Social Innovation in Africa: When a Young Girl and Prime Minister Share a Vision to Fight Illiteracy

When Mery, an 11-year-old student in the rural Arusha region of Tanzania, flips the digital pages of her e-reader, she sees a world of possibilities.
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Fighting illiteracy and advancing social innovation in Africa are different sides of the same coin. Worldreader joins the two visions with a scalable approach.

When Mery, an 11-year-old student in the rural Arusha region of Tanzania, flips the digital pages of her e-reader, she sees a world of possibilities. She reads stories in Swahili and English, shares information with her mother and imagines where life will take her. She dreams of being a pilot so she can see the world she's reading about in her favorite book, The World Atlas.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, when Tanzania's Prime Minister Mizengo Kayanza Peter Pinda sees children like Mery reading a Kindle, he dreams of another way for his Eastern African country, a way paved with potential. The sentiment was so strong that it sparked a personal promise to empower children and families across the nation.

"The cost of an e-reader program cannot be compared to the cost of another generation of illiterate and semi-literate children," Prime Minister Pinda said to more than 2,000 people attending the community event at the Nangana and Nambala schools, where Worldreader recently launched e-reader literacy programs. "I am going to personally oversee this program in a school I sponsor, and will ask my ministers to support this program throughout Tanzania."

In both cases, the vision presents two sides of the same coin: How can access to books simultaneously fight illiteracy and drive social innovation in Africa and other parts of the developing world?

This week as we honor the African child (June 16 was International Day of the African Child), let's consider children like Mery and imagine the endless possibilities before them. If we believe Mery could be a force that shapes a generation, what would the collective impact be if Mery's ambition was replicated hundreds of thousands of times by other kids in Tanzania?

In a place where average literacy rates are only about 73 percent -- far below the worldwide average of about 84 percent -- how could access to books delivered via low-cost technology propel nationwide change? Taken further, if more government officials like Prime Minister Pinda sincerely acted on their promise and took the Worldreader mission of "Books for all" to every corner of their countries, what else would be possible not just for one nation, but for the world?

The Social Innovation and Literacy Crossover

As a literacy nonprofit working for social innovation in Africa, Worldreader has heard these questions come up time and time again. And, we've seen how educators, government leaders, development officials and parents in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe are using the fight against illiteracy as a stepping stone to spur social innovation across sub-Saharan Africa.

The question for many, however, remains: What's the single best way to improve reading levels, deploy technology and engage people? Worldreader has found that it's not one solution at all, but rather a multi-pronged approach that delivers lasting and repeatable results.

For instance, widely available information, communications and technology (ICT) tools (namely e-readers and feature phones) and better mobile technology infrastructure provide viable ways to rollout sustainable, large-scale and cost-effective literacy programs. Coupled with regional and global publishing partnerships, books people can relate to -- in local languages they speak -- are instantly available with a touch of a button, eliminating expensive logistics costs.

Public and private partnerships must also be in place to fuel literacy improvements and extend social innovation opportunities. Besides closing a funding gap, they create excitement about a project, build momentum and take the cause further than one organization can achieve alone.

Take the e-reader program at Mery's Upendo School, for instance. The project 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. The recent launches at Tanzania's Nangana and Nambala schools also stem from a partnership with the Nelson Mandela Institute. In that case, Worldreader helped the organization secure donations from two private funders to bring 300 e-readers and 36,000 e-books in Swahili and English into the classrooms. Neither launch may have happened without these strong partnerships.

Mery and Prime Minister Pinda show us that the vision of a more literate world may take seed in different ways, and could lead to different places. But, as with many things, visions and ideas merge, transform and propel society forward. Let's meet where the fight against illiteracy and push for social innovation cross and start dreaming of what's possible from there.

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