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Stimulating a Culture of Literacy by Creating Commercial Libraries

Children’s minds develop faster when their parents read to them. However, in predominantly rural African countries like Uganda, this does not happen, not from a lack of desire, but rather from a lack of content. Stimulating the local publishing industry will have a positive effect on early childhood development by providing adults with access to books they can read to their children.

Photo of Jeff Benson
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Children’s minds develop faster when their parents read to them. However, in predominantly rural African countries like Uganda, this does not happen, not from a lack of desire, but rather from a lack of content. 

I don’t mean that in the same way as a person who flips through hundreds of satellite television channels and then says, “Nothing’s on.” This is more like network television…in the 1950s…after midnight. There’s literally nothing on. 

There is not a reading culture in Uganda. Libraries are all but non-existent, and the handful of bookstores in the country are found in the capital, Kampala, where they cater to upper-middle class clients. In most parts of the country, you couldn’t find a book even if you had the money to pay for it. Yet judging from the circulation of newspapers, people do have the money to pay for it.

For either adult or child literacy campaigns to work in Uganda, they must stimulate a local publishing industry. Therefore, I propose the development of a commercial library—so-called because it makes some profit, although at lower margins than a bookstore.

Where will the books come from?

Although there are many non-Ugandan works of art to choose from, there are few that fit the Ugandan context. Emerging readers want to read something that seems as though it has been written just for them—not something written for amateur forensic scientists in the US. Therefore, the library staff will employ a small team of local authors and illustrators, each of whom could receive a week-long training in story techniques. These artists would receive a percentage of book sales.

The initial library catalog will be small, perhaps in the range of 20-50 short books. Multiple copies of each book will be available.

The books will be reproduced in the library using a non-commercial printer. To help pay for the library space, community members can also use the printer for a fee, like at other print shops, which are common in Uganda.

What will the books look like?

The books will be simple and short, from 1000 to 5000 words, the length of a long magazine article. The page size will be A5 (half the size of a standard piece of paper) with a cover of construction paper and stapled pages. To add value to the product, many will have illustrations.

The simple design of the books will keep the price low while making them easy to reproduce on non-commercial printers.

How will people borrow a book?

There are two ways:

Go to the library and check out a book. Renting a book will cost a small fee (the equivalent of less than a dollar). They will also have to put a deposit down in case the book is not returned. During the week, lenders are encouraged to split the costs with other families by sharing the book.

Library staff will have a distribution route of villages they will visit each week, taking along a selection of books from the library. People will be able to borrow the books on the same terms as at the library. The library staff return the following week to collect the checked-out books and loan out new books.

Why do people have to pay?
Charging for a service makes the service sustainable. It also provides opportunities for creative artists and entrepreneurs (see below).

How will the library contribute to a culture of literacy?

To grow its catalog, the library will take submissions from community members. Entrepreneurs can write their own books (and maybe even get guidance from library staff) and pay for their book to be printed. If and when their book is checked out, they will receive a portion of the sales. The library, then, acts as sort of publishing house.

Okay. But how does this improve the lives of 0-5 year olds?

There are multiple possibilities:

  • Book reading events for children at the library or on library staff routes
  • A heavy focus on child-appropriate books in the catalog
  • Illustrations in the books to make them appeal to young audiences
  • Each rented book can come with a free storybook to read to a child

Who will benefit from this idea and where are they located?

This idea will benefit rural Ugandans without access to quality reading material.

How could you test this idea in a quick and low-cost way right now?

The company I work for, Mango Tree Uganda, already has a small catalog of original books it has developed. We would: 1. Print 20 copies each of 5 different books. We would print to paper specifications that are low-cost. 2. Host a community reading event for families with young children. This would take place at our office in Lira, an upcountry location. 3. Rent out the books.

What kind of help would you need to make your idea real?

I am asking for feedback, especially from people who have experience in small book publishing in Africa.

Is this an idea that you or your organization would like to take forward?

  • Yes. I am ready and interested in testing this idea and making it real in my community.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Shauna Carey

Hi Jeff,

Having worked in Book Publishing before, I love this idea! One question I have is whether or not you see adult literacy rates as a barrier. Are the books Mango Tree has published being read by low-income adults in Uganda already? How might you test to ensure the content will be accessible to the average education level?


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