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Yoza Excites African Teenagers to Love Reading Using Mobile Phones

By Steve Vosloo on December 24, 2010

We’ve all heard the hype about eReaders bringing digital books to the masses. But often those “masses” are high-end consumers in the developed world who are reading for leisure and pleasure. So what about the developing world? And specifically teenagers, who have yet to find pleasure or leisure in reading? Books will not be the answer.

There is a growing awareness around the impact that a lack of books has on literacy levels in South Africa. Books are scarce and prohibitively expensive for most South Africans. Stats show that 51% of households in South Africa do not own a single leisure book, while an elite 6% of households own 40 books or more. Only 7% of schools have functioning libraries.

What South Africa’s teens do have access to are cellphones, with stats indicating that 90% of urban youth have their own cellphone. Steve Vosloo, founder of Yoza and fellow for 21st century learning at the Shuttleworth Foundation, says:

“For the foreseeable future the cell phone, not the Kindle or iPad, is the eReader of Africa. Yoza aims to capitalize on that to get Africa’s teens reading and writing.”

Yoza: addicting teenagers to literature

In 2009, Steve launched the m4Lit project to capitalize on South Africa’s “book-poor, mobile phone-rich” dynamic and see if teenagers in South Africa would read stories on their cell phones.

m4Lit published a story called Kontax in September last year and added another Kontax story in May 2010, both published in English and isiXhosa. To date, the two stories have been read over 34,000 times, over 4,000 entries have been received in the writing competitions, and over 4,000 comments have been left by readers on individual chapters.

Encouraged by the high uptake of the stories and by these reader requests, the Shuttleworth Foundation decided to launch Yoza, to get young people reading and writing, regardless the medium.

Yoza stories aim to captivate teens and inspire them to enjoy well-written stories by good authors. The m-novels are written in conventional language, with txtspeak only used when a character is writing or reading SMSes or instant message chats. Also included is prescribed school reading that is in the public domain, for example, Macbeth.

There is no charge for the actual stories, but users do pay their mobile network operator for mobile data traffic. Images have been kept to a minimum to keep the mobile data charges low – these data charges on local cellphones range from 5c to 9c per chapter, making Yoza m-novels a very affordable option for great reading material for teens.

Yoza m-novels:

  1. Kontax, the flagship title about a group of four teenage friends in Cape Town. The Yoza library features all four m-novels in the series written by Sam Wilson and Lauren Beukes of Clockwork Zoo.
  2. Streetskillz is a brand new soccer series written by talented young writer and soccer fanatic Charlie Human. The first story – Golden Goal – is set in the month of the soccer World Cup. Unforgettable international soccer reality merges with a dramatic fictional street soccer competition in Du Noon township in Cape Town.
  3. Sisterz is a sassy new series by local chic lit star Fiona Snyckers. Latoya’s Secret launched straight into the depths of dark family secrets, the highs of friendship, school Pop Idols auditions, and the breath-stopping sensations of first love.
  4. Confessions of a Virgin Loser by talented, thoughtful novelist Edyth Bulbring is the story of a Joburg boy steering his way through the complicated world of peer pressure, teenage sex and HIV/AIDS, while just trying to be a cool kid at school.

Sequels to the above stories will generally launch on the first of each month from October 2010

  1. A Bicycle Ride through Lesotho by Duncan Guy – of Learn the News fame – tells the entertaining tale of riding through the Mountain Kingdom on a bicycle.
  2. Yoza Classics is a section of its own, featuring a range of public domain titles. School prescribed work Macbeth is one of the first titles selected for Yoza Classics. The idea is not necessarily that teens will read the whole of Macbeth on their cellphones, but if they have to read Act 1; Scene 1 for homework and they don’t have a textbook, then they can do so on their phones.

Over the next six months the plan for Yoza is to expand this library of cell phone stories of multiple genres that are available to teens not only in South Africa, but ultimately throughout Africa. Kontax has already been published in Kenya through MXit. Competitions with airtime prizes prompt readers to participate in the interactive questions at the end of chapters, keeping readers engaged and coming back for more.

Current story languages include English and isiXhosa, an Afrikaans story is being written, and ideally stories in all of the South African languages will ultimately be published on Yoza. The Shuttleworth Foundation encourages the public to get involved in translating the stories into local languages – if you translate it we’ll gladly publish it.

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Written by
Steve Vosloo is passionate about using technology in education. He's worked at UNESCO, Pearson South Africa, Stanford University, and the Shuttleworth Foundation on the use of mobile phones for literacy development, how technology can better serve low-skilled users, and the role of digital media for youth. All opinions expressed in this post are his own.
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