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Mobile phones, though still underutilized as a literacy tool, are contributing to an increase in reading in Africa

April 27, 2014  »  Education & Mobile4 Comments

One reason many in Africa are turning to mobiles for reading is the ubiquity of mobile phones; nearly everyone who is literate has access to one. Moreover, mobile data is more affordable than ever. Printed books are often scarce, especially in schools and less urban areas. Of course, a lack of literacy prevents many from reading books on their mobile devices.

Millions of people do not read for one reason: they do not have access to text. But today mobile phones and cellular networks are transforming a scarce resource into an abundant one.” – UNESCO

A new study of thousands of mobile readers in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe (plus India and Pakistan) finds that mobile phones, though still underutilized as a digital literacy tool, are contributing to an increase in reading. In fact, upwards of one-third of respondents in these countries read to children from their mobile phones. Nearly all affirmed they would read more on their mobile devices in the coming year. The authors of the study (UNESCO and Worldreader) are keen to point out that mobile reading is happening now and can drastically improve people’s lives. Looking ahead, Worldreader asks governments and partners to support organizations that provide mobile content to help provide learning and help improve literacy skills.



An excellent recap of the UNESCO/Worldreader/Nokia study was penned by Alison Flood of The Guardian.

  • Access to text, generally a key challenge to literacy, is close at hand if mobile owners realize the potential for their phone as a reader
  • Reading on a mobile is deemed more convenient and more affordable than a traditional book (a paperback book that costs $12 in Nigeria could be read on a mobile for only the cost of a few megabytes of mobile data)
  • Between April and June 2013, romance, religion, and biology remained popular categories on Worldreader
  • 77% of mobile readers in the seven developing nations in the study were male though women spent six times as much time reading (207 minutes per month vs. 33 minutes)
  • A lack of mobile content prevents many from reading more, especially to their children

Looking through the pages of the study, we also find a few interesting points on reading in Africa. In many cases, the short term solution to providing greater access to reading is mobile phones. The authors are clear to state that books (print or digital) will not solve the issue of illiteracy; they are one tool that can help enhance literary skills. It’s also worth pointing out that the survey studied interaction with a cloud-based platform and not with digital book content that is downloaded and accessed offline.

  • In Nigeria, there is 1 library for every 1,350,000 people, the nation meets less than 1 percent of its book needs, and the illiteracy rate is over 40%
  • Even with mobile access, “how do we making reading material available to a girl from poor family in the northeast of Ethiopia where over 50 per cent of her female peers will never go to school?”
  • One does not need a smartphone to read a book on a mobile phone
  • Younger people are more likely to read on a mobile device than older people (older people may not know how to turn their phone into a reader)
  • Governments should consider that digital libraries and mobile reading initiatives are more impactful than traditional libraries
  • Illiteracy rates range from 8% in Zimbabwe to 60% in Ethiopia though illiteracy rates were lower (1% in Zimbabwe and 43% in Ethiopia)
  • Male readers outnumber females by 3-to-1 but among the top 1,000 active readers, 72% are female
  • The majority of mobile readers in every country are between the ages 16 and 24 (very few were over 35 years of age)
  • Mobile readers are better educated than the general population but the most active mobile readers have not yet completed a higher education degree
  • 67% of respondents cite convenience as the main reason they reading on a mobile phone
  • The same share enjoy reading even more now that they can do so on their mobile phone
  • 33% read books aloud to young children from a mobile and another third would if they had more children’s books on their mobile
  • English was the language of choice by most though many clicked on a ‘My Language’ icon
  • Half of users said connectivity problems prevent them from easily accessing mobile books
  • Airtime costs were less of a concern since the longest book only requires 500kb of data transfer (at a cost of a few cents, on average)
  • Factors influencing intentions to read on mobile phones include: positive attitude, confidence using app, learning about benefits, expectation of benefits


  • Cater programs to address target groups who would benefit from increased engagement with mobile reading (women/girls, children, older people, beginning readers, men/boys)
  • Diversity mobile reading content to appeal to the target groups
  • Create opportunities for potential users to learn about the benefits of mobile reading
  • Lower technology barriers to mobile reading
  • Consider further studies (ie. longitudinal study) and evaluations beyond the mobile phone owner/user

Note: Data was gathered using a survey delivered through the Worldreader Mobile application and by tracking usage on Worldreader Mobile servers. The application was launched in 2012 by Worldreader, a non-profit organization that seeks to eradicate illiteracy by delivering a large, culturally relevant library to people in low-income countries both digitally and inexpensively.