A former Amazon executive who helped Jeff Bezos turn shopping into a digital experience has set out to end illiteracy. David Risher is now the head of Worldreader, a nonprofit organization that brings e-books to kids in developing countries through Kindles and cellphones.
Risher was traveling around the world with his family when he got the idea for Worldreader. They were doing volunteer work at an orphanage in Ecuador when he saw a building with a big padlock on the door. He asked a woman who worked there what was inside, and she said, "It's the library."
"I asked, 'Why is it locked up?' And she said it took too long for books to get there," says Risher. "[The books] came by boat and by the time they got there, they were uninteresting to the kids. And I said, 'Well, can we take a look inside? I'd like to see this.' And she said, 'I think I've lost the key.' "
This, Risher thought, can be fixed. If it's so hard to give kids access to physical books, why not give them e-books and the digital devices they would need to read them? Risher had joined Amazon at its beginning, helping it grow into the dominant online retailer it is today. He felt he could apply some of the lessons he had learned at Amazon to the problem of illiteracy.
"We were really trying to change people's behavior, but once that started to happen, of course it took off because it was convenient and because the prices were lower," says Risher. "In a way, we are trying to do something very similar here. ... Here's a culture where reading has never really gotten a chance to take off because the access to books is so limited. So we make it easy for people to get access to books and we try to put books on the e-readers that are appealing to kids and interesting to teachers so that we can, over time, help people shift a little in their behavior and their mindset."
Working through schools and local governments, Worldreader launched its first program in Ghana and is now in nine African countries. As of last month, Worldreader says, it has put more than 700,000 e-books in the hands of some 12,000 children.
Donations from corporate partners and individuals help pay for the Kindles. E-books are donated by authors and publishers in both Western countries and the countries where the schools are located. Risher says it may seem counterintuitive to use e-readers in schools in poor, developing countries, but it actually makes a lot of sense.
"[E-readers] turn out to be remarkably well-adapted to the developing world, in part because they don't take very much power, they are very portable. It's almost like having an entire library in your hand and, like all technology, they get less and less expensive over time," Risher says.
A study of the Worldreaders pilot program in Ghana was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Tony Bloome, a senior education technology specialist with USAID, says the initial results were mostly positive.
"We definitely found that it provided more access to materials. That wasn't surprising at all," says Bloome. "I think kids' appreciation and use of technology is somewhat universal in terms of the excitement — so much so [that] the kids would sit on their devices because they were concerned they would be stolen. And that led to one of the challenges we had in terms of breakage."
Worldreader has responded to the breakage problem with tougher e-readers and training for students and teachers in how to handle them. Even with the breakage problem, though, the USAID study found the program to be cost effective. It also found that kids who had never used a computer before learned to use e-readers quickly and it didn't take them long to find games and music. But Bloome says that their excitement was contagious.
"Especially with the group that was able to take the e-readers home, basically the young people became rock stars in regards to being able to introduce their parents or other kids in the community to e-readers," he says. "But really focused on content, which is really exciting. It's about the provision of reading materials."
Bloome says USAID is still assessing how the access to books is affecting learning in primary grades. In the meantime, Worldreader is moving on to smaller devices with a program that created an e-reader app for cellphones used in developing countries. Risher says the potential for getting access to books on cellphones is huge.
"It really is the best way to get books into people's hands where the physical infrastructure isn't very good, the roads are bad, gas costs too much ... but you can beam books through the cellphone network just like you can make a phone call — and that's really the thing that changes kids' lives."
Risher says he knows Worldreader alone won't solve illiteracy, but he hopes it can be a catalyst for change.