GHIC 2020: Global Health & Innovation Conference
April 4-5, 2020
Yale University, New Haven, CT

Unite For Sight's 2011 Global Health & Innovation Conference

Blog Report by Chung-Sang Tse, Unite For Sight Global Health Leadership Intern

"Libraries Across Africa - Empowerment Through Access," Idris Bello, MBA Student, Rice University

Social Enterprise Pitches are ideas in the brainstorming or early implementation stage. Selected participants presented their new idea in the format of a 5-minute social enterprise pitch. Following the pitch, there was a 5-minute period for questions and answers, as well as feedback from the audience. The presenters were directed to focus their presentations on the problem that they are working to solve, the evidence basis for their idea, the expected impact, as well as plans for measuring outcomes, and not just outputs.

With the advent of the internet, the World Wide Web has become a go-to source for basic information, whether through desktop home computers, libraries or cyber cafes. However, in Africa, only 10% of the population has access to the internet. How then can organizations in Africa ensure easy, minimal-cost access to a wide range of information?

If you read this post’s title, the answer is obvious: libraries. Indeed, Idris Bello, an MBA candidate from Rice University, makes an ambitious proposal to address this concern through the organization Libraries Across Africa (LAA). LAA aims to build hundreds of libraries to provide millions of Africans with “physical and digital customizable libraries”(1).  This stems from the belief that, to paraphrase Heather Hudson from the World Bank, access to information is critical to social and economic development. Idris illustrates this concept with the anecdotal story of a Malawian teenager who self-taught himself to build a windmill using scrap metal parts and the information from a library book. The story was covered by the BBC(2), CNN(3), and documented in the book “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”(4). Idris believes that this is an example of a sustainable solution where accessible information, resourcefulness, and determination can facilitate Africans to develop practical solutions for the problems facing their continent. 

In contrast, Idris noted the pitfalls of the seemingly unidirectional flow of aid from foreign NGOs. “Currently, a lot of stuff is donated [to Africa], so people have no sense of ownership,” Idris explained. “But with these libraries [developed by Libraries Across Africa], people share the operation and growth so people won’t steal.” To further encourage local collaboration and community development, there are three distinct structural components of the LAA libraries’ architecture: theAnchor, a large room that resembles a traditional library with bookshelves, tables, and chairs (for personal studies); theAgora, an open-space with corrugated metal roofing (for social meetings); and the eHUB, a modified-shipping container hallway with computers terminals and printers (for accessing external resources).

To make the libraries self-sustainable, there needs to be a stream of revenue to offset the operational costs. Seven sources of income have been identified, including charging for services such as low-cost internet access, on-demand e-book printing, and space renting for private events. Like cyber cafes, fee-for-access internet services can amass community contributions for a product in demand. E-book printing allows users to choose and print the materials that they want, much like an ATM for books. And renting out the Anchor, such as for a testing center, could promote social and economical development activities. For example, currently, there are only two testing centers in the entire country of Ghana (despite having a comparable land mass to the United Kingdom), and Idris has personally experienced the hassle of traveling long-distances in order to write a qualifying educational exam.   

There is still a financial barrier that needs to be surmounted before this project can begin on ground, however. Idris estimates that the total cost of construction and initial six months of operation would run at $30,000-$50,000.

Footnotes

(1) Libraries Across Africa. Accessed on 3 May 2011 from <http://www.librariesacrossafrica.org/about.html>

(2) BBC. “Malawi windmill boy finds big fans.” Accessed on 3 May 2011 from <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8257153.stm>

(3) CNN. “Malawian boy uses wind to power hope, electrify village.” Accessed on 3 May 2011 from <http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/africa/10/05/malawi.wind.boy/index.html>

(4) Kamwamba W & Mealer B. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. William Morrow (2009).