E-readers bring hope to Africa’s schools
Worldreader is a nonprofit that brings e-readers and e-books to students in developing countries as a way to facilitate literacy. A student in Kibera, Kenya, displays her e-reader in a classroom.
Kibera, Kenya (CNN) – Heaps of trash pile up for miles in Kibera, a district of Nairobi that houses nearly 1 million people and is one of the poorest slums in the world. Aluminum shanties fill the horizon, and an odor of urine cuts through the air. A man trots through the narrow, unpaved streets on a camel.
Kibera is a poor neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, and one of the largest slums in Africa. Books are a scarce resource in many schools.
If you make your way through this crowded maze, however, you will find the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, a free public school for girls and, recently, a few boys. Peek in through the windows, and you’ll see a sight that seems incongruous next to the grimy chaos outside.
The Kibera Girls Soccer Academy is a free public school for girls (and now some boys). Worldreader co-founder Colin McElwee, left, talks to a class on a recent visit.
In this school, where there is no electricity and temperatures often top 90 degrees, dozens of students in neat wool uniforms are sliding their fingers across touch screens, reading a lesson on their Amazon Kindle e-reader.
The students, who range in age from 14 to 20, are cheerful, welcoming and quick to share the genres of books they like to read in both Swahili and English. Their school is one of 28 participating in a program with Worldreader, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that provides modern technology — usually Kindles — to improve literacy in the most impoverished parts of the world.
Academy students show off their Kindle e-readers. “The Kindle is very important,” said Abdul Kassim, the school’s founder and executive director. “It means their life.”
By expanding access to education in areas where books are a scarce resource, the Worldreader team is trying to break the cycle of poverty, one electronic page at a time.
For years, nonprofits, churches and donors have sent shipment after shipment of books to poor African villages in hopes of boosting literacy. But according to Colin McElwee, who founded Worldreader in 2010 with David Risher, there’s a better way.
“Donating paper books to a place like Africa is well-intentioned, but it’s actually ill-informed,” McElwee said. “You can’t actually get the right books to the people you want to get to, at the time they need it. It’s very expensive and highly inefficient.”
E-readers save students from having to carry heavy books to and from school in sweltering heat.
Carrying heavy loads of books is not practical for Kenyan students who often have to walk miles to and from school. E-readers, however, are a different story. They’re lightweight and portable and give students access to entire libraries, including books from African publishers. To date, nearly 4,000 students in nine sub-Saharan African countries have read more than 1.7 million e-books through Worldreader.
The e-readers give students access to a much greater variety of titles than they had access to without the devices. Although many students had never used a computer before, they quickly learned how. A pilot program several years ago in Ghana found that the Worldreader program boosted reading test scores for primary students by up to 7.6%, although benefits for older students were less clear.
E-readers are still something of a novelty in some remote areas of Kenya. Students gather around a device in Amogoro, a town near the country’s western border.
In the beginning, Worldreader founders admit that they worried about theft. The students, after all, go home to a community filled with poverty. To their surprise, fewer than 1% of the e-readers have gone missing.
“Books and education are really the way out of this, and people take great care of books and education,” McElwee said.