Blog Article

Sparking a reading revolution across South Africa

Sparking a reading revolution across South Africa

February 21 2014

By Holly Winman
  • Education
  • Social Exclusion

- A close up on NT100 project FunDza

By Mignon Hardie, Managing Trustee at FunDza

I was lucky. I grew up in a privileged home in South Africa that was filled with books and stories of every kind imaginable and it was through stories that I learnt so much about life and the world around me.

But, the vast majority of young people in South Africa are not so lucky. Books are expensive, so very few people grow up in homes where books are easily available. Public libraries are under-resourced and school libraries – except for those in privileged schools – are virtually non-existent. As South Africa’s book-buying public is tiny, few publishers concentrate on creating the types of books that will inspire young South Africans – particularly those growing up in poor communities – to read. The result is: books aren’t seen as being relevant and reading isn’t considered to be enjoyable or fun. As reading isn’t an intrinsic part of people’s lives, literacy levels are low.

Mignon Hardie, Managing Trustee at FunDza

These low literacy levels have an impact on higher education performance. As Noma Gapare, a University of Johannesburg student told us: “Many varsity students can barely keep up with course work because they can’t read properly thus failing to understand what is required of them and fail assignments because of grammatical errors and errors in concord. When we asked a few why this is so and why this happens, most told us they don’t read and find no interest in reading at all because they can’t. However those who excel attribute their successes academically to reading.”

FunDza’s mission is to shift attitudes to reading and to spark and sustain a reading revolution.

While books are few and far between, mobile phones are pervasive. A 2012 World Bank report found that 75% of all South Africans over the age of 15 had access to a mobile phone. These aren’t necessarily the latest smartphone devices: most frequently they are old feature phones operating on prepaid packages. While data costs may be high and data download speeds slow, these feature phones can access text-based content as well as other services, including South Africa’s homegrown social network, Mxit.

FunDza has developed a mobi network that includes a responsive website and a Mxit app. This allows people to read books, stories, poetry and plays on their mobile phones, tablets or computers. Mxit is accessible by thousands of different phone types, including old feature phones. It provides chat services as well as value-added services – FunDza’s app is one of these.

Every week we commission a writer to produce a new short story – seven chapters in length – that we release in serialised format on our mobi network. The chapters go live at one minute past midnight and we can see that some readers wait up for the next chapter desperate to find out what happens next.

FunDza creates the stories based on themes our readers can relate to, such as love, jealousy, grief, survival, fear of failure, fear of the future, how to make a mark on the world, how to live in your own skin and how to be true to yourself. Discussion questions at the end of chapters encourage interaction and participation – and around a hundred readers do, every single day.

FunDza’s mobi network is reaching thousands of readers on a daily basis. On average the network is visited by 50,000 unique readers every month, and with the average session lasting 13 minutes we can see that readers are engaging with the content.  

Mandy, a young reader on FunDza’s mobi network, explains: “Before I started reading FunDza books, I always headed in the wrong direction. But, once I started reading them, I kept asking myself if I really wanted to do bad things, were they really worth my time. You guys rock!”

FunDza always creates content to highlight specific themes or events. 2014 marks 20 years of South Africa’s democracy. To commemorate this historic time, we’re running a ‘Rights’ story project that highlights some of the rights enshrined in our country’s Constitution. And, we’re simultaneously providing educational resource material too, so that readers can develop their constitutional literacy skills at the same time as they read for enjoyment.

The more that young people read, the faster that they acquire the language skills needed for study and life. Readers report that with FunDza they are now able to read more frequently and for longer periods of time. And that this is having an impact on their lives. FunDza reader, Morongwa Lebatlang explains “I just want to say that FunDza has really helped me a lot to upgrade my English at school. Since I’ve started reading books on FunDza I’ve been passing English excellently and it’s all because of you. I’ve read every book that I’ve come across and I’ve learned a lot. Please continue doing the brilliant job that you guys are doing.”

FunDza wants stories, storytelling and reading to become a vital part of people’s lives, adopted into daily routines and in a way that spreads virally and encourages other people to read too. In short, we want to begin a reading revolution. We’re honoured to have been included in the Nominet Trust 100. We can see how technology is making a difference in terms of reaching so many people at once and at allowing us to be highly responsive to reader needs and desires. We, too, are inspired by the many other organisations that are using technology to make a difference in the communities that they reach, whether through free online education, online tutoring, learning through games or bridging digital divides. What strikes us about so many of the projects, is that technology is not an end in itself – rather it is an enabler that allows people to connect with each other and content in new and interesting ways.

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