In Ghana, the majority of the workforce are farmers, many of whom are small-scale producers. Agricultural extension officers visit these farmers to give them new information that will help to improve crop yield, increase their income and provide food security for their families. However, many rural communities might only have one visit from an extension expert a year. During these short visits, the farmers are flooded with valuable information, but those who are illiterate cannot read printed information, nor can they document what they hear. Even the knowledge of local experts can be difficult to record to make it available for others when they need it most.
Literacy Bridge, a non-governmental organisation based in the US, wanted to investigate how local organisations could affordably use laptop computers, cell phones and digital audio recorders to improve the delivery of this kind of agricultural, health and educational information to rural areas. They tested a variety of equipment in communities in Ghana. The results were somewhat disappointing as each of the devices was found to have severe limitations. For example, radio broadcasts could not be shared or replayed on demand, and it was not cost-effective to use cell phones to provide access to teaching material covering a wide range of topics.
Over the course of 18 months, Literacy Bridge worked to solve the problems with volunteers and partners in several educational, health and agricultural organisations. They developed and tested prototypes with people in the communities to identify problems and areas of improvement. Partner organisations also tested the equipment in other African countries, and in Asia and Latin America.
The result was the Talking Book: a low-cost, digital audio computer designed to provide locally relevant information to improve health and income, and to help people develop their literacy skills.
The Talking Book was designed to be durable and easy to use for people with little formal education and exposure to technology. There is no display, for example, which could be easily broken. Instead, the device plays audio instructions in the local language to guide users. They respond by pressing any of the ten buttons. For instance, pressing the right and left arrows navigates through categories such as livestock, fish farming, and health. Once the user has selected a category, it is easy to use the up and down arrows to rotate through individual messages.
The device can be programmed to include learning exercises and quizzes to test the listener’s understanding of the subject. Users can play, record and categorise audio recordings and copy those recordings directly to any other Talking Book with a USB cable, or via a computer. Recordings are stored on an internal microSD memory card, providing between 35 and 140 hours of audio. There is a built-in speaker for group listening, but power can be conserved using earphones. The device operates with rechargeable batteries, but for areas where grid electricity is not available, they also work with locally available zinc-carbon batteries. These batteries typically cost approximately US$ 0.40 and provide 12-15 hours of use.
One Talking Book currently costs US$35 and may be used to support a household or an existing group of farmers or women (particularly those dealing with health issues). Depending on the scale, level of sharing and design of the project, the per-person cost is between US$1.00 and $5.00, plus $0.50 to $1.00 in annual battery expenses. For this amount, organisations working with farmers can reach more people effectively. Farming cooperatives and communities can also purchase the devices to create their own audio libraries. Literacy Bridge expects the price of the Talking Book to fall substantially over the next two years, eventually becoming affordable for low-income families.
During a pilot study in Ving Ving, a village in the Upper West Region of Ghana, agricultural experts from Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture recorded a series of lessons, including techniques for improving crop production. The community quickly saw the benefits of the new system. In a year when their neighbours had a 5% fall in crop production, the farmers using Talking Books saw an average increase of 48%. One farmer, Anthony Dery, was able to harvest over four times as much corn from a single plot compared to the nearby land he farmed at the same time using traditional practices learned from his grandparents.
An evaluation of the project showed that 91% of residents applied a new health or agricultural practice after using the Talking Book. After controlling for a variety of other factors, use of a Talking Book correlated to an increased production of 2.75 bags of goods per farm, valued at US $89. The project cost approximately US$1000, which included 21 Talking Books, batteries, staff fees for training and fuel, but the value of the additional crops produced in just one year was nearly $3000.
A longer-term approach to improving access to information is by improving literacy rates. A lack of exposure to reading early in life leads to a disadvantage in literacy-learning later. Children without a literate parent often have difficulties with reading and writing during primary education and even beyond. Children whose families can afford school fees, and who are able to attend classes, are often placed into overcrowded classrooms, all competing for one teacher’s attention.
By using Talking Books, teachers with larger classes have given their students an opportunity to listen to their text books at their own pace and practise their pronunciation, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Parents and children can also practise reading at home if they have access to a Talking Book.
Government education offices can provide recordings to match the curriculum lesson plans, but communities can also create their own content. When a teacher, parent or community member has created a recording, students can listen back to it, control the speed of playback, define specific key words, and skip ahead or backwards in a lesson.
Throughout the testing phase of the project, the Talking Books remained popular among school students during their literacy-learning exercises. They enjoyed listening to their voices and playing educational games over a sustained period, indicating that the novelty of the new technology was unlikely to decline quickly.
Literacy Bridge is continually developing the Talking Book and is keen to work with new partners, NGOs or government agencies around the world. Each new project provides an opportunity to further document experiences and gather reports of best practices and instructions in order to help others obtain the best use from the device.
The software for the Talking Books is open source, and therefore available for developers to add new features, develop applications and test the software to increase its reliability. Literacy Bridge keeps track of new audio content as it is developed for more Talking Book projects, and encourages partner organisations to share what they have created with each other. The organisation plans to work with other NGOs and institutions that develop or translate content, especially those who provide information and practical lessons in agriculture, health, and business.
Cliff Schmidt is the founder of Literacy Bridge