Podcast: Embracing digital innovation to create a world where everyone can be a reader

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In this podcast, Ignasi Carreras, Senior Lecturer at Esade, and Colin McElwee, cofounder of Worldreader, discuss how social organisations can champion digital innovation for a better world.


Ignasi Carreras: My name is Ignasi Carreras. I am a professor at Esade in the Strategy and General Management Department. I am also the founder of the Institute for Social Innovation. We are here today with Colin McElwee, cofounder of Worldreader, a social organisation that champions digital innovation to create a world where everyone can be a reader. Hi, Colin. 

Colin McElwee: Hi.

Ignasi Carreras: Thank you for taking part in this interview.

Colin McElwee: My pleasure.

Ignasi Carreras: Since 2010, Worldreader has reached millions of readers in the developing world with digital books to improve their lives. What have you achieved in these 10 years?

Colin McElwee: If we are talking about measurements, our impact has reached 13 million people in these 10 years. Our value proposition is that paper does not get to large parts of the world, but digital bytes do, so that is the way to actually get reading material into the hands of everybody. We started off with one platform, Amazon’s Kindle, which worked wonderfully well at a local level in the public schools where we started in Ghana and then Kenya. Now, we are actually in about 67 other countries.

Children in Africa with a Kindle device
Worldreader has reached 13 million people in 10 years (Photo: Worldreader)

But we have since taken the view that it is not about the device, it is about the content, so we make it available on other platforms, i.e. mobile phones, both smartphones and feature phones. We get to many millions of people each month using that platform. Our focus is not on us and our capacity to deliver whatever solution. We are obsessed with the customer and the consumer. If you do that, you have to be able to pivot.

You have to learn each day, each week, and treat some of the poorest people in the world the same way you treat some of the richest people in the world, in terms of their desires, their wants, their expressed and unexpressed needs. I could go on for quite a lot longer about what we have learnt, but all I can say is that I have poured every ounce of my being and experience into this project, which has a social end.

According to UNESCO, there are about 800 million illiterate people

Ignasi Carreras: You are a pioneering 21st-century organisation living in the era of the internet, of digital innovation. How has a small organisation like yours used innovation to achieve such strong results in 10 years?

Colin McElwee: It is kind of you to say that. I think if we had been starting a for-profit business, we would have had exactly the same discipline about what we do, about our focus on the customer and consumer, the need to obsess about them and be humble about what you bring. The fact that we are digital allows us to make a lot more refinements, do a lot more learning.

We get a million lines of data about what people are reading every single day that we are operating, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. We are thus able to learn about what people are reading amongst the 35,000 books that we serve up to them.

But, importantly, we also understand what they are not reading. I am referring to great books, great reading material, even life-saving material, from Intermón, for example, that has been incredibly well-crafted in paper form but that – according to the data – does not hold their interest 30 seconds in, so they stop reading it. In that sense, digital has given us a really great capacity to innovate or, at least, to pilot and create, since I always think that the definition of innovation is when it actually works. It allows us to test and pilot and to continually be on this learning spectrum.

The definition of innovation is when it actually works

Ignasi Carreras: You have also been a pioneer in launching an initially small NGO to try to cope with challenges around the world, mainly in Africa. How have you used innovation to identify and meet the kinds of needs that people have from you and the services that Worldreader can provide to them?

Colin McElwee: The fact that we have a digital platform allows us to have a continual spectrum of learning every day. We use data to continually improve. Do we know everything? No. I would say that we are on a ten-step ladder and we are three steps up. But most people are only on step one or two, so we are able to position ourselves as an authority on reading on mobile in developing countries with many of our partners. I know we are going to talk about partners a little bit later, but, at the end of the day, we also really learn through them.

Ignasi Carreras: Why are they interested in taking part in this project? It is not an equal relationship at the start. You need them, and they have a lot of challenges around the world. How do you involve them in this kind of project? How do you make sure that the relationship goes forward in a way that yields that win-win aspect you mentioned before?

Colin McElwee: The partners that are working on the ground, organisations like Intermón for example, have incredible experience and knowledge throughout the organisation. We say to them, "Listen, you have a grant from the US government or the UK government. Spend 99% of that on your programme. If you put the other 1% aside to take some of the benefits there, along with the knowledge and the message you want to get out, we can demonstrate to you that that 1% will increase your programme’s impact by 100%." 

Often what I see is that there is incredible work being done right at the forefront, work that we could never do with the local communities. But it kind of stops there, because it is analogue. There is no digital dimension. By bringing in an intelligent digital dimension, we can take that good work and leverage it to millions and millions more people. So, that is the kind of win-win we get.

Ignasi Carreras: And when you try to collaborate with companies, not only with big NGOs like Oxfam or Intermón, but big companies, how do you engage them? Do you have special contacts there to open the door? How do you go from a specific person to partnering with a big company, maintaining that relationship for years and years?

