Speaking books bring hope to low literacy populations

Photo courtesy of Books of Hope

We recently had the opportunity to meet with Brian Julius, President of Books of Hope, a company that publishes special books geared toward individuals with low literacy levels. These “Speaking Books” touch on important health issues (such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and depression) and do so in a way that those who have difficulty reading can easily understand and comprehend these issues that affect their community. The Speaking Books recently received the TIGA Award (Technology in Government Awards) in the ICT in Education category for their excellence in eLearning.  The award was given at last week at the 2011 TIGA Awards in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Brian had this to say about Books of Hope’s achievement, “Whilst it’s a great honor for us and our team who help create these books, it is also in recognition for all our sponsors, who have helped put the Speaking Book on the map in Africa.”

We were able to interview Mr. Julius and pick his brain on Books of Hope and Speaking Books. Below is Part 1 of our two part interview:

How did Books of Hope begin?

In 2004 an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal describing a talking book being used for heath care information in Afghanistan. However a price then of $62.50 put it well out of the reach of African countries, and other developing countries.

This was the inspiration to develop an African solution for an African problem of low literacy that limited the effectiveness of all health care information.

SADAG (South African Depression Group) was working on a World Bank financed rural project to combat teen suicide in South Africa and confronting first hand the problems of distributing health care information to low literacy communities.

The WSJ article highlighted a possible technical solution – one that just had to be made affordable.

In May of 2005 we launched at the Global Health Conference in Washington DC our first 2 Speaking Books: Suicide Shouldn’t be a Secret and Living with HIV and AIDS Doesn’t Mean Living with Depression.

What are the topics of the books?

To date we have created 45 titles in 15 languages for distribution throughout Africa, in India, China, South America and the USA. Topics include

Suicide Prevention, HIV and AