It’s hard to instil the culture of reading if children can’t afford books, especially those in rural areas. With parents hustling to put food on the table and cater for tuition and other needs, books could be the least of their concerns on the shopping list. Imagine a child deep in a village whose only wish is to get a meal a day; spending about Rwf 3,000 on a book is a luxury they can’t afford. The question is, what can be done to ensure all children in Rwanda access reading materials, not only in English but Kinyarwanda, at no cost? Some organisations have stepped up to bridge the gap, like NABU, a tech-enabled publisher of multilingual children’s books, and curb illiteracy so that every child can read and rise to their full potential. ALSO READ: Why reading with children is essential According to the World Bank, globally, 250 million school-aged children cannot read. The World Bank and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have tracked and found that six million children turn 10 each month without acquiring the basic literacy skills for their age. It’s due to this that NABU has cultivated a culture of reading and availing content that children can be able to access. Philippe Nkwakuzi, the country manager of NABU Rwanda, states that through using technology, they are working hand-in-hand with organisations and individuals from the grassroots to make the content free to children. “We have invented the NABU application which is an e-library that contains diverse books on shelves and a child can tap any of their choice, download as many as possible, and read later without the internet. A child is not limited because they can download even more than 200 books at a time yet be able to share the books with their friends who don’t have the application,” he emphasises. Nkwakuzi highlights that the app is available on android and IOS operating systems in the app or play store, and recommends signing in using a Google account. He explains that the books downloaded don’t affect one’s storage, they are stored in the application so there is no need of deleting one’s favourite videos to avail space for them. Nkwakuzi says the books are categorised into levels from one to four, serving children to age 12, with different topics covered. “We are working with community libraries, government institutions, and individuals who advocate for literacy. We have engaged a number of schools as it’s a fast way to reach many children,” he states. ALSO READ: How pre-school reading programme is improving reading culture For parents or children who can’t access the internet or phones, there are community libraries that can be helpful, and some of these are; Masoro Learning Center (Rulindo), Agati Library (Musanze), Rwinkwavu Community Library (Kayonza), Nasho Community Library (Kirehe), Huye Community Library (Huye), Kabaya Community Library (Ngororero), Karangazi Community Library (Nyagatare), and others. NABU expects children to read at least 15 minutes a day, noting that this allows a child to read at least two books per week. At this speed, they will be able to read 120 books a year. This is why they invest in more books so children have a variety to pick from. Unlike children’s hard copy books that range from Rwf 3,000 to 5,000 which are expensive for some, especially if a family has more than one child, with e-books, children can even use one phone to read as many books as possible, Nkwakuzi adds. He notes that hard-copy books are difficult to distribute to every household and it’s even impossible to gauge the success of reading. According to him, this isn’t the case with e-books as children can read from wherever they are without traveling long distances to libraries. Nkwakuzi gives credit to the Connect Rwanda campaign, where phones are distributed to vulnerable households, which he trusts will push the NABU app, mostly in rural areas. “The beauty about the app is that we are able to track the outcome. We have six metrics we measure, for instance, the number of people that have accessed the books, average minutes spent on the application reading, type of books read the most, and the books children started reading but never completed,” he says. He adds that the app was invented in 2018, and so far, 1.6 million people have downloaded it, though the usage isn’t so high, as children read on average eight minutes every day, yet the target is at least 15 minutes per day. Nkwakuzi says that the app has caused an impact, since there are more recommendations compared to before, and there are different community learning centres supporting it. Although the biggest population using the application is in Kigali, he believes that these books can reach other parts of the country by sharing them. This is because every book shared contains a link that can allow one to join the app. He is optimistic that a community of readers can be created if someone shares a book every day. ALSO READ: What should be done to make children read more? Nkwakuzi says that Kinyarwanda books are given an advantage since they are written in the mother language, and play a role in surging literacy. According to research, 40 per cent of children globally do not have access to educational materials in a language they speak or understand. It’s for this reason that the app has many Kinyarwanda books and he stresses that mother tongue books escalate children’s inspiration to read, assist parents to take part in reading with their children, and expose children to another language, apart from English. “We don’t only create readers, but artists as well, we have programmes where we equip them with the knowledge to create content that children can relate to, provide the appropriate illustrations in books, and offer materials and space to polish their talents. We have a team of writers that translate books from other languages to Kinyarwanda and English,” Nkwakuzi says. Children share their view Nine-year-old Kase Keza, a primary three student at Itetero Primary School Masoro, is a NABU user and notes that reading has enabled her to improve her vocabulary and expand her knowledge. She notes that she enjoys reading with her friends because they correct her when she pronounces words incorrectly, a thing that has helped her learn fast. “One of the books that I liked from the NABU library is ‘Furaha akiza ifamu ya Sekuru’ because Furaha, the book’s main character, takes good care of his grandfather’s farm. Such books teach us discipline, and other etiquettes,” she explains. Keza prefers reading Kinyarwanda books because she understands the language better than English, saying that the books have enabled her to learn complex alphabets, and how to write. After reading an interesting or educational book, she shares it with friends so that they discuss it as a group. Marie-Jeanne Umutoniwimana, a resident of Rulindo District and mother of four, also uses the NABU app. She says that her older children read by themselves, and she reads aloud to the young ones. Through books, she says she has been able to create deeper conversations with her little ones, which has strengthened the bond in her family. According to Umutoniwimana, the application has facilitated learning, instead of using phones and tabloids to play often, her children are now lost in reading their favourite books. NABU hopes to eradicate illiteracy by 2030.