Worldreader aims to eradicate global illiteracy by giving children e-readers

November 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Worldreader has a lofty goal: eradicating global illiteracy. So far they've reached 13,000 kids in Sub-Saharan Africa by giving them e-readers loaded with local and international books. John Risher of Worldreader joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss their mission and how learning to read can improve children's lives.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In recent years, tablets and e-readers have topped many holiday shopping lists. Jeffrey Brown looks at one program aimed at using that technology to get people to read.

JEFFREY BROWN: More than 770 million people around the world are illiterate, according to UNESCO. The nonprofit organization Worldreader wants to decrease those numbers and eventually eradicate illiteracy for the next generation.

WOMAN: I will go on Friday after work and come back on Sunday.

JEFFREY BROWN: The group distributes e-readers to individuals, classrooms and libraries throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where 50 percent of schools have few or no books.

Three years old, the program now reaches over 13,000 children in nine different countries, including Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Ghana, where 15-year-old Rita Duke Stevens (ph) wants to be a lawyer when she grows up.

She spoke in this Worldreader-produced YouTube video.

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GIRL: I have to read a lot to know about things and people, so that in the future, I will be able to judge people’s cases in a good way, so that people won’t suffer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Once the e-readers are distributed, the organization curates a wireless library of local and international books.

And joining me now is David Risher, the co-founder and president of Worldreader. He’s a former executive with Microsoft and Amazon.

And welcome to you.

DAVID RISHER, Worldreader: Thank you, Jeff. It’s great to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have described — I have seen you describe your aha moment that led to this. Tell us.

DAVID RISHER: We were traveling around the world and actually had spent some time in an orphanage in Ecuador.

And, at the end of the way — this was a girls orphanage — I looked across the wing at the woman who ran it and asked why there was a building with a big padlock on it. And the woman said to me, well, that’s our library. And I said, well, what’s going on? And she said, the books take forever to get here. By the time they get here, they’re often not even the books that our kids want to read anymore, and the girls really have sort of finished with what’s in there.

I asked, can I take a look inside? And she said, you know, David, I think I have lost the key. And it really was at that moment where I thought to myself, OK, hold on. I can either step back and think, OK, I’m going to just sort of watch the world not have the books they need to improve their lives or I can sort of step into it and say, let’s solve this problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you were coming from this world yourself, right, of technology and e-books. How did you translate that knowledge — how does it work actually on the ground?

DAVID RISHER: So, we get e-readers — and we also use cell phones as well, but let’s focus on e-readers for a second — from companies like Amazon.

We load them up with international books and local books. One of the things we realized early, early on is, it is very important to bring books to the kids that are going to inspire them and that the children are going to connect to.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that means books from Africa, African writers.


DAVID RISHER: That’s right. That’s right, African writers, African textbooks, African storybooks.

One of the first times I went to Ghana, which was the first country we operated in, I went to the back of the classroom and saw one of the paper books they had. I picked it off the shelf. And it was the history of Utah. I don’t even know…


JEFFREY BROWN: But that just shows the haphazard nature of what reaches them, right?

DAVID RISHER: That’s exactly it.

It’s almost — it’s almost landfill that sort of gets redistributed into Africa.


DAVID RISHER: And so we said, well, hold on. The world is favoring the digital distribution of books. And so if we can take electronic readers, put local books on there, and then have the kids read, they will read more, they will read better, and they will improve their lives as a result.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, here’s an example.


JEFFREY BROWN: This is just your basic e-reader?

DAVID RISHER: That’s right. That’s exactly it.

I mean, we decided to use some off-the-shelf hardware, an e-reader. We put a case on it. We put a light on it. We put a skin around it. One of the earliest things that our kids asked us is, can we have a light so that we can read after dark?

And it was that sort of observation that made us realize, this really can work and it really can change the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: The obvious issue — one obvious issue is cost. Right? It requires — I mean, to make this work, I assume you have to do it at lowest cost possible.

DAVID RISHER: You do. You do.

But that’s the nice thing about technology. Technology gets cheaper every day. These, which cost $400 a couple of years ago, these now cost $50. And then the other cost is the books themselves. But we’re lucky there. And we have worked very hard. We have worked with international publishers. We have gone to Random House and said, look, can you contribute the use of the “Magic Tree House” series to our program for free? And they have said yes.

We have gone to Simon & Schuster and done the same thing with “Hardy Boys.” And then we go to African publishers and we would say, we would like to pay you a small amount, but we will pay you for every book we use in our program. And for them, it’s a quite new way to sort of — frankly, as a revenue stream, and it’s a way to get kids reading more, which, of course, is their goal, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what kind of barriers, if any, have you hit along the way?

DAVID RISHER: You know, it’s interesting.

The biggest barrier — and this will sound funny — is that the demand is so great that we have to struggle, frankly to keep up with it. We started three years ago with 50 kids in a classroom. We now, as you mentioned, have 12,000 reading on e-readers.

And so, as a result, we have expanded our program to include cell phones, which is a device that so many people in the developing world have. Cell phones really have leapfrogged over the physical land mine. And it’s sort of what we’re trying to do with books.

So, we have another 150,000 kids reading on cell phones every month as well. And this is our biggest challenge, is how do we keep up with that demand and how do we keep the funding going to sort of keep the whole program moving forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, scaling up to have a real big impact, right? That’s got to be the big issue for you.

DAVID RISHER: So, that’s right.

I mean, our goal — and we know this is ambitious and sort of crazy — but is to eradicate illiteracy.


JEFFREY BROWN: You laugh as you say that, because it’s so big, such a big goal?

DAVID RISHER: That’s it. But, at the same time, it’s a goal that not necessarily in our lifetime, but in our children’s lifetime, we can achieve.

This is the sort of thing where you look back 100 years ago at what the Carnegies and the Rockefellers did, putting in infrastructure for books in the education system, that was the analog world. That the world paper-based. Now we can do the same thing digitally. It will take some time, but we will get it done.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re speaking, again, coming from the tech world. You’re seeing the potential for technology as a — well, this is real big social change. Right?

 DAVID RISHER: Right. That’s right. Yes.

And I think that this social change — change happens in waves. Right? And this technology, it’s actually not the technology that’s the most important part. It’s the whole scale move towards digital, the whole scale move towards cell phone coverage, the whole scale move towards understanding how much knowledge matters to a society to help lift it up.


JEFFREY BROWN: That’s big. Go back to the ground level or the school level.


JEFFREY BROWN: When was — you told me about the aha moment for you with the idea.


JEFFREY BROWN: When was the aha moment where you saw that this could work?

DAVID RISHER: I would say, at first, it was watching the kids in our first classroom in Ghana who were reading “Curious George,” and they were literally reading it word by word, and at the end they looked up and they said, can we have another book?

And we said yes. And we downloaded another book, another e-reader right then. And they started reading again. Now, you have to remember these are kids that live in a world where there are no books, where it could take six months or a year to get their hands on a single book. And now all of a sudden they’re walking around with a library that can hold an infinite number of books.

That moment changed the world for me. Fast-forward and maybe a year, and I’m talking to Okanta Kate, who is one of the girls in our program in Ghana, who says, because I read “The Shark” by Peggy Oppong, an African writer, I now want to be the most famous writer in the world. Right?

Or Mary in Tanzania, who says — who is 10 years old, and she says, I want to be a pilot when I grow up. She loves to read her atlas. I want to be a pilot when I grow up, so that I can fly to Bangladesh, to the United States, and send money back to my mother, so she can learn how to speak English. It’s those sort of moments that really make you think, OK, this can work.


David Risher of Worldreader, thanks so much.

DAVID RISHER: Thank you, Jeff. It’s great to be here.