Tech saints: how innovative charities are changing the world

In a remote Tanzanian classroom, a young woman sits at a battered wooden desk, hunched over a piece of paper. She writes in English, her brow furrowed as she inscribes each word on the page. Her name is Okanta Kate and she’s writing poetry.

Okanta is one of 12,000 students in Africa who have been given access to a Kindle by not-for-profit organisation Worldreader. The Kindle helped her learn to read. Then she learned to write, filling notepads with stories and poems. “With my writings I can encourage people to do things, motivate them so they can be great people in the future,” she says.

For Worldreader, it doesn’t get much better than inspiring the person who wants to inspire an entire country.

Mum and dad can’t read, so they’re asking the kids to download news and other stories on the Kindle

“It’s a great story,” says co-founder Colin McElwee. “But even if they’re not writing poetry, what we’ve found is that mum and dad can’t read, so they’re asking the kids to download news and other stories on the Kindle. They become the most important member of the family because they’re bringing in new information.”

It’s a story that’s being replicated across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where everything from Skype to old desktop PCs are helping to change lives.

A book in the hand

Worldreader was founded by McElwee and David Risher in 2010 with one simple aim: to put books into the hands of every child. Given that UNESCO estimates 200 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to books of any kind, that’s quite a mission.

“David used to work for Amazon – he was actually one of the first employees and he really grew that company,” says McElwee. “He was on a sabbatical in Barcelona back in 2010 and he showed me the Kindle ebook reader, which was pretty new then. It struck us simultaneously that this was an incredible device for getting books to places they don’t usually get to. We quit our jobs on 1 March and by 3 March we were in Ghana with about 25 Kindles, doing our first pilot.”

Using an eReader

Those first Kindles were donated by Amazon and proved the potential of the scheme. The second pilot was sponsored by the Ghanaian government, which handed Risher and McElwee enough cash to buy 400 Kindles. It was then that the magnitude of the project they’d embarked on really hit home.

“That was the first time we realised, ‘hey, this is all about local content’,” says McElwee. “We’d partnered with Random House, so we had lots of Western books on there. We also had one small Wikipedia article on the Ghanaian football team. Of course, we found every child in the pilot glued to that article, and it was all because it was local content.”

The feedback forced Risher and McElwee to reconsider their approach. To make any significant impact, they needed to go well beyond only giving away Kindles – they needed to source local content, digitise it and get it onto the devices.

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