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Alex Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Mobile Literacy for Africa Manifesto – start the revolution today towards making Africa a superpower


‘I am prepared to make a mistake, I am prepared to say what I want to say, even if it is not perfect, has flaws, I want to communicate. An idea, a question, a communication held back out of fear of sounding foolish isn’t an idea, a question or a communication; it is nothing. An idea, a question, a communication expressed no matter how imperfectly, is better than nothing.’—as a teacher of second-language English in China, this is all I asked of my students: try, say something, anything is better than nothing, reach out and speak, language is a bridge. And I told them too, people are remarkably good at and willing to decipher even the most imperfect messages.

So now I am prepared to make a mistake, to be imperfect, to risk sounding like a fool, drunk on green tea, as I make this brash manifesto: With our current mobile technology there is no longer an excuse or a reason for there to be illiteracy in Africa. There is no excuse or reason for children to grow up without stories to read in their home languages.

With our current technology we do not have to wait for a large, creaky institution to mobilise, for a government to act, for any laborious union of governments to meet and talk and meet and talk and eat and meet and talk, we absolutely have the power as individuals to transform our continent. Skeptics may look at the news and laugh at the thought of Africa being a superpower (as they no doubt would have laughed during the famine in China if anyone suggested that country a few decades later would be so influential). Africa is a continent of talent, dynamic people and rich resources, at the rate other countries are destroying their environments, we will soon be the most precious continent on earth, provided we take care of what we have. The best way to secure and protect what we have, is to re-vision ourselves as magnificent, is to educate. With technology the children of Africa can make the world their world. In today’s computer/Internet age, reading and writing is key. To use technology the children of Africa must be literate and more, they must be avid readers and great writers, so they can communicate their hearts’ content with scintillating deftness.

A wise publisher once said, ‘It is possible for a person to read themselves out of poverty.’ Likewise, I believe it is possible for Africa to read its way out of poverty.

“I saw an excellent film on literacy produced by PRAESA called Bridges to Literacy – it was particularly aimed at creative strategies for finding text to incorporate into child’s play and learning for enhancing literacy in text-low rural environments. It was about finding fun ways to motivate reading. In the film was a parent reading shop signs and then a passport with a child. First I thought, that’s really brilliant idea, having grown up with books, I’ve never had to think of creative ways of finding text, it’s been all around, but yes, text is not only in books, it’s in passports too! Books are expensive and I understand it is hard to distribute them to every environment, but now I think, who could ever learn to love reading or to become an articulate writer by reading a passport? Only a rare soul, perhaps, everyone is special but few are rare, although all have tremendous potential given the right tools – children even in rural settings don’t need to read passports in this mobile age.”

“The number of mobile phone users in Africa exceeded 280 million in the first quarter of this year and will reach the 300 million mark next month,” according to Wireless Intelligence.” With the population of Africa at around 900 million, that means one in three people use a mobile phone. (See too Not everyone using the phones is able to send or read text messages.

In a report on poverty reduction and mobile technology, the importance of information was highlighted:

“The lack of affordable access to relevant information and knowledge services among the rural poor has been a concern to development economists for some time. Traditionally, information is regarded by economists as a critical element in the efficient functioning of markets. For example, the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics (i.e., competitive equilibria are Pareto efficient) and the law of one price (i.e., the price of a good should not differ between any two markets by more than the transport cost between them) are based on the assumption that economic agents have the necessary information (Jensen 2007). Moreover, access to information is essential for the emergence of global information and knowledge based economy and has the ability to empower poor communities, enhance skills, and link various institutions involved in poverty reduction. Despite this being widely recognized, access to information has been limited in reality and very few empirical studies exist which assess the impact of investments aimed at providing access to information.”

The same report notes the Low Barriers to Entry. Given the affordability and coverage of mobile telephony … “mobile has become the most easily accessible and ubiquitous communications device in rural areas. Easy availability of low priced new handsets with basic features and emergence of secondary markets for used devices, whose prices are even lower, make them within reach for even the poorest of the poor.”

Mobile learning is a new field of research. There have been initiatives to educate see M-Learning and even a mobile learning inintiative in the South Africa in the health-care sector .

In Japan mobile novels have been a hit.

And Mobile novels have been empowering, particularly to women.

In fact, although frowned-upon by the literary elite, mobile novels have proved empowering to writers in Japan. Today in Japan five out of the top ten best-selling books were WRITTEN on mobile phones.

In South Africa flash fiction via mobile has recently been introduced by Michelle Matthews at Novel Idea.

