Author: Ephraim Mhlanga, June 29 2015 - How do we deliver digital stories in contexts where there are power and connectivity issues?

The ASP [African Storybook Project] was conceptualised on the premise that shortage of reading materials in familiar language is one of the major factors constraining early literacy development in Africa. This shortage can partly be attributed to limited publishing of materials in the right languages and at the right levels. Thus, the ASP is exploring alternatives to conventional publishing and conventional copyright in order to remedy the problem of shortage of appropriate books for children. Since rural children are the worst affected, the ASP included pilot sites that are typically rural with no grid power and no Internet facilities. Thus, right from the beginning, the question of how interested users in these disadvantaged pilot sites can access, use and contribute more stories on the website kept on arising.

Cognisant of the above-mentioned constraints, the ASP has tested several options in order to overcome the challenges posed by the absence of grid power. These include providing portable solar power packs that charge phones and other mobile devices. The project also uses portable projectors that work with batteries or off a laptop so that stories can be digitally projected in rooms that do not have electricity. There are challenges with these solutions. Firstly, portable solar power packs take a very long time to charge if the device is larger than a cell phone. Also, they require a lot of sunlight which not all places in Africa have. It is probably better to invest the larger amount and get fixed solar panels, as we have done in our pilot site in Lesotho. The project shared the cost with us so that it was affordable. Secondly portable projectors require the room to be very dark in order for the image to be seen clearly. In some places, such as in Turkana (Kenya), it is impossible to darken a classroom adequately – the desert light is simply too bright. Fortunately our site in Turkana had fixed solar panels, so a regular projector which requires an electricity connection to function works well there.

With regard to the challenge of lack of Internet connectivity, the project is testing modems from a variety of cell phone providers in the pilot sites in order to find out which ones provide more stable internet. In addition to this, users do not have to be online in order to read the stories. They can download stories onto their own device to read or print. The project is also creating a separate site for users of mobile devices, which will be a stripped down version of the existing site, so that users with low bandwidth will be able to read stories more easily.

Our main lesson of experience in relation to this experience is that one solution will not fit all sites. But we do need to give the people themselves agency in order to experiment. They are not merely recipients of the solution, but participants in experimenting and adjusting the solution for their own particular needs.

From the regular pilot site reports as well as the mid-term evaluation that was conducted in March 2015, we conclude that although rural sites face challenges relating to power and internet connectivity, the project has made a difference in terms of both creating awareness for teaching early reading and providing stories in local languages for children to read. The enthusiasm created amongst teachers, communities and other partners to create their own stories for children to read is significant social capital that should never be underestimated.

Your experiences and opinions on the above are welcome.

Click here to access the original blog on the African Storybook Research Network blog page. Image credit: copywrite -Mango Tree