Notes from the Field

Activating Feature Phones as Handheld Libraries

September 4, 2013

Victor, a middle-aged resident of the Western Kenyan village of Koru, watched me page through my old Nokia feature phone. I was in Koru to launch a program at a nearby school for Worldreader, an organization that brings e-books to places and people underserved by print books. This was one of the few breaks I had during the launch, and I was browsing my phone to see which new books had been added to Worldreader’s mobile application.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Reading a book,” I said. “On that phone?” He gestured at it dubiously. He took a battered Nokia out of his pocket. “I want to read books on my phone.”

In a few minutes, I set him up on Worldreader Mobile. I thumbed through the menu of 1,200 books, and cued up the app to a book’s first page. Later, I saw Victor show his phone to his friends. Some of them took out their phones and pushed a few buttons to get the app.

Koru is a tiny town, of a population of a few hundred, reached via an unpaved road so bumpy that it flattened two of a colleague’s tires en route. Thankfully, the bad roads did not mean poor network coverage: I was always able to make and receive phone calls, and read on my phone.

Just before that Kenyan trip, I was surprised to learn that despite the apparent ubiquity of smartphones in developed countries, basic and low-end feature phones (like the one Victor owns) are the dominant phone type in developing countries. They account for a startling 5 billion of all the 6 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide and range in cost from $20 to $60. In the last three months of 2012, global mobile penetration hit 89 percent and the Asia-Pacific region accounted for half of this figure. And because mobile phone subscriptions are often more affordable than broadband internet, increasingly more people access the internet – and information – on their phones rather than on computers.

World Reader Children

Although Worldreader’s e-reader programs have initially targeted sub-Saharan Africa, biNu’s popularity in India has resulted in a new focus on the acquisition of relevant local content for Asian users. Photo courtesy of Abhishek Anupam.

Technologists clearly see enormous potential in mobile phone use in developing countries. Facebook recently announced plans to lead an effort by the tech industry to make internet more affordable in impoverished regions of the world, particularly on mobile phones. Last year, Worldreader and  biNu developed a reading app within biNu’s broader cloud-based app platform in order to take advantage of pervasive, low-cost mobile technology and encourage reading globally. Since the biNu app crunches data to reduce costs and speed up usage, the data used while reading books is minimal and affordable for those in developing countries. Since its launch the app has attracted 500,000 users, and our top 10 users read upwards of 40 hours a month.

Although Worldreader’s e-reader programs have initially targeted sub-Saharan Africa, where we have relationships with local publishers and understand the region’s publishing and educational landscape, biNu’s popularity in India has subsequently resulted in a new focus on the acquisition of relevant local content for Asian users. For instance, an average of 80,000 people in India use Worldreader Mobile each month. With local content we hope to increase Indian reader engagement to a level roughly equivalent to that of our audience in Nigeria. Our Nigerian readers are voracious, reading an average of 8 million more pages per month than their Indian counterparts, even though there are 10,000 fewer Nigerian users than Indian users. The reason for the difference in reading levels is likely complex (the Nigerians do favor local content but read a little bit of everything), but we’ve noted that countries with access to culturally relevant content consistently read more.

With the support of organizations such as The Asia Foundation and new partnerships being formed with Indian publishers, we soon expect to have a wider selection of books and stories to appeal to Asian readers. The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program will help acquire and digitize content from the Asia-Pacific region for Worldreader Mobile, as well as for a dedicated Books for Asia app on biNu.

Why? Because we know a guy like Victor in a rural corner of India, Indonesia, the Philippines, or Vietnam is browsing his phone, looking for a local book he can’t wait to share with his family and friends, too.

Danielle Zacarias is the senior digital publishing manager at Worldreader. She can be reached at dani@worldreader.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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