FunDza: an experiment in mobile books

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No one will argue that the basic literacy situation in South Africa is dire. With access to books being so low (only seven percent of South Africa’s schools have a functioning library), several people have proposed utilising the mobile phone — one device that is certainly not rare in South Africa — as a platform for accessing books.

This is an idea that’s been thrown around in South Africa since around 2007, and multiple projects have been started in the past few years experimenting in getting people, particularly kids, to read books on basic mobile phones. We caught up with one such organisation to see how they are faring.

FunDza Literacy Trust is a non-profit organisation that aims to get township youth reading by offering free, relevant content to them on their phones. The organisation grew out of a publishing house called Cover2Cover Books, which publishes (amongst other things) a series called Harmony High — think Sweet Valley High set in a South African township school. The Harmony High series, with its simple language and relevant plot-lines, is extremely popular amongst South African teens, but the organisation found that they were struggling to get enough books in front of readers.

The FunDza Trust now takes this content, as well as other specially-commissioned teen fiction, and serves it through a mobisite and Mxit portal. “We’re trying to build a library of stories,” says Mignon Hardie, FunDza Managing Trustee. “They’re serialised over a week, usually 600 word chapters, seven chapters a week. We try to hook them in and make it a habit to read a little every day, something they look forward to doing. We’re trying to show that you can create demand for reading: there’s already a demand for content, it’s just that people can’t access it.”

The Mxit portal has proven to be far and away the most popular platform, with more than 25 000 registered readers and at least 5 000 unique visits per day. Most stories are published in English, but FunDza has found that there is demand for isiZulu content too. 90% of their readers on Mxit are in the 15-25 age range. More than 50% of users are using basic feature phones.

Each story ends with a question sparking off comments and discussion. Hardie suggests that this interactive element makes readers much more invested in the story. Comments, which are mainly in SMS spk (which Mxit reports is the second most popular “language” on the social network overall), give clear insight into the community’s responses and help the editors to know upfront what content is going to work on the platform. Some comments testify to the deep emotional effect that the stories have had on readers, like this one on the true-life story Nobody Will Ever Kill Me:
“Mbu tnx bru yor story inspired m….i hv a bad lyf i even tot of commiting suicide bt i jjst read yor story nd i dnt thnk bwt t anymre tnx yor story had held me owt…u r a good guy,brave:) – T.Candy” (sic.)

Personal reactions like this are common because the authors are increasingly people who come from the FunDza community of readers. This is an aspect of the project that Hardie has found the most surprising and rewarding: how many of the readers want to become young writers themselves. FunDza now runs writing workshops and competitions to stimulate submissions, to very positive results.

“It really does build confidence,” says Hardie. “You see that you’ve been able to produce writing that people value. We have one writer, Vhuthu [Muavha] from Limpopo, who’s been writing a story called One Moment. He’s writing on his cellphone, 500 characters at a time, and he’s been getting complaints from readers because he’s writing too slowly! The cellphone may not be a perfect device for writing, but it’s allowing these kids to express themselves.”

There have been a number of mobile-book projects in South Africa over the past few years. These include:

  • Yoza — the Shuttleworth Foundation’s mobile reading project, which is very similar to FunDza, but features a different mix of content including some classics
  • MOBfest — an SMS and WAP-based content publishing system, which recently ran Novel Idea, a writing competition for high-profile published writers to create books for the mobile phone
  • ChristMobile — to date one of the only commercial platforms available in SA, users are able to buy Christian-related books (including the Bible) and download to their basic phones

Japan remains one of the few countries where the m-book (there called keitai shousetsu) has had mainstream success, with around 86% of all high school students reading them regularly. In the U.S., major romance publisher Harlequin is experimenting with the medium, offering their saucy bodice rippers in short daily chunks to faithful readers.

But for all the talk, m-books have not yet made it into the mainstream in South Africa, with most of these projects reaching user numbers in the thousands, not in the millions. Some of the major questions that remain about the medium include sustainability, profitability and usability. What is clear though, from FunDza’s experience, is that having the right content for the medium and the audience is key to growing a culture of reading. “We can see this project having an impact on our growing community of readers,” says Hardie, “we want to spread that as far as we can.”

Browse FunDza’s library at http://fundza.co.za/mobi/. The project is also looking for additional writers to contribute stories.

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