Colin McElwee of World Reader
Breaking new ground: Colin McElwee, co-founder of Worldreader © Fernando Sancho

While shortages of water, food and medicine in sub-Saharan Africa have long attracted the attention of foreign aid workers, a lack of books is not normally considered one of the most pressing matters in the region.

Yet for David Risher, a 47-year-old American and former Microsoft and Amazon executive, the surprise was that so little attention had been given to what he came to see as one of the most obvious problems that could be resolved through modern technology.

Travelling in Ecuador several years ago, Mr Risher visited an orphanage where he came across a room filled with books that had been locked away from the children there.

“We had been spending the day bringing some basic supplies to them. As we were exiting the facility we saw this building with a big padlock on it. I asked the woman: ‘What is going on?’ And she told me it was their library,” he says.

The books, which were often donated and brought in on ships, usually took so long to arrive that the children had already read them in the public library, or they were out of date. When Mr Risher asked if he could look inside he was told the key was missing.

Shocked into action, he talked to his friend Colin McElwee, who was working at Esade Business School in Barcelona, where Mr Risher was also working as an adviser. Together they came upon the solution of providing electronic reading devices to children in similar environments to enable them to have a constant supply of new books.

Worldreader, the non-profit organisation they formed based in Barcelona and Seattle in 2009, has since established projects that have provided about 1,000 ereaders to roughly 3,000 children in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, with each device holding 200 books comprising both local and international titles.

The pair’s contacts and expertise were always likely to help them get the project off the ground. Both have MBAs, Mr Risher from Harvard Business School and Mr McElwee from Esade. Yet at first they were greeted with a degree of scepticism when seeking partners and donors to support their idea. A preliminary approach to Amazon for a donation of Kindles was initially politely refused.

“But after about six months or so they came to understand that this could be something of real interest to them and of real benefit to the world,” says Mr Risher.

Amazon later agreed to donate 30 Kindles to the project. “Symbolically this was important as it made us see that somebody else was willing to put something into the idea besides the two of us,” he adds.

Once fitted with some kit, the pair embarked on a trial run in the school in Barcelona where they both had daughters studying. They were able to see that the basic premises of the idea, such as the ease in which ereaders could be loaded up with books and the fact that they would not be lost or broken, worked in a standard classroom setting.

There was also positive feedback from the teacher involved in the trial, who had previously taught at a school in Zimbabwe, where the students had suffered both from a lack of books and books that were so out of date that they still referred to the country as Rhodesia.

Following this successful trial run, Worldreader launched a small project for a class of 22 children in rural Ghana in March 2010. The success of this project allowed the pair to convince the Ghanaian and US governments to support them in the creation of iRead, a controlled pilot project in Ghana in November that year, delivering 500 ereaders to six schools.

The project, which was independently assessed in a study funded by the US Agency for International Development, demonstrated notable improvements in the students’ reading ability as a result of the exposure to books.

Mr McElwee says that the pair’s first project in Ghana amounted to a very intense two weeks.

“I remember on the return journey we commented to each other that the experience was like doing our MBAs all over again, because we had to reach so deep into our tool box of skills and experience to make it all happen.

“Everything from negotiating with teachers, parents, students, local journalists and even the minister of education, to creating complex technical processes between Amazon and the schools to deliver the books electronically, to the creation of credible business models to present to publishers and so on. All in an environment where we had to learn fast; the art of creating PowerPoint presentations in the middle of a field or writing memorandums of understanding in the backs of cars as we sped along was key.

“Frankly, if you want to test the value of your MBA, sub-Saharan Africa is just the place to it!”

Mr Risher, who is chief executive of Worldreader and Mr McElwee, its managing director, believe an important part of Worldreader’s success can be linked to an approach intended to draw on what they see as the most efficient aspects of for-profit companies, where the performance of the organisation is closely measured and monitored at all times.

“There is a rising understanding that the for-profit world and the non-for-profit worlds are in some ways not so far apart,” Mr Risher says.

“The ways you run a for-profit start-up, such as going after the biggest problem, where the bang for the buck is the greatest, or working not just in isolation but in partnership with other organisations – these are some of the strategies that we have used that a lot of start-ups use to become successful quickly”.

The Worldreader website features reports about various reading projects that the organisation has launched in sub-Saharan Africa, with details of goals, implementation and results.

“A characteristic of successful companies is that they are almost religious about self-assessment and looking at metrics and results,” says Mr Risher. “We want to be a catalyst and we can do that by researching the results very closely as it is interesting data and helps us become a bit of a thought leader”.

Helped by the company’s connection to Barcelona, one of Worldreader’s biggest coups was securing a partnership with Barcelona football club, which, as one of the most widely known sports teams in the world, enjoys a large appeal in the countries they operate in.

“When we first got to Ghana from Barcelona, a thousand miles away, we started seeing all these kids with Barcelona football shirts on,” Mr Risher recalls. “It was one of these funny things where our home town team started to become relevant to our literacy work. The big focus was on how we can get more kids to read.”

The collaboration with the football club includes stars such as Lionel Messi and Xavi sending messages of encouragement to schoolchildren to read more, which are then transferred directly on to the ereading devices.

Other local support has come from Esade, where Mr Risher is a member of the school’s international advisory board and Mr McElwee is head of marketing and communication.

“They [Esade] have been great supporters of us,” Mr McElwee says. “Students have fundraised for us and we have given talks at the school as we touch on many subjects they look at in a standard MBA degree. Because we are breaking new ground, we are creating new markets and that has its academic value.”

The pair tapped into many contacts at Esade, including Jonathan Wareham, vice-dean of research, who “helped us refine our value proposition during some rigorous interrogation that only academics know how to do”, says Mr McElwee.

They plan to continue to introduce the Worldreader model in as many locations as is feasible, with the goal of providing 1m books and having 1m children using the devices in schools.

“We have stories of kids finishing a book and asking if they can have another,” Mr Risher says. “When they are told ‘yes’, their faces light up”.

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