More and more often, corporations are realising that, if they want to attract talent, they have to be intelligent about the type of organisations they work with

Colin McElwee: Great question. It comes in all shapes and sizes. I think the first thing we do is try to get ourselves visibility through the World Economic Forum, which is incredible. It is probably 80% companies, with public bodies and NGOs making up the other 20%. So, we get visibility and we present ourselves as an innovative data-driven organisation that can make a great impact amongst their consumers.

Take a company like PepsiCo, for example, which we have been working with for the last two or three years. PepsiCo came to us and said, "We would love to do something with you, but we would like to start internally because we want our staff and the people who work for us in Europe and the Middle East, but also in Africa, to see and understand the type of work you are doing. We want them to see and understand that we are helping you not just financially but also in terms of knowledge, in terms of actual access to many of our consumers in sub-Saharan Africa."

In that case, the relationship was more internal before it became external. More and more often, corporations are realising that, if they want to attract talent, they have to be intelligent about the type of organisations they work with. Frankly, it is not as simple as adding a United Nations logo, whether the UNHCR’s or UNICEF’s. That is not enough.

The talent is pretty clever about sourcing, about actually verifying whether the organisation that they are working for or considering working for is genuinely transferring knowledge to that organisation in a credible, relevant way. So, it comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, we have corporate partnerships that do not go anywhere, because there is no real fit. And we are the first ones to say so. 

Ignasi Carreras: But when you say that there is no fit, is it because there is no fit in terms of values, of the vision for the partnership, of the complementary capabilities between the NGO and the company? It would be important to know when partnerships are not working well. What do you think are the reasons in those cases?

Colin McElwee: The first thing we look at is, "Is there a genuinely long-term relationship here?" And, honestly, that does not come from the CSR director or department, it comes from marketing. Then we say, "OK, is there a brand fit here and would the consumers of their particular product or service understand and value this relationship with us?"

Innovation comes from really understanding the customer base

If that fit is not there, it is going to be a one- or maybe two-year CSR project, before the company changes its strategy or decides it wants a bit of fresh air or another organisation in there. We also have to remember that we are working with very, very vulnerable people, so you have to look at the companies’ ethics and ask, "What is their win? What are they looking for? Are they looking to empower people in the places where we are working or are they looking to exploit them?" 

I would put it in those terms. So, for instance, extractives, that is, mining companies, are obviously candidates that you have to be very careful about. I am not going to put them all in the same basket, because they do improve their practices over time, but if we sense any sort of exploitation, it makes us wary. There are other obvious candidates, like betting companies or alcohol companies, that we will not go near, and it really is because we are trying to bring best practice.

The way we define that is not European best practice, but the UN’s. We look at the UN’s values, and we say, "Is that the best practice or is there something that contradicts those values and means that the company would not be a fit?" Because we would be guilty of bringing those values to very, very vulnerable people.

Ignasi Carreras: Taking into account all your experience in the last 10 years of life of Worldreader, if you could share two or three key factors to promote innovation to try to tackle social challenges, what would they be? What key factors would you share with other NGOs or companies that want to work in this kind of field?

Colin McElwee: Two really come to mind. I half-mentioned one before, and it comes from business. It really is like I say: innovation comes from really understanding the customer base and the consumer base and respecting the idea that "not everybody is the same," just like right here in Spain we do not consider everybody to be the same.

Take a village. You have to segment that village and give as much respect to those 10,000 people as you would to 10,000 people here in Madrid. If you do that, you have a much greater chance of really innovating successfully, not just creating new ideas and testing things, but actually getting some sort of traction that works. So, I would say that’s one. It’s just basic business practice, common sense in business. Procter & Gamble would shoot their marketing director if he did not obsess about these segments.

As for the second one, we talked about partnerships being about understanding two things. First, the problems in developing countries are enormous. You will know this better than anybody here, but, for example, take the problem of illiteracy.

According to UNESCO, there are about 800 million illiterate people. If you include low-literacy people as well, the number is about 2 or 2.5 billion. If that is your market, then you really have to go in with aspirational goals. That is part of why we say, "We cannot do this on our own." So we inspire enormous companies like Microsoft. We have the Chief Marketing Officer at Microsoft on our board. He is inspired by what we do because he understands scale; he understands how to get from 0 to 200 million.

What we are trying to do – and it is not a panacea – is to say, "Let’s take some of these really incredible brains, put them in a social context, take them down to Kenya or to Ghana, see things first hand, and then get them to begin to help and advise us." Also, you do not necessarily need to have a partnership with just Microsoft. You need to partner with these types of companies. That is the way you are going to get to not a million but tens or hundreds of millions of people. So, I see those as two or three factors for success.

Ignasi Carreras: Thank you, Colin. Thank you for your insights. I am sure they will be very interesting for all the NGOs and companies that are working trying to transform society. Thank you also for participating in our upcoming event, where we will be sharing experiences about how to tackle social challenges through digital and technological innovation. Thank you.

Colin McElwee: Thank you.

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