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Higher Literacy through Libraries & Literacy for All Social Enterprises

Renting Books at Very Low Cost

One major issue in many developing countries is a severe shortage of books and other learning materials in public schools and low-income homes, what has been referred to as “print poverty.”  In fact, many schools in low-income countries have no libraries and no children’s books in local languages. What is more, in many developing countries, only a small minority of households in rural areas have any print materials at home, and typically no children’s books. In addition, schools often do not have textbooks, children’s books or other reading materials to send home with students. Yet governments and literacy NGOs lack the funds to buy enough books and start enough libraries to make a substantial dent in the problem.

One solution is to supplement public school reading and math education with highly affordable library books and other learning materials. Quality, developmentally appropriate books and learning materials in local languages can help to significantly improve learning for students attending the underfunded, low quality public schools all too common in many developing countries. To maximize effectiveness, books should be available both at schools and elsewhere in the community, and to take home. What is more, supplemental reading by children is even more effective, when parents participate, by storytelling and reading to children and asking children questions about the pictures and words in their books. In order to get parents involved, parental training is typically needed; providing books without support is not enough.

Library Social Enterprises

Privately-owned libraries operated as “small business” social enterprises can help to address these book shortages. Similarly to how local entrepreneurs have offered tutoring services and opened low cost private schools for families who can afford them, local entrepreneurs can use microloans to buy a small inventory of books, and rent them out at very low fees to families in their community. A broad range of lower-income families can use and benefit from these low-fee-based library services. Families, who cannot afford to pay US$2-5+ per month for a private school or tutoring, may be able to pay the equivalent of 5-50 cents or more monthly to rent books, in order for their children to practice reading, writing and math, and to improve literacy and numeracy, beyond what their local public school can accomplish.

Edunuity Literacy Entrepreneurs - Library and Literacy Social Enterprises

This model even reaches extremely poor families. As books age, they can be rented out for lower and lower fees to increasingly lower income families, while new books are acquired for families with larger budgets. Library owners can also be encouraged to offer book rental “scholarships” to the poorest families, in some cases loaning them books at no charge. This strengthens their reputation as a community benefactor, while broadening interest in literacy and developing a larger future “reading market” in the local community. In addition, the government or NGOs can prioritize scarce funds by providing book rental subsidies for the poorest families with the least disposable income.

The library social enterprise owner benefits financially by promoting reading, and involving parents in reading with their children. The “library-preneur” explains the benefits of at-home reading to parents, and trains parents in how to read with children, how to encourage their children to read, how to tell them stories, and how to ensure that their children are learning at school and at home. The library-preneur also benefits by working closely with local public school administrators and teachers to build a culture of reading in the community, and the school benefits as well through children’s book availability and improved literacy levels. Literacy building initiatives which have proven successful worldwide, such as reading buddy and reading camp programs, can also be established and sustained. Save the Children has researched and documented many of these practices in its publication, Community Strategies for Promoting Literacy. The enlightened self-interest of the library-and-literacy social entrepreneur boosts literacy and numeracy for all. And these services supplement and reinforce public schools instead of replacing them.

Sustaining Literacy Interventions and Building a Long-term
Community Literacy Resource

Many literacy organizations are frustrated by the lack of resources for long-term follow-through on their initial literacy interventions. At a certain point, NGOs must leave or reduce resources devoted to a particular region, or else ignore the vast number of other areas in desperate need of literacy development. This social enterprise model allows NGOs to reduce their dependence on local volunteers and donations and grants from developed countries, by developing self-funding local partners, the library-and-literacy entrepreneurs. This model allows nonprofits to sustain the impact of their literacy programs, when they are no longer able to fund local interventions. Indeed, literacy-oriented nonprofits can expand their impact many times beyond what they could do with current approaches and their existing revenue sources. For example, community strategies for promoting literacy which Literacy Boost has found effective, such as reading buddies, reading camps, and local community mini-libraries, can be continued by self-funding library-and-literacy entrepreneurs. In addition, should they wish to, NGOs may target their funds more effectively, by providing literacy-related subsidies for the most needy, as a more cost-effective approach than providing free services for all regardless of income.

In addition to sustainably providing reading materials in local languages, the existence of a local library service creates an additional educational resource in that community for improving literacy. The library social enterprise becomes a potential base for the central organizer, or other NGOs or government agencies, to sustain current literacy programs and to launch additional literacy and learning services to the community. Literacy NGOs finally have a skilled, self-funded local resource to sustain their impact and even introduce additional services.

A Natural Fit with Existing “Education Entrepreneurs”

In some case, “mini-libraries” may be offered by the same entrepreneurs who are currently operating tutoring services and/or affordable private schools (APS). As education entrepreneurs, they may see an opportunity to add lower cost education-related services to serve lower-income families in their communities, who cannot afford tutoring or “affordable” private schools. Also, in some cases, families may be able to afford tutoring or APS for one child but not for all of their children.

In addition, these education entrepreneurs may be able to earn more revenues from their affordable private school families by building a larger, quality library book inventory. This in turn builds a larger inventory for lower income families, who can rent books for lower fees later in the books’ life cycles, as the books age. In addition, tutors and affordable private school owners are attuned to children’s educational needs and the literacy implications of grade and developmental levels, as well as to how to meet low-income family budgets. Adding very-low-fee book rental is a natural extension of their existing educational services.

In other words, by developing local library and related literacy support services, we are developing new or expanded learning services providers for communities. These local education entrepreneurs provide a supplement to local public schools, and an additional source of learning for families in their community, at a range of price points to meet a variety of needs at different income levels.

