m4Lit (Mobile Phones for Literacy) uses mobile phones to support reading and writing amongst teens and young adults in Africa. The project, incubated by the Shuttleworth Foundation, has these two factors as its point of departure: the book-poor and mobile phone-rich context of most African countries, and the need to increase reading and writing (and thereby improve language and literacy skills).
The flagship initiative of m4Lit is the Yoza m-novel library, a collection of mobile novels (m-novels) and classic books, that provide a funky space for youth to read engaging stories as well as leave comments, write story reviews and enter writing competitions all via their mobile phones or web browser. Yoza is available at www.yoza.mobi (via any phone or PC browser) as well as on the popular mobile instant messaging platform, MXit.
m4Lit began in South Africa and the Yoza stories are set in this country, but Yoza is available across the continent via the mobisite and available on MXit in South Africa and Kenya. The overall goal is to promote the project across the continent with local content in particular countries. Ideally the project is taken up in developing countries outside of Africa as well.
The pilot phase of m4Lit was from August 2009 to January 2010 extensive research was conducted during this phase of the project with reports available at http://m4lit.wordpress.com/reports. Since then we have been in full implementation phase culminating in the launch of Yoza in August 2010.
For the foreseeable future the mobile phone, not the Kindle or iPad, is the e-reader of Africa. m4Lit aims to capitalise on that to get Africa's youth reading and writing.
VISION The vision of m4Lit is an Africa whose youth fully utilise the potential of mobile phones to support their reading and writing of fictional and social messaging content.
GOALS To realise the project vision, we will grow the library of stories in multiple genres in many languages and create a community of readers. The following goals for m4Lit underpin this broad approach:
1) To get young people reading and writing. Uptake of the stories has already been very impressive with tens of thousands of readers and thousands of comments. Teens like the concept of being able to read on their phones, as illustrated by this reader comment: "Awsum :) Im realy nt much of a reader but reading of my phone jst seems alot easier.and co0ler! :)"
2) To provide a platform for publication of local content in local languages. Currently Yoza stories are in English, isiXhosa and, as of 1 October, Afrikaans. Plans are afoot to translate content into French for Francophone West Africa, and the project has an open call for content to be translated into more local languages for publication on Yoza.
3) To grow into Africa, and beyond. Initial focus was on South Africa and now Kenya, but interest has been expressed by parties wanting to publish in Nigeria and Ghana, as well as Francophone West Africa. Expansion into Africa will most likely happen in those countries first.
4) To be "open" and therefor as widely accessible as possible. Part of Yoza's success will be measured on the number of teens that read, enjoy and share its stories. The more, the better. For this reason stories are published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike licence. This means that anyone can freely copy, distribute, display and remix the content, as long as they credit the original and subsequent authors. The Praekelt Foundation was commissioned to develop the software platform that drives Yoza, and this too will be released as open-source software.
5) To reach sustainability.
There is a growing awareness around the severe impact that a lack of books has on literacy levels in Africa. Books are scarce and prohibitively expensive for most Africans. For example, research from South Africa in 2006 showed that 51% of households in South Africa did not own a single leisure book, while an elite 6% of households owned 40 books or more. Only 7% of schools there have functioning libraries.
A symptom of this lack of books at home, schools and libraries is a lack of a "culture of reading". Another symptom is the low literacy levels at schools and beyond which plague so many African countries. Children, teens and young adults are simply not reading and writing enough.
While books are scarce, what many of Africa's teens do have are mobile phones, with statistics in South Africa indicating that 90% of urban youth have access to mobile phones and around 70% of those phones are internet-enabled (GPRS-enabled). While the mobile data landscape is highly uneven across Africa, e.g. South Africa has much greater mobile data infrastructure and uptake than Mozambique, most countries across the continent are increasingly improving their mobile data offerings, and those that already have significant uptake are only further entrenching that as competition drives down prices. In this book-poor but mobile phone-rich context, the phone is a viable complement and, often times, alternative to a printed book.
Mobile phones provide a distribution platform for content and allow immediate feedback from readers. The latter point speaks to the media-enabled participatory culture that is not only a developed world phenomenon (YouTube, Second Live and Facebook), but also very much an African one too. While teens and young adults in Africa are not as broadband and web-enabled as their Northern counterparts, mobile texting and mobile instant messaging is prolific there. MXit claims that 250 million messages (as part of chat conversations) are exchanged every day amongst it's 18 million South African subscribers. In 2009, Africa was the world's fastest growing market for mobile phones. The continent is truly experiencing a communication revolution through mobile phones.
One of the inspirations for m4Lit was the m-novel phenomenon in Japan. Teens there have been reading and writing novels on their mobile phones since the early 2000s. The popularity of the m-novel has been steadily growing: in 2007 five out of the top ten fiction best sellers were first written as m-novels that were later been printed in book form. Through m4Lit, we sought out to see if m-novels only appealed to highly literate, developed country teens. We are pleased to say that no, they are also something that can be popular in Africa.
There are three main target groups.
TEENS, aged 14-18, ideally from less resourced environments: This is the age where teens are young enough to benefit much from educational interventions but old enough to have access to mobile phones. Even teens from low socio-economic environments have access to mobile phones. Yoza stories are specifically pitched at this age group and marketing of Yoza is also aimed at this group.
YOUNG ADULTS, aged 19-25: While Yoza stories were originally aimed at the teen group, there has been a significant uptake amongst the young adult group too. At current count the single biggest group of Yoza users are aged 19-25. This could be because reading levels and age do not correlate in African countries as they do in developed countries, e.g. a 20 year old Kenyan might have the same reading ability as a 15 year old Singaporean.
PUBLISHERS/NGOs/EDUCATIONALISTS: Those wanting to publish content to increase reading and writing, or to publish social messaging content, can use the Yoza platform to do so. The content management system that Yoza uses, DJango-mxchat, will be open-sourced later in 2010. The m4Lit project stakeholders are continuously raising awareness of this publishing opportunity and interest for use has been expressed by publishers, issue specific NGOs, e.g. those promoting financial literacy, and teachers.
In the first seven months of the m4Lit project, two stories were published. In that time the stories were read over 34000 times on mobile phones! Over 4000 entries were received in the writing competitions and over 4000 comments were left by readers on individual chapters. Many of the readers asked for more stories and in different genres. Encouraged by the high uptake of the stories and by these reader requests, m4Lit launched a more comprehensive collection of m-novels called Yoza. Initial uptake of Yoza was equally impressive: in the first three weeks there were 57688 unique visitors who left 7766 comments. One of the Yoza stories has also been published on Vodafone Live in South Africa, in an HIV/AIDS portal called Young Africa Live accessible only via mobile phone. On average 10,000 unique visitors have read the story and have left 750 comments per day.
From project inception, August 2009, to February 2011, the project is being incubated by the Shuttleworth Foundation.
MXit, the popular mobile instant messaging platform, provides free hosting for Yoza within its system, and the Praekelt Foundation provides free hosting of the mobisite both because they want to support an innovative educational initiative.
m4Lit has attracted significant media interest in South Africa (print, radio and on the web). Internationally it has been featured on the BBC twice (see http://m4lit.wordpress.com/?s=bbc).
In 2009 m4Lit won a Bronze “Pixel” in the prestigious Bookmarks Awards in South Africa, the only medal in the Mobile Publishing category.
Steve Vosloo, project leader of m4Lit, has presented the project and its findings at many events, including: mLearn (USA), TEDx Soweto (South Africa), eLearning Africa (Zambia), Mobile Web East Africa (Kenya), Infodev (World Bank) Annual Symposium (USA) and Tech4Africa (South Africa).