In the context of education and story-telling, Jill Attewell of the UK-based National Literacy Trust writes:

We believe that the desire to communicate in text is a vital early step towards literacy and researchers have observed that young people who would not normally write messages are often enthusiastic texters (Plant, 2001).
M-learning’s target audience is young adults who have not succeeded in traditional education, particularly those with literacy and numeracy problems. It is a research and development project which started in 2001 and runs to September 2004. Our work includes research focusing on technologies and interfaces, and users and uses of mobile phones, palmtops and computer games. The research is coupled with development of learning materials and experiences, accessed via mobile phones and palmtop computers, and supporting learning management and intelligent tutor systems.
Very little of the existing research into mobile phone use includes any effects on literacy. Kasesniemi and Rautiainen made a detailed studied of SMS use by Finnish 13 to 18-year-olds. They reported that “Finnish teachers have been worried about the negative effects that the free-form, often quickly written text messages may have” particularly as “SMS communication does not rely on traditional grammar or punctuation required for texts written for school.” However, they observed positive benefits especially for boys who “have a tendency to resent official teaching of Finnish ” and because “the unique writing style provides opportunities for creativity.”
Of course literacy is not just about spelling. Speaking, listening and discussion are essential to improving reading and writing skills. Therefore it is encouraging when a researcher writes that teenage girls interviewed reported noticing that their male counterparts “had become far more chatty and communicative since getting used to using mobile phones” (Plant, 2001).
Stephen Heppell, director of Ultralab at Anglia Polytechnic University, emphasises the importance of the skill of oracy. He has observed that “the ability to storytell, to speak in public, to show and tell, has historically been valued as a mark of a literate citizen”. Nowadays the mobile phone offers young people unparalleled opportunities to speak in public and storytell.
Some observers have expressed the concern that young people’s social and communication skills may be damaged by too much reliance on mobile phones. However Taylor and Harper (2002) found young people often sat together using their mobile phones and engaged in gift-giving rituals by exchanging content or phones. Similarly, trials of our early prototype learning materials found that the learners were very keen to communicate with each other and to learn collaboratively. In our next phase of learner research, in addition to trying out new materials and systems, we will be exploring a variety of pedagogic approaches to mobile learning. (Quoted from Mobile learning

I thought about the film with the child reading the passport. I thought about the mobile learning conference. Several thoughts collided:
1. We do not have enough books in Africa.
2. We do not have enough books particularly for children in their home languages during the formative reading ages of 5-7, but for all ages.
3. There are some wonderful initiatives like Little Hands, aimed at creating beautiful multilingual books for children across Africa.
4. Books are expensive to produce and distribute. That is not to say they aren’t glorious and that every effort to get books to children must still be made. Yet the reality is with all the best will in the world, the cost, the problems of getting donors and the slowness of distribution means that for every night from tonight, there will still be millions of bright children who don’t have rich textual role-models from which to learn and be inspired in their own language.
5. The barriers to entry for mobile phones are lower than for multilingual books.
6. The mobile phones are out there waiting to be used. (Like blank books waiting for us to fill with stories!)
7. Multilingual stories can be messaged across Africa at a fraction of the cost of producing books.
8. Depending on phone capabilities, even picture stories can be sent out for children.
9. There must be a way of devising and delivering mobile literacy lessons to Africa.
10. The children are waiting…

There are two potential projects here:
A) Mobile multi-language stories
B) Mobile literacy lessons

To get this going quickly this is what is needed:
1. A stock of short stories – since Aesop has stood the test of time and continents and is the original master of flash fiction, I propose a pepped-up, 21st century, Africa-relevant (although not Africa-centric) revision of the fables. [Also, Aesop is of interest to Adults and children]
2. Authors of Africa to do the pepping-up. The best way for this to work is for writers to volunteer a fable (there are dozens all in translation at Project Gutenberg under Aesop’s Fables) and then to post it here, stating the language of the post if it is other than English. The only style request for the fables is: KEEP IT BRIEF.
3. Translators – pick a fable, translate and post it, stating the language and the regions it is spoken. This first wave of stories is not about being perfect, it’s about communicating. All efforts with good intentions are welcome.
4. Editors – those who see the posted stories and translations, check for accuracy and integrity of content and translation. After you’ve read a translation, post a message confirming it is fine for sending out.
5. Messaging Aesop’s Fables across Africa. There are two options chain messaging and free broadcast messaging.
6. Chain messaging can begin as soon as there is a story in translation. We can pass the stories on ourselves, like gifts, with a message at the end of the story to pass on to other friends. If you see a Fable posted here and want to pass it on to a friend anywhere in Africa who may like to translate it or send a translation on to others who speak the same language – pass it on (if you are a corporate with an sms mailing list, maybe consider sending out the story to your customers to pass on…) Especially send the stories to friends in rural communities. Chain messaging has an element of organic growth, and free market democracy about it – if people like this idea and the story, it will spread, and if they don’t it won’t … there’s no reason to wait. If even one child gets a funky fable to read in his/her home language tonight that would be great. It’s up to the individuals who read this to make it happen.
7. For broadcast messaging mobile phone networks need to be involved – this is more complex, though not impossible. A volunteer with contacts or the ability to negotiate with the networks is required for this.
8. Here’s a fable

The Truck Driver and His Dog

A Truck Driver about to set out on a journey saw his Dog standing at the door stretching. He asked the Dog: “Why do you stand there yawing? Everything is ready but you. Come on let’s go.” The Dog, wagging his tail, replied: “What! I’ve been ready for a long time; it’s you I’m waiting for.”
A loiterer often blames delay on his more active friend.

(Anyone willing to volunteer to translate it into some other languages of Africa?)

1. This requires research and experts to develop suitable lessons. Even one little lesson is better than nothing as a start. Volunteer researchers and experts are required.
2. There is a university in South Africa researching mobile education. Interested research volunteers are welcome to email me for more information on this and a contact.
3. There is a World Conference on Mobile Learning in October – for more information see MLearn — volunteers to go (at their expense) and come back and share the information are required.
4.. Messaging mobile literacy. Again this can be done as a chain message or a broadcast.
5. Ideas and initiatives – volunteers with ideas are needed.
6. Investigation of picture messaging.

It will not surprise me if some of what I’ve said is impractical and can be better put or achieved, but I didn’t want to delay, and so I’ve said it as best I can. That’s all I wanted to do, to communicate (regardless of mistakes) my heart’s desire, which is that there should be no children without access to stories written in their home languages in a mobile age in Africa and that as individuals we should realize how uniquely empowered we now are: with technology we have more power to communicate, to create change, quickly and effectively than ever before.

Here ends this Mobile Literacy for Africa Manifesto!


Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    July 21st, 2008 @17:52 #

    People. Read this.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Karina</a>
    July 21st, 2008 @20:18 #

    I did. And I think it is a brilliant idea - I'm contacting a specialist about it. More soon, I hope.
    Alex, you are right, the internet offers opportunities like nothing else.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">jess</a>
    July 23rd, 2008 @14:06 #

    Thanks Karina for sending me the link to Alex's insightful and timely post. I think you're absolutely right that the way forward is to go mobile. Not only for reasons of access but the possibilities for sharing, collaborating, communicating and, perhaps more importantly in the context of learning and literacy, remixing. With digital stories readers not only have the chance to read, but also the opportunity to create their own stories (on mobiles, facebook, via twitter - see">,"> and"> As Tom Brown (University of Pretoria) says: "The role that communication and interaction plays in the learning process is a critical success factor. It is within this context that m-learning can contribute to the quality of education. It offers opportunities the optimization of interaction between lecturers and learners, among learners, and among members of communities of practice (COPs). Wireless and mobile technologies also make it possible to provide learning opportunities to learners that are either without infrastructure for access (example rural learners) or continually on the move (example business professionals)" (from his article Towards a model for m-learning in Africa in the International Journal on E-Learning. 4 (3), pp. 299-315 -

    Your idea of translating stories into African Languages to be read on a digital device reverberates profoundly with research the PART group (diclousure: I am a member) is doing on transliteracy. Although we haven't (yet) turned our thoughts to the impact of languages per se, we see transliteracy as generally concerned with: "the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks." In this respect, moving from one medium to another (print to mobile) and moving between languages seems to fit in well with transliteracy. (If you're interested in Transliteracy feel free to check out our blog at"> and our first collaboratively authored paper:">

    Sadly I can't help you with the translations but perhaps Anietie Isong can. He is currently researching a PhD with Professor Sue Thomas as supervisor at the Institute of Creative Technologies, DMU (Leicester, England). Anieti is specifically looking at:

    * How the internet is influencing writing from Africa
    * The writers' attitudes towards their writing
    * Burgeoning styles employed in their writing

    Anieti's blog is">

    However I can help you with devising lesson plans. I have quite a bit of experience in teaching (at primary, secondary, undergrad. and postgrad. levels) and have developed two Education Packs devoted to the teaching of multimodal online story">Inanimate Alice. The packs are free to download so you might like to take a look to know how I might be able to help. The first Education Pack is available here:"> and the second one which takes into account a new storymaking tool called iStories (highly relevant to your discussion) is here:">

    There is also an absolute wealth of information that can help with any m-learning designing that you embark upon thanks to Leonard Low at his Mobile Learning blog:">

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Karina</a>
    July 23rd, 2008 @15:49 #

    Thank you Jess for all this information - I am sure that it will make Alex feel less alone out there, thinking about bringing learning and stories to people all around Africa.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    July 23rd, 2008 @20:22 #

    What an extraordinary wealth of leads and links. Jess thank you very much for taking the time to respond so comprehensively, and also thank you Karina for contacting Jess. You’ve given me a lot to work with, really this is exceptionally helpful and it’s great to have this form of affirmation of the feasibility of mobile literacy projects.
    I’ll follow up on these leads and links and will post the results … and hopefully others who are interested in mobile literacy will do the same.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">chrisjoseph</a>
    July 24th, 2008 @00:42 #

    Fantastic post Alex. I hope people take up the challenge. Inanimate Alice isn't yet mobile, but Episode 1 is now available in Afrikaans (direct link is ), and we are hoping to continue the translation of other episodes.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">jess</a>
    July 24th, 2008 @01:26 #

    Glad I could help Alex and I'll look forward to more blog posts/info as things mobilise.

    Thanks Chris for adding the link for IA in Afrikaans! Good one.

  • sobchakfan1203
    September 15th, 2008 @22:00 #

    If your viewers are interested in combatting illiteracy in Africa, there is a wonderful website called which is currently sponsoring Room to Read, an organization that builds libraries for children in the poorest communities of Africa and Asia. If they shop online there, part of their purchase proceeds go to benefit the npo of their choosing.


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