Mother Tongue Stories Now a Click Away

What are the chances that a Psychology graduate, a corporate lawyer and an NGO worker come together to create a virtual library? Though from diverse backgrounds, the heart of the founding team at NABU.ORG was aligned – democratizing access to literacy particularly for children from underserved backgrounds. The girl power behind the innovative publishing network realized the importance of education to combat some of the major development handicaps like poverty; youth unemployment and safety of women and girls. So how is the app NABU.ORG revolutionizing online learning by creating and distributing local language books? Let’s hear more from Isabel Sheinman, Co-Creator and Director of Strategy and Fundraising about the genesis of the social enterprise and how it is breaking down barriers for young readers.

How did you conceive the idea of a virtual library?

For years, my good friend and now Co-Creator Tanyella Evans worked as part of the relief effort in Haiti following the devastating earthquake. In the midst of this suffering and rubble, she was building the first free high school in Port Au Prince for 900 children. Shortly after, Tanyella met her friend Rebecca who was also living in Haiti. Rebecca was an avid reader and would bring her kindle back to the US to load it up with books. Suddenly an idea was born – why are we building brick and mortar schools, when even business is going virtual? Why not reach children everywhere, whether in the classroom, in their homes or in the playground? Why don’t we create a reading app that would make children’s books available on low – cost mobile phones already available in the community?

NABU.ORG team presents their social enterprise at an event in New York City. (Photo credit: Victor Garzon)

How did the all–women’s team come together to launch the social enterprise?

Tanyella came back to New York City to get the concept up on its feet, and that’s when I met her. I had just graduated from Georgetown University and I immediately recognized the potential of this idea. I had been working with Girls Learn International, an organization that delivers advocacy training to high school students in the US. I knew I wanted to work on a smart idea with scale and purpose and this was it! To our surprise, in a few short weeks, we raised $100,000 on Kickstarter – an American public-benefit corporation known for its global crowdfunding platform. That was our seed money and it just kept growing from there. We had schools from all over the world reaching out, saying that if we built this reading app, they wanted it.

Around this time, Taniya Benedict was in Australia making the decision to leave corporate law to study international development. During a placed internship, Taniya came to the US to work with our small team for a summer and three years later the three of us are heading the social enterprise. Our mission at NABU.ORG is to solve the imbalance in children’s book publishing and distribution.

What were the key stimuli that made you launch this in Rwanda and Haiti?

We chose to launch in Haiti and in Rwanda because of the unique opportunity each country presented to test our two different models: the school model, and the mobile model. The school model relies on having school partners engaged in our work who are using our reading app in their classrooms. Many of the schools in Haiti are privately run, giving us the opportunity to work with individual partners on a school by school basis. The mobile model relies on individuals downloading our reading app from the google play store. In order to test this model, we wanted to identify a country with very high smartphone penetration to ensure we could reach a wide audience.

Isabel Sheinman demonstrating the use of the reading app in Haiti in 2014. (Photo credit: Martiza Chateau)

In both cases, we were invited into the country by a distinguished partner.  In the case of Rwanda, we were invited in by the First Lady of Rwanda’s Foundation, the Imbuto Foundation, through our partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies. We have also run pilot programs in Congo, Mongolia and Cambodia.

What were some of the initial hurdles that you came across?

One hurdle is access to funding. To this date, we have been philanthropically funded through individuals and institutions. While we have been fortunate to find extremely loyal and committed funders, we do not want to rely solely on philanthropic funding and we are now developing earned revenue streams to complement our fundraising efforts.

A second hurdle is access to content. During our pilot phase, we quickly discovered that there is a severe lack of mother tongue language content available, primarily because publishing local language children’s books is currently not a viable business. To solve this, we are engaging local authors and illustrators to create original books and publish them through our reading app. Original, mother tongue story publishing is now one of the core components of our work.

How do you get new local language content to sustain the app?

40% of children globally are not taught in a language they speak or understand. Local language reading books at the early grades build children’s confidence in reading, and are essential to help them bridge the gap to literacy in English and other national languages. We create original children’s books by working directly with local authors and illustrators in-country. We provide training in children’s book writing and illustrating. We have trained over 70 authors and illustrators to date. We also license content from local publishers and publish it in our app.

NABU.ORG with a women’s collective in Rwanda, encouraging mothers to read stories with their children from the app. (Photo credit: NABU.ORG)

Is it smooth managing a pan-continent enterprise?

I’d say communication and the right hiring is absolutely key to our being able to run a global enterprise. Our team is always in touch over Slack (cloud-based collaboration tool) and email and we take every opportunity we can to travel and meet in person. We have found a great rhythm of communication, and can work together through any challenges that arise. We don’t think of ourselves as ‘headquarters’ vs ‘country offices’ but rather as one global operation moving forward together.

How has the reception been from your target audience? 

In the last 15 months alone, we have signed on over 16,000 new readers.  We are now the fastest growing reading app in Rwanda and a leading publishers of Haitian Kreyol content.

What is the level of social impact you are aiming for in the coming years? How do you plan to achieve it?

Every week we are contacted by partners and schools around the world asking when we will release our app in their country. The demand is huge!  We continue to refine our model in Haiti to reach children at home and in schools across the country. On the heels of our rapid expansion in Rwanda, we plan to scale into East and Central Africa. We aim to reach 25,000 readers in the coming year in Haiti and Rwanda where the app is currently available. Next, we will create a complete early-grade reading collection of Swahili children’s books that will allow us to scale to over 1 million Swahili-speakers by 2023.

If you are in Rwanda you can download the app for free from the Google Play Store.

A young Rwandan reader accesses NABU.ORG’s reading app through his school. (Photo credit: Tech Rwanda)

Isabel Sheinman is the Co-Creator and Director of Strategy and Fundraising at NABU.ORG. She brings powerful partnerships along with developing mission aligned earned revenue streams to support the global network. She also designed the fundraising strategy for the organization from the ground-up, cultivating a strong base of donors, Ambassadors and volunteers powering the organization’s work long into the future. Isabel has been recognized as a two-time scholarship recipient to the SOCAP conference and holds a degree in Philosophy and Psychology.

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