| April 29, 2013

Mobile Innovation and the Power of Choosing Books


This blog post was originally published in the Education For All Blog of the Global Partnership for Education on World Book and Copyright Day (April 23). The original post can be found here.

By Colin McElwee

TIt doesn't matter if you read on a phone or an e-reader, technology makes it easy to find a book to fall in love with.oday marks World Book and Copyright Day, and it’s a good time to reflect on how reading changes – and empowers – lives around the globe.

But, as I’ve seen first-hand, having access to a few random books is not the way to ignite a passion for reading. What often converts people into avid, lifelong readers is being able to find a special book that sticks with them forever.

The Importance of Choice

When I speak at conferences, I sometimes ask the audience to think about a favorite book, a book that changed their lives or that they frequently recommend to others. When I ask how they came upon that book, almost always, the case is that their favorite was not from a set syllabus or something they had to read for school. Rather they themselves chose their favorite book–-it was a choice among many books available and a decision made on that day for whatever reason that struck them at the time.

Think about it! The power to choose a book and the process each individual goes through in selecting a book to read shouldn’t be underestimated. Yes, a single book and the content in it can change an individual’s life. However, the way a book is discovered is key, too. It’s part of what makes that book special to that person.


It’s because books don’t equal literacy. Rather books simply present the opportunity to read which leads, only if you are lucky, to engagement which is the rocket fuel that decodes words and as such is the foundation of what we call literacy. No engagement, little chance of literacy!

So how can we maximize the probability that we can find a book that drives the passion to become a lifelong reader? Thankfully, technology and mobile innovation today allow that beautiful process of choice to take place, even in rural corners of the developing world.

Simple and Existing Technology

At Worldreader we use basic mobile carrier networks to ensure that wherever in the world, people can get a mobile phone call, they can also get access to a multitude of books. We have more than 10,000 children reading on e-readers and over half a million regularly doing the same on mobile phones, right across the developing world. Interestingly, more than 80 percent of our mobile readers are male, but our heaviest readers are female, spending 50 to 60 hours or more per month glued to the books in our growing library.

But this is only the beginning! The barriers to access books have never been so low and all delivered on an infrastructure that already exists in many localities (more than 60 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to mobile coverage, and that continues to increase).

We also bring local and international authors and publishers together to ensure that great and–most importantly–relevant content is digitized and made available. The Worldreader library has books spanning genres from football and romance to health and science, and increasingly in the language of choice. Besides English, books are available in many local African languages such as Hausa, Twi, Kiswahili, Yoruba, Igbo and many others.

And what about writing?

Going digital means that new local authors can more easily try their hand at publishing and telling their stories to a wider, even global audience for the very first time. Okanta Kate, a 17-year-old Ghanaian student who I met last year had not only read more than 100 books of her choice in our e-reader program, but had also and, clearly as a result, developed a deep need to write. She had produced some great work on scraps of paper, of which we were happy to share digitally. Kate has already been approached by publishers to use her work.

It’s clear, in a place where you have passionate readers you have potential writers–-a wonderfully virtuous circle. The habit of reading and writing will be boosted only if there is a healthy and vibrant literary culture that directly touches people locally. That is why supporting local authors is so important and digital books facilitate that publishers will take a chance on promoting more budding authors.

Who knows? Maybe that piece of fiction a teenager stumbled upon on her mobile phone or the storybook a child found while browsing his e-reader will be the one book they fall in love with and the one they will never forget.

So today, let’s celebrate the increasing global access to an enormous variety and choice of books. A passion ignited for reading and writing is something that really will change lives.