The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is partnering with nonprofit Worldreader on a pilot project to provide Kindles loaded with ebooks to 2,300 students in refugee camps in Tanzania.
Worldreader was cofounded by former Microsoft and Amazon executive David Risher and economist Colin McElwee in 2010 and is headquartered in San Francisco with offices in Europe and Africa. It has launched pilot programs providing Kindles to schools in nine sub-Saharan African countries over the past two years, but McElwee said that this is arguably its most important partnership because the UN is “an enormous potential scaling partner” aiding “the most vulnerable people on the planet.” If the pilot works, the program could expand to other refugee camps overseen by the UN.
The Tanzanian camps house about 105,000 refugees affected by the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. Students ages 11 to 14 at four schools in two of the camps will receive Kindles loaded with ebooks in English and Swahili. (Part of Worldreader’s work is to partner with local African-language publishers to convert their titles to ebooks.) The students at one of the camps will get the basic Kindle with Wi-Fi and the students in the other camp will get the Kindle Keyboard with 3G so that the UN can test whether it’s worth spending more on the 3G model.
Worldreader will educate people in both camps and in the surrounding areas about Worldreader Mobile, its e-reading app for feature phones. The app, through technology from mobile company biNu, compresses data to let users of basic phones download ebooks over a 2G connection. There are now over 2,300 ebooks available free through Worldreader Mobile, up from 1,200 less than a year ago.
“Governments take a big look at what’s happening with refugee camps in their countries,” McElwee said. “This is a cool way to get their attention.”
A previous version of this article stated that the Tanzanian students would be using Kindle Paperwhites, which McElwee had told me. In fact, the Kindles in this program are older models but Worldreader will primarily be using Kindle Paperwhites in 2014. In addition, the article had stated that 29,000 books were available through Worldreader Mobile; in fact, only 2,300 ebooks are available through the mobile app, while Worldreader’s entire program consists of about 29,000 ebooks.