Tech saints: how innovative charities are changing the world

They’d need to keep new books coming, which, in places without 3G, meant they’d regularly have to collect all the Kindles, take them to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot and then bring them back. Then there were the breakages.

“In the early days, that was a huge problem,” says McElwee. “Every device that broke in the field, whether it was a cracked screen or a broken antenna, we’d send back to Amazon in the States, and they’d open it up and diagnose what had happened. Whatever they learned, they used to make design adaptations to the next generation of Kindle. Now we have about 3% breakage, and that’s [with] people sitting on them.”

As of this May, Worldreader has distributed 609,000 ebooks to 12,000 children in sub-Saharan Africa. The organisation works with 40 African publishers to digitise their content, which ends up on 4,300 Kindles.

Thanks to the humble ebook reader, children such as Okanta Kate are writing their own stories, dreaming of becoming lawyers or doctors, and changing the communities to which they belong.

A word in your ear

When it comes to education in developing nations, it’s typically children who get all the attention. After all, they pick things up quickly, and unlike their parents, who spend most of their day working in the fields, they have time to study.

As a result, there are more than 750 million illiterate adults in the world. This is where the Talking Book comes in. Designed by Literacy Bridge CEO Cliff Schmidt, the Talking Book contains educational audio messages on everything from agriculture to medicine, allowing people who can’t read to tap that vital knowledge.

According to Schmidt, the Talking Book was born out of dissatisfaction rather than inspiration. “I was doing some pro bono work for One Laptop per Child (OLPC) in 2007, but eventually the price point of the laptops became a problem for me. I’d travelled to Ghana and looked into the government’s education budget, and found they had about $60 per student to spend after buying books and desks and things, and this was a $200 laptop.”

Talking Book

Frustrated by the approach OLPC was taking, Schmidt decided to tackle the problem from another direction: what could he build for $60 that would still be useful? The Talking Book was born.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was a difficult delivery. “On our first trip out to Ghana we loaded up the device with a great set of messages,” says Schmidt. “We had agriculture messages that were applicable for that season, and messages about diseases that were prevalent in the area. There were about 40 in total, and we thought we could deliver the devices and then not go back to the village for a while.”

That was a mistake. Schmidt and his partners discovered that their hard work was being totally undone by good, old-fashioned human psychology. “There was too much information,” he says ruefully. “People were intimidated and weren’t using them. If we’d taken those 40 recordings and put ten on initially, then ten a couple of months later, then another ten a couple of months later, we’d have got much stronger results. Now we offer continuously updated recordings.”

The team remotely monitor usage of the recordings on the Talking Book, so they know which are played all the way through, which are abandoned and which are listened to more than once. This lets them tailor their content to the needs of different villages, and it’s made all the difference.

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