Going Public: How a Literacy Nonprofit Acts as a Catalyst for Reading

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By David Risher

One question many nonprofits ask themselves is: To increase our impact, how much should we collaborate with governments? In many cases it’s a leading question: most of the areas that people like us hope to improve—health, societal wealth, education—are right in the middle of what governments should ensure for their citizens. So not surprisingly, many nonprofits are often pretty skeptical of working with the very institutions that haven’t gotten the job done for their people.

We’ve always taken a different view. Right from the start, we said that our job as a literacy nonprofit was to be a catalyst for creating reading programs in the developing world, and specifically to encourage digital reading in Africa—to prime the pump, rather than run the pump forever. That’s why one of our first meetings in Ghana was with Ghana’s Minister of Education, asking for his support as we worked with publishers and rolled out in schools. We did the same in Kenya a year later. In both cases, our goal was the same: We wanted the government to pay attention to what we did, so that as (we hoped) our impact became clear and costs came down, governments would take notice and step towards us, helping us scale to levels we could never reach on our own.

Tanzania’s Prime Minister Mizengo Peter Pinda speaks at a recent e-reader launch.

Well, it’s happening. A couple weeks ago, we had the honor of having the Prime Minster of Tanzania, Mizengo Peter Pinda, preside over one of our launches. In front of a crowd of 2,000 people ranging from local community members to Ministers of Technology and Communication, he spoke eloquently of the power of our program that began at Tanzania’s Upendo school and has now launched at two more schools in Arusha. “The cost of an e-reader program cannot be compared to the cost of another generation of illiterate and semi-literate children,” he said. “I am going to personally oversee this program in a school I sponsor, and will ask my Ministers to support this program throughout Tanzania.”

Primary school children from the Nambala and Nganana Schools read from their e-readers to Primer Minster Mizengo Peter Pinda.

Then, three days later, I visited with Kenya’s Permanent Secretary of Basic Education, as well as their incoming Cabinet Secretary of Education. We’ve now been working in Kenya for more than two years, and one our largest reading programs in Kisumu is showing incredible results. The 1,000 second-grade students there have read more than 500,000 pages in the past two months, completing an average of nine books and getting partway through many more. The Ministry of Education wants to know more—particularly in the context of a campaign promise made to provide computers to children throughout Kenya (For more about how we think about e-readers vs. computers, see this article from Kenya’s Business Daily).

Now, working only with governments would be as big a mistake as not working with them at all. In Kenya, for instance, our most recent project is with the private (though no-cost) Kibera Girls’ Soccer Academy, a school in one of Africa’s largest slums that focuses on young women. And our first project in Tanzania was at the Upendo School, a low-cost private school that serves the Usa River area. In both cases, we could work fairly quickly with the schools and show governments and others how our program works with our Worldreader Kits–out-of-box, easy-to-launch reading programs designed to have an immediate impact and improve literacy in the developing world.

There’s an old African proverb that says: “To go quickly, go alone; to go far, go together.” We’ve got our own take on this: “To go quickly, go private; to go big, go public.” Doing both isn’t easy, but we think it’s ultimately the best way to deliver on our mission of getting books to all.

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You’ve been hearing a lot lately about Worldreader Kits and how we’re using them to spark a reading revolution in Africa. But what’s a Kit? In a few days, we’ll post a blog detailing how Kits work and how you can join us in boosting literacy in the developing world.

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Update: Another piece from a Kenyan newspaper, The Standard, about the government’s view of our program was just published here.