A few years ago, former Microsoft and Amazon executive David Risher visited an orphanage in Ecuador. While exploring the grounds, he noticed a padlocked building piled high with books. When he asked what the building was, Risher was told that it was a library—but that the key was nowhere to be found. "I thought that this was sad and in a weird way exciting," he says. The kids had obviously lost interest in the books inside the library (which held enlightening tomes like an Encyclopedia Britannica from 1972). Why not ditch the traditional donated books model and instead bring them new, easily updated books via e-reader?
And so in 2010, Worldreader—a nonprofit that gives digital books to kids who have limited access to literature—was born. So far, Worldreader has distributed 100,000 books to 1,000 students in Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana. The next challenge, announced this week, is to send one million e-books to Sub-Saharan Africa—with help spreading the word from the über-popular FC Barcelona soccer team.
There are always hurdles to overcome in bringing new technology to developing countries. For e-readers, there are two challenges: access to electricity and the cost of the e-readers themselves. Electricity is not too much of a problem, at least in the classrooms where Worldreader operates (its partner schools are required to have access to power, even if it’s just intermittent). The Kindle also only takes an hour to recharge for each month of use.
And cost? Worldreader only uses the Kindle, which isn’t incredibly cheap. But, says Risher, "This is a device that two years ago cost almost $400, then $259, then $179, and the cheapest today is less than $100. Then you look at the total cost of a program like this, including the Kindle, a case, light, books, training, and support, and divide by the total number of books out there. You can get down to $3 to $5 a book with everything included."
In any case, students don’t even really need an e-reader; Worldreader has an app for the $50 feature phones that are so popular in Africa. And where there are cell phones, there is a source of power. Cell phone penetration is high in the countries where Worldreader works—it’s up to 85% in Ghana, for example. "You can read an entire book on a tiny little phone. If that’s what you have, that’s what you do," says Risher.
Sending 1 million e-books to Africa is quite a bit easier than sending 1 million regular books—you can ship 1,000 e-readers and turn it into 100,000 books (the nonprofit’s selections include everything from local textbooks to James and the Giant Peach). Worldreader hopes to raise all the money for its 1 million e-book goal in 2012—and Risher’s Amazon connections don’t hurt, either. The company recently agreed to donate thousands of Kindles to the cause.
In the coming weeks, Worldreader will launch its next initiative in Rwanda. "We don’t want another generation, much less another school year’s worth of kids going without books," says Risher.