Identifying the ProblemThe United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO for short has just released a very interesting new study entitled Reading in the Mobile Age. In short, the 86 page document seeks to identify the relationship between literacy and mobile phones, identifying the fact that in many countries, books are less plentiful than mobile phones.
Reading is many things, but it always and must necessarily begin with access to text, and more aptly books. Yet in many parts of the world this access is either non-existent or sorely lacking. Many people from Lagos to La Paz to Lahore – whether experienced readers looking for a good story or new readers taking tentative first steps towards literacy – do not read for one reason: they don’t have books. In Africa a majority of children have never owned a book of their own, and it is not uncommon for ten to twenty students to share a single textbook in schoolAdditionally, the same people do not necessarily have access to the internet as well:
Only 40% of the world's population is online and in developing countries 16% fewer women than men use the internet. Geographic inequity is especially startling. Today in Africa, only 7% of households are connected to the internet, compared with 77% in Europe.As such, there is a serious literacy problem in Africa and seemingly a lot of improvement to be done. There are some organizations, such as Mark Zuckerberg's Internet.Org, that are seeking to improve internet access to the world as a whole. However, until that initiative becomes reality there is a surprising technology improving literacy in Africa right now.
The Unexpected Hero: The Mobile PhoneInterestingly, the mobile phone is the technology that is helping the situation right now.
While obile phones are still used primarily for basic communication, they are also - and increasingly - a gateway to long-form text. For a fraction of the cost of a physical book it is often possible to access the same book via a mobile device. And this capacity is not restricted to smartphones: today even the least expensive mobile handsets allow users to access and read books. Across developing countries, there is evidence of women and men, girls and boys, reading multiple books and stories on mobile phones that can be purchased for less than 30 US dollars. Mobile reading is not a future phenomenon but a right-here, right-now reality.Mobile phones also allow for an improved economic situation for these people, enabling them to communicate more efficiently, sometimes saving them hours of travel time. For example, if the farmer in the suburbs of Lagos wants to see what the current prices for his produce are in the city, he can simply make a call if he has a mobile phone as opposed to physically travelling into the city which might take hours to find out. All in all, the mobile phone and its accessibility presents a huge opportunity for many people. Even for manufacturers, this could be a huge money maker. I'm personally surprised that Apple or Samsung do not try making an ultra low-cost phone just to improve their visibility in poorer countries that do not have access to their products. What do you think about this? Does the mobile phone have even more potential than UNESCO might think? Will Apple make a low cost phone for these potential clients? Join the discussion here.