Visions and Voices

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Worldreader is a US and European non-profit organization with a mission to make digital books available to children in the developing world so that millions of people can improve their lives. As of May 2012, it put over 100,000 e-books and the wisdom it contained in the books to the hands of 1,000 children in Sub Saharan Africa. Colin McElwee, Co-Founder and Managing Director of the organization talk about its vision.

Capital: Could you start by explaining your organization and what you are trying to achieve at the World Economic Forum here in Addis?
Colin McElwee: We are a young organization distribute e-books for kids in developed regions. Using mobile connectivity, you would have enormous market for this sector. We’ve spent the last two years demonstrating our work in classroom with the help of USAID. There’s positive educational impact. When you put the local curriculum and the local textbook in the e-book, the kids have the capacity not only to read what you put on there but also to choose other books. Attending in classrooms is super important because a number of countries including Ethiopia have had experiences with computers in classrooms with the project called one laptop for a child. First you have to get the teacher on side to make it viable so that the children know how to use it. E-reader is small devices much more akin and comparable to a mobile phone but not to a computer which both teachers and children know. This device holds up to three thousand books, if you plug it for one hour you can get four weeks reading.  It’s actually a device that can be designed by Ethiopians. It’s important that teachers embrace it and advocate its use which is fundamental, unlike a lot of education technology projects which has gone wrong. We’ve demonstrated it over the last two years with a rigorous trial done in Ghana. We saw teachers embrace it, advocate its use, read it, get kids to read, talk about reading, and download an update on their subjects with new the material.
Capital: How is the affordability, how much does it cost?
McElwee: Three years ago this was about 300 USD but right now you can buy that in the United States for 79 USD. So what we’re doing is preparing the world and education systems, the World Bank, the US, and teachers. Two years from now it will get down to 20-25 USD. It becomes economically feasible with three year period for incorporating a country’s curriculum in it.  We’re operating know in Ghana, Uganda and Kenya. I was talking to the state minister in of education of Ethiopia, Ibrahim. I told him we would do with local books and materials so the kids can gain access. Even publishers can sell it for example for one dollar as an e-book and get much more in aggregate with Ethiopia’s 80 million plus population.
We have signed up for 18 subjects so far mostly in Ghana and Kenya. It will help them reach a global market. They export their curricular items as opposed to earlier practice of importing it. It will serve as a collateral benefit to the world by introducing it. It’s only big publishers in New York or London that don’t like e-books because it threatens their paper business. But for African publishers since the paper business is very limited it opens up them to the world. It will also be a public private formula with device manufacturers. There are about 30 million E-readers currently around the world. There are about 320 million kids in sub-Saharan Africa. Device manufacturer will produce it for as low as 20 USD since it creates an enormous market. Telecom carriers will also benefit from more traffic. You don’t have to revolutionize the education system in Ethiopia; you have to just put the required inputs.