Free book reading platform Worldreader has over the last three years increased its active readers in Sub-Saharan Africa and has ambitious plans to keep increasing the numbers. Russell Southwood spoke to Colin McElwee - Co-founder and Senior Director, Strategic Partnerships, Worldreader about how it's going about it.
Worldreader provides people in the developing world with free access to a library of digital books via e-readers and mobile phones. But Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of its key areas of interest. It searches out books that are both from and relevant to Africa to put on its platform.
It also works through competitions to find locally relevant content. In December 2017 it worked with AMKA and WordAlive to find 5 authors to write books about womens' empowerement through the Anasoma Writing Contest:"We had 300 proposals out of which we picked five winners. We will do more of this with publishers".
Available on the Worldreader platform, the winning books are: God's Women (Monica Olive A. Owoko); Ghetto Flower (Kenneth Kaigua); Making the Team (Erick Livumbazi Ngoda); Revival at Sukkhuta Village (June Mwikali Kimuyu); and When Mountains Meet (Christine A. Odeph).
Earlier this month, it announced that it had reached a new milestone with 35,020 e-books in 43 languages, up from 15,000 three years ago. This milestone involved removing 7,000 titles that "no longer meet our standards." The books in its catalogue include curriculum related texts for all ages; books that are supplementary reading for education; vocational books (for example, how to be a hairdresser or a pilot); books for low literacy adults; and basic books to get parents to tell stories to kids in order to get them to start reading early. The biggest category of books? Romance.
Use of the Worldreader app in Sub-Saharan Africa can be measured in three different ways. Firstly, through its partnership with the Opera browser, 25 million people have the Worldreader app pre-loaded on their phone. Secondly, 5 million of these have clicked on the app. Thirdly, 500,000 of these read at least 800 characters a month up from 200,000 who read for at least an hour three years ago. The countries with the largest numbers of readers are Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Ghana.
"Opera is working hand-in-hand with us on markets and this is important to us. In terms of distribution, Opera is the biggest piece. But we're also available through Facebook Basics which increases the figures 10-15% above the Opera total".
"(800 characters a month) is a fairly low bar and we're looking at a higher bar of reading something like 1-2 hours a month. The question is how many hours do they need to read to have an impact on their lives?" Worldreader wants to be able to measure this kind of impact.
"People are staying longer. Time spent on the app (by all users) has increased 40.9% over the last 12 months. Our data scientists are looking at who comes back in an anonymous, aggregated way. We want to get that 25 million who have access on Opera up to 40 million and in so doing increase the metrics further down the use pyramid. We're producing user notifications and other user implementations to increase the amount of use".
On the schools side, Worldreader started life by putting Kindles into schools (initially in Ghana) before migrating to apps. It now has tablet devices reaching 250,000 children in 14 Sub-Saharan African countries, mainly Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria. The devices are delivered with 100 books. The schemes are Ministry supported with donor funding. There is also a version that includes teacher training. It monitors impact on exam results, reading and attitudes to reading. The tablet devices can be used in three different ways: schools libraries; other libraries; and school classrooms.
It has developed a Worldreader Student app for tablets that is being tested in Ghana and will launch in the autumn of this year:"Organisations that want to do the tablet approach can get 100-200 books on a device. We want to be able to scale up the learnings within the classroom and library. We want to be part of systems change in countries where digital is bought into and accepted".