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WEF on Africa: Using cellphones to impart education

‘You have to create sustainability and not dependancy’ – Colin McElwee, Worldreader co-founder.

SIKI MGABADELI: We are talking about transforming education in Africa, one of the sessions here at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town. The question being asked is how African education can be transformed to better prepare its future generations. We know the problems that we face in South Africa on the quality of education in South Africa, the kind of graduates that we are producing – and of course that’s something everyone is saying is going to make a big impact on the kind of future that our young people will have.
    Speaking to me now is Colin McElwee, who is co-founder of Worldreader in Spain. Colin, thanks so much for your time this evening.

COLIN McELWEE: Pleasure.

SIKI MGABADELI: Tell us a little bit about Worldreader – what is Worldreader?

COLIN McELWEE: Worldreader basically is a library, an opportunity for reading. We founded Worldreader about five years ago. We are all business guys who came together with a simple idea. It’s very much around joined-up thinking – not even new thinking.

Basically what we do is behind every paper book is a digital file, so the digital elements are already there. Across sub-Saharan Africa, if we talk of the sub-Saharan African level, there 75% of people have connectivity – 2G connectivity, not 3G – that’s already there. And then there are hundreds of millions of devices out there, not just smartphones but feature phones. Put those three elements together and the youth have access to reading. So what we do is boring – we aggregate great books, great books from Africa, West Africa, East Africa. We bring new authors in. We’ve about 20 000 titles in 44 African languages, every genre you can possibly imagine, material for kids before they get to school, right through school, adult reading, vocational – you name it. We give access on feature phones, on smartphones as well. And all you have to do is go to  and you have access, both online and offline, if you have a data-enabled phone. We know that there are hundreds of millions of those on this continent.

SIKI MGABADELI: What is the benefit of this ultimately? You heard in my intro about the concerns we have particularly around growth, and of course many people say what we need is an educated populace in order to maintain and grow our GDP growth levels. But what is the significance of this?

COLIN McELWEE: You know, one of the big challenges is that many people are in education right around the world, but in Africa especially we’ve seen talk about the quality of education, and we really always wanted to default to the best quality in terms of actually getting education out there, which is a grand aspiration, and it’s very noble. But I have to say it paralyses the capacity of the system to actually act, because everybody argues about what quality is and then nothing really happens.

If you are in business, you always make a sort of trade-off between what is (a) quality – it has to be medium to top quality. But it doesn’t have to be maximised quality. And (b) scale. And in Africa one of the big issues is that there are tens of millions of kids in South Africa and hundreds of millions of kids in sub-Saharan Africa that don’t have that minimal access to books, to education, to knowledge. And so you have school systems that are out there that are built on legacies from one system of one government or another that are functioning in a very, very poor way. But they are systems all the same, systems needing books, and reading knowledge in books. And if you think as well that the school is sort of eight hours of a child’s day – a child wakes up, goes to the market or walks three hours to school and three hours back – to give access to books, not just in school but outside school, is really to put books in the home where there is a device, whether the older brother’s or the mother’s or father’s. We are putting books in the home or wherever there is 2G connectivity.

SIKI MGABADELI: What are some of the more public/private models that we are seeing out there in doing this kind of thing – of not just throwing money at the problems but actually looking at creative ways of figuring it out?

COLIN McELWEE: Yeah, that’s a really good point. A basic business point of view is to create sustainability. What you don’t want to do is create dependency, and often what you are implying there is actually a lot of aids directly create dependency. And when the aid is sort of reduced, people are lost – with tragic consequences. So what we are trying to do is create, if you like, independency. It’s like a model where publishers get their books out there and they can monetise part of that at the same time.

For the carriers like the Vodafones and the MTNs, this is small amounts of data that previously they were not interested in. But they realise their growth can only come from that part of the pyramid going forward. So they are much more interested in the long term of data.

And then of all the devices out there we know the one great thing, actually, that we know is that tomorrow there will be better technology than today, next year. So if we don’t start planning for five years from now, we are going to miss the boat on that. We are already at Worldreader inviting about a million-and-a-half people. We can scale this to tens of millions quite easily with the carriers. There’ll be other people who come into this space, which will enable people on the ground to actually push this forward. It will go way beyond what we can do – and that’s the independent element of it.

SIKI MGABADELI: And just basically turning this tool that we have in our hands every single day that we are using to communicate to also impart education.

COLIN McELWEE: Absolutely. And in a way, actually, if I delivered you a box of books, that would sound great. But you’ve got to carry that box of books. You could probably carry one or two around with you and you’d be dependent on those books. But one thing I do know is that you are probably going to sleep with that cellphone next to your bed, and you wake up with it, and it’s one of the first things you look for. And we travel to work and we commute. There are lots of moments in a day when this device can be so. so important to you. Now you could actually use it to look at Facebook. You can use it for all sorts of things. What we find, actually, where feature phones are concerned, is that people are much more likely to read. They are kind of less distracted by short amounts of attention span on different sorts of apps. So we are actually finding further down the pyramid, where there are only “feature phones” to give people access to these books, boy, do they read. And there are two great bits of data that came out of our Unesco report we did last year. The one, girls are reading five to six times more than boys, No 1.


COLIN McELWEE: And the second is that 30% of adults or young adults use their phone to teach the child in the house. It could be a guardian, it could be a niece, a nephew. But they are usually, if you put the right sot of content in there to teach and to practise to read with the younger people in the house – sometimes preschool kids – that is enormous. When we think of those two elements we know we are getting to girls in communities. It is enormously powerful. And if you can get to kids before they get to school in their own language that again is enormously powerful.

SIKI MGABADELI: We’ll leave it there. Thank you so much for your time, Colin McElwee.

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