Written by Nazanine Scheuer, Save the Children
This post originally appeared on Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs
Fostering a Culture of Learning in Rwanda
How can you learn if you can’t get books in your own language? And how can that situation be remedied if 1) your nation has only three local publishers and 2) they’ve published just 12 children’s books in the language spoken by the vast majority of your country’s citizens?
That was the challenge faced by schoolchildren in Rwanda – until Save the Children stepped in to create a social enterprise partnership platform that engaged the private sector in local book publishing. By enabling the start-up and training of Rwanda-based publishers and linking them to key actors across the value chain, we strengthened the supply of locally created, quality reading materials, stimulated demand and helped local entrepreneurs build thriving businesses.
The result? By providing students with vastly improved access to books that are both culturally relevant and language-appropriate, the venture is making significant strides toward creating a culture of literacy and learning in Rwanda. We have helped local publishers produce over 1,000 stories, of which more than 600 were approved for use in schools by the Rwanda Education Board. At the same time, the project has built – and continues to build – a new industry that’s making significant contributions to the local economy.
Why Local Publishing?
As Save the Children enters our second century of creating innovative approaches to improving life for children, women and their families around the world, we are increasingly engaging in market-based, impact driven solutions to social and economic challenges. Investment in these initiatives has become a driver of our strategy to build and strengthen local market systems and underpin long-term, self-sustaining economic development.
In the case of Rwanda, it was widely recognized that a shortage of books in their mother tongue, Kinyarwanda, was preventing millions of girls and boys from building literacy skills and discovering the joy of reading. Furthermore, what was available was poorly written, edited, illustrated and designed and/or for the wrong age group. Not only did local publishers lack the skills, knowledge and experience to produce high quality children’s books, but, as a result of low demand for non-textbook materials, they lacked incentives to produce good quality reading materials.
An added hurdle to availability of appropriate books was the lack of access to or within schools, as well as a lack of the skills necessary for teachers to use the books effectively.
Traditional literacy initiatives addressed the gap in book availability by developing materials externally or facilitating the translation of foreign-sourced materials into Kinyarwanda. While that approach was somewhat effective in the short term, it did not offer a pathway to sustainable solutions. Equally important, it largely ignored the role local publishers could play in enhancing their communities’ economies by building and expanding profitable business ventures with long-term viability.
Creating an Economic Eco-System
In 2013, with an initial investment from public- and private-sector partners, we designed and implemented the Rwandan Children’s Book Initiative (RCBI). The goal was to foster a reading and learning environment to improve literacy. By developing a local publishing industry through a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach, we were able to strengthen all aspects of the book value chain, from developers to end users. We created a thriving new industry in Rwanda and also achieved our objective of improving literacy outcomes and creating a culture of reading among children. In 2016, we received an additional investment that enabled us to further expand the model, building on the eco-system already created.
We focused our model on five key activities central to success:
o Provide quality, relevant training and ongoing mentoring to the publishing industry and its constituents;
o Work in partnership with private sector, book-publishing actors to tap into resources and expertise (i.e. a partnership with Penguin Random House.)
o Support the establishment of communities of practice for each segment of the industry;
o Invest in initiatives that established a market for the newly developed, local-language books.
o Maintain a book-review committee to provide feedback to publishers, assess quality and inform procurements;
o Establish incentive-driven agreements to encourage publishers with low capital to invest in quality materials;
o Facilitate an understanding of quality criteria to allow negotiation of better prices/more affordability;
o Formulate quality-assurance guidelines;
o Create a book purchasing consortium comprised of different projects/programs/organizations.
o Invest in advocacy and policy formulation work to create a conducive book-publishing environment;
o Engage relevant decision makers and build evidence to support the importance of a local publishing industry;
o Build coalitions around the importance of involving the private sector to develop and maintain quality materials, educational opportunities and a knowledge based society;
o Raise awareness through meetings, conferences, campaigns and media.
Through this model, we demonstrated the value of a “whole chain” approach that connects publishers with government agencies, the private sector and local communities. In doing so, we increased collaboration between these actors to establish a self-sustaining industry that draws on the local mix of skills and expertise.
Thanks to RCBI, the quality, quantity and range of local-language children’s books published and distributed in Rwanda has grown significantly. In fact, there are now more than 1,000 books for children from 0 to 9 years of age available from publishers that received our support. An added bonus of the project is that girls are increasingly likely to be the protagonists in these stories and are more often portrayed in positive roles. By 2019, almost a third of the children’s books featured girls as main characters.
As for the impact on local economies, most of the participating publishing houses have grown, often from just one person to an entire staff. Notably, a third of the active publishers are women! With a stronger capital base, these publishers are able to compete for contracts and access markets that were previously unavailable to them. Additionally, the publishers are diversifying their activities beyond Kinyarwanda children’s books and even beyond the boundaries of Rwanda. Some have begun co-publishing textbooks in foreign countries, while others have sold rights for publishing their books in additional languages or sold rights overseas.
This is important because generating income allows them to invest in the production of more books and other learning materials. For example, many publishers are investing in digital educational materials such as animations, alphabet apps and audio books and are building online e-bookstores. They’re also forming partnerships with local schools, writing books for older readers and offering books on important topics that align with national development priorities.
In all, we’ve counted more than 250 new actors contributing to the industry, whether as authors, illustrators/artists, editors, designers, booksellers or administrators, underscoring the thriving industry created by the project.
“There were no trainings for publishers and no local publishing schools. I had an interest in this field because I am a writer, and I worked in a printing company. When I started my company, I wanted to create products children would enjoy, but didn’t know which way to go to achieve that goal…. So Save the Children helped me bring my vision to life.”
– A Rwandan publisher trained by Save the Children
The bottom line is that the RCBI project has exceeded its goals, helping children learn while also building a flourishing children’s book publishing industry in a nation that previously had no such aspiration. In our next phase, we plan to increase distribution across the country including in remote communities, amplify women’s empowerment and further improve literacy outcomes. Concrete examples include: establishing micro-libraries; starting women’s authorship groups; developing innovative, income-generating activities to increase book sales and incentivize reading.
Thanks to the support of our committed partners in the U.S. and Rwanda, this project has effectively changed the lives of children, women and entire communities. To learn more or get involved, please contact Nazanine Scheuer at firstname.lastname@example.org. And do stay tuned for the next chapter!