10 years of getting South Africans reading

13 December 2021 - 12:40 By FUNDZA LITERACY TRUST
Every day about 15,000 people spend time reading original stories, blogs and poems on the FunDza platform, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
Every day about 15,000 people spend time reading original stories, blogs and poems on the FunDza platform, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
Image: Supplied/FunDza

Ten years ago the FunDza Literacy Trust was founded to get young South Africans reading and thereby improve the functional literacy levels of the youth in the country. 

Today the innovative non-profit reaches 300,000 users monthly through its tech-driven programmes, and has garnered a number of international and local awards, including the prestigious Unesco Confucius Prize for Literacy in 2017. In September it was selected a US Library of Congress Literacy Awards Best Practice honoree. This year it was also awarded the Literacy Association of SA’s Significant Contribution to Literacy Award.

At the time of its founding, the need for civil society engagement in addressing literacy gaps was glaringly obvious. The 2007 National Reading Survey had found nearly 50% of South Africans did not own any leisure books, and books were perceived as expensive. A quarter of respondents never read in their spare time. Those who did read mainly accessed books through public libraries. In 2011, Equal Education found that in schools, pupils had little or no access to leisure books, with only 8% of public schools having functional libraries, and these being almost entirely former model C schools.

Initially FunDza focused on developing quality, relevant and original material to make reading appealing to young South Africans.

Dorothy Dyer, one of FunDza’s founding members, said: “In SA, there was little exciting or accessible material available to teens in which they could recognise themselves and their worlds.”

It then distributed exciting and locally-created books to reading groups at schools and other organisations countrywide. It also launched a mobile-friendly site — the fundza.mobi platform — where it could publish more content for teen and young adult readers. This online programme, being far easier to scale, grew exponentially and soon had hundreds of regular readers visiting it daily.

The importance of being able to recognise yourself in a text is vital and has remained one of FunDza’s primary goals. More globally, this need is becoming increasingly recognised as recent campaigns, such as the #WeNeedDiverseBooks, highlight.

Ros Haden, content manager at FunDza, echoed the importance of this: “Seeing yourself in a story makes you realise reading can relate to you, and that your world is valid — it’s worth a book.”

Realising its young readers wanted to express themselves too, FunDza’s work expanded to include writing. Users could write and submit their own pieces for potential publication on FunDza’s online platform.

FunDza’s readers are generally from under-resourced communities and backgrounds. According to the data from 2020/1 annual surveys of FunDza readers and writers, 83.1% of FunDza readers have fewer than 10 books in the home. FunDza remains the only organisation focusing on producing content for teen and young adult literacy, thus plugging an important gap. FunDza’s primary users are individuals who read FunDza on their own devices, in their own time and for their own pleasure.

Its innovative use of technology is key to is accessibility and wide reach. According to the World Bank, in 2011 there were 123 phones per 100 people in SA. By 2021, that number had risen to 161 phones per 100 people.

Developments in the technological space have led to “pathways to literacy for marginalised groups, particularly women and girls, and others who may not have access to paper books”, according to Unesco. Research has found that on FunDza’s mobi site, girls exhibit more reading behaviour than boys.

For literacy experts like Dr Xolisa Guzula, lecturer at the University of Cape Town, this is an exciting arena. Access to the internet is allowing spaces to be created in which South Africans are creating and interacting with literacy in a different way.

Catherine Langsford, national chairperson of the Literacy Association of SA, said young people are reading and writing “far more than they ever have before because of access to cellphones” which has led to a “matur[ing] in our understanding of what cellphones can do and what role they play in terms of literacy”.

Prohibitively expensive data costs in SA have prevented many people from accessing literacy through their cellphones. However, the relatively recent introduction of zero-rated (data-free) apps and sites such as the FunDza mobi site have increased access.

From its inception, FunDza has made low data a priority, both for cost reasons and for phone capacity. FunDza readers generally do not have the latest smartphone. FunDza has been fortunate to have had partners such as Mxit, and later FreeBasics and Moya Messenger, that enable readers to access FunDza for free. Usage increases dramatically when readers do not have to pay for data, and this remains a vital part of the non-profit's success.

FunDza originally also distributed print books too, and experimented with cheap pocket booklets. But it has recently decided to work solely online due to the costs of book production. FunDza gave its books to Biblionef to distribute, an organisation whose core function is book donation, and it concentrates on commissioning, creating and publishing content for its online fundza.mobi platform.

Over the past 10 years of FunDza’s existence there has been a growing recognition of the importance of literacy and reading for enjoyment, and there is a strong call for more local exciting materials that engage young people. Importantly, more individuals, organisations and groups are getting involved.

Mignon Hardie, founding director of FunDza, said: “I’m proud of the work FunDza has done over the past 10 years. From our reader feedback we can see we are inspiring reading in homes, in taxis and at school. We can see young people are learning about themselves and the world around them. We can see our stories are encouraging young people to pick up the pen and become writers too. It is heartening to know we are not alone in this quest. Thank you to all who are playing a part in helping to shift our literacy landscape.”

To find out more about FunDza and the impact it is having in the literacy space, read its recently launched “10 Years of Impact” report here.

  • Article supplied by FunDza Literacy Trust

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