I do now: What happens in places like this where books, knowledge, learning and young minds get locked up?

There’s no way I’d have had the success I’ve had without being exposed to books as a child–and to this day, even though my daughters are teenagers, there’s still nothing I like more than reading with them. So how can I let these kids be cut-off from books, particularly now that there’s a way to get books digitally anywhere in the world?

The answer is, I couldn’t, and that turned into Worldreader, a literacy nonprofit changing lives by bringing e-books to some of the world’s poorest children. In three short years, we’ve reached more than 12,000 children and families and delivered more than 600,000 e-books to schools in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. We also co-developed a mobile reading app for feature phones, a widely-available device used throughout the developing world, and see more than 500,000 monthly readers from Africa, Asia and South America diving into stories on Worldreader Mobile.

But the need is still so great. Millions of children around sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the developing world have yet to find the book they will fall in love with, the book that will shape their lives and make them avid readers–readers, who we hope, because of what they learn from these books, will go on to help improve their communities and countries and nurture a reading culture for generations to come.

I unpause and my thoughts wander back to the e-reading program being launched at the Nangana and Nambala schools, where children are sharing a local African story on their Kindles with Prime Minister Pinda and the 2,000 attendees gathered at the community kick-off event.


Students reading at Nambala launch


The Nangana and Nambala schools–along with the Upendo School, Mery’s school up the road–mark special milestones for Worldreader, too. They’re proof that book love can bring people from all corners of the planet together and fuel mobile learning and social innovation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Our e-reader program at the Upendo School, for instance, is the direct result of a partnership Worldreader helped forge between the school, its primary funder AfricAid and its sponsor Thanks Be To God Foundation. Likewise, the launches at the Nangana and Nambala schools stem from a partnership with the Nelson Mandela Institute. In this case, Worldreader worked with the organization to secure donations from two private funders to bring 300 e-readers and 36,000 e-books in Swahili and English into Nangana and Nambala’s classrooms.

More importantly, though, these reading programs show how partnerships can open new doors for children like Mery and empower people in the way only books can.

But, as I’ve said before, the need is still great. More kids are hungry for books, and too many schools lack the resources to bring mobile learning tools to their communities.

If you can’t imagine your life without books and want to see kids like Mery keep dreaming big, get involved and sponsor a school or raise money for a Worldreader Kit for an African school you already know. If you do, I know you’ll have one of those “pinch me” moments, too.


David Risher, Worldreader’s President and co-founder, joined SVP in May, 2013. He has been at the forefront of technology for more than two decades, first as a general manager at Microsoft and later as Amazon.com’s senior vice president for retail and marketing, responsible for growing the company from $16 million to $4 billion in sales. In 2011, he was named a Microsoft Alumni Foundation Integral Fellow and a Draper Richards Kaplan Social Entrepreneur.


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