When There are No Existing Educational Providers Locally
Except the Government School

In some countries, in many areas there are few if any affordable private schools or even tutors. In these cases, the very-low-fee library model makes it easier for a literate adult or adolescent to start up a business, perhaps beginning on a part-time basis to generate a modest amount of additional income, by following a very simple formula. The library-preneur may start with a small number of books, perhaps purchased with a small microloan, and rent those books out locally. As the new library-and-literacy entrepreneur becomes more savvy about explaining the benefits of out-of-school reading to parents, and as children enjoy reading and their improved literacy level becomes apparent to the family, a local reading culture is created, and the library-preneur can expand his or her business through local word-of-mouth referrals.

Mobile Library & Literacy Services

What is more, the “library & literacy” entrepreneur can bring a print or electronic catalog of available books together with part of the library to families on foot, by cart or beast of burden, or by bicycle or motorcycle. One small library owner may use mobile services to serve multiple villages, a whole town, or various sections of a small city or a slum in a large urban area. Greater convenience increases the demand for books, and improves literacy even more.

Selecting and Safeguarding Book Assets

In addition, the library entrepreneur owns and takes responsibility for her/his book assets. NGOs do not need to find a local volunteer steward who is willing and able to loan out and get back books, keep them safe and in good condition, etc., and to do so for years at a time. And NGOs do not need to figure out which books are in demand, anticipate readers’ interests, purchase new books, monitor existing NGO-funded libraries, etc. Likewise, government schools—which are accountable for school books as government property—do not have to worry about what becomes of their typically scarce school library books, if any even exist, should the books leave the school grounds. Instead, it is in the library owner’s own self-interest to perform these functions, since the owner is “on the hook” him- or herself for the books.

Central Organizer Role

A literacy-oriented NGO or central library “franchising” organization can serve as the country- or province-level central organizer for library social enterprises in a given region.

The central organizer can train local library-and-literacy entrepreneurs to maximize their effectiveness and success. For example, they can train library-preneurs on how to match the right book with the right child. They can train library-preneurs how to encourage and train parents, who may only be partially literate themselves, in how to participate in the reading process with their children. The central organizer can train these education entrepreneurs in how to communicate to parents the value of reading at home and investing in renting reading materials. The country-level organizer may also provide a recommended list of quality local language books by reading level to the library entrepreneur, with pre-screened books which the central organizer knows that children enjoy and learn from.

The central organizer may also organize access by library-preneurs to one or more book wholesalers/distributors, and negotiate special discounts for library businesses to purchase books at well below retail prices. The central organizer may even go so far as to partner with microloan organizations to enable ready access to financing for library entrepreneurs.

The central organizer may even arrange the development of new, locally relevant books and other materials, in local languages, especially in countries where there are few or low quality children’s books. Indeed, library social enterprises and their central organizers significantly expand the market for children’s literature and learning materials. This helps to fund the development of a local publishing ecosystem, and creates a virtuous, mutually reinforcing upward cycle in literacy and publishing.

The central organizer can also gather information on best practices from library-preneurs in different areas, and spread information on best practices through training and communications activities. For example, the central organizer can show the library entrepreneur how to partner successfully with local public schools and other local community organizations to help develop a reading culture and to market and distribute books.

If the country organizer provides enough value, it may be able to brand the service regionally or nationally, and create a true “franchise” operation. The brand would create a quality seal of approval, which families could learn to trust. The local library-preneur would thus be an independent livelihood business, yet also a branded representative franchisee, delivering quality, branded book services according to agreed standards. (Note that franchising is an option for the central organizer, if it wishes to do so, but is not necessary.)

The country organizer would typically want to provide appropriate quality controls and auditing capabilities, in order to verify that key standards were being met. Cellphone texting by customers to the central organizer would provide one real-time user feedback mechanism. In addition, the country organizer could provide a traveling library developer, who could train the library-preneur as well as observing the library’s services in action locally for quality control and service improvement.

Over the long-term, this becomes a self-funding model for the central organizer, as well as for the library-preneur. The central organizer’s value-add provides a revenue-generating opportunity to the central organizer. For example, the book publishers/wholesalers could pay the central organizer part of the revenue for each book purchased by the library-preneur at the discounted price negotiated by the central organizer. This “commission” paid by publishers/wholesalers to the central organizer should be acceptable to library owners, as long as the total cost of books to the library-preneur is below what she or he could get elsewhere on her/his own.

Faith-based Organizations: Potential Roles

Faith-based organizations may wish to subsidize the development of faith-based reading materials in local languages, which can assist in literacy development. They may even wish to subsidize printing such materials, even providing some for free, to increase their usage by local families. Also, a very low fee library, possibly together with tutoring, affordable private schools, or other low-cost educational services would provide a valuable and particularly well-suited “tent-making” livelihood for outreach workers.

Health-oriented Organizations: Potential Roles

Health-oriented organizations may wish to partner in and possibly subsidize the development of health-oriented reading materials in local languages, which can synergistically assist in literacy development. They may even wish to subsidize printing such materials, even providing some for free, to increase their usage by local families. In certain circumstances, to supplement children’s books which also carry a health message, health-oriented NGOs may wish to get directly involved in the development of networks of library-preneurs. This could even include training them in some basic public health communications capabilities and messaging, which these social entrepreneurs could communicate to families, as they spend time with families training parents in literacy-building activities, working with children, and renting out books.

Creating a Global Libraries-and-Literacy for All Movement

Edunuity is working with NGOs, publishers, distributors, microfinance organizations, government officials and others to develop super-scalable, evidence-based and extremely effective, affordable for all, and sustainably self-funding social enterprise library-and-literacy models, which can help to fill gaping print poverty and literacy gaps worldwide. Please join us by contacting , or by signing up for Edunuity’s email list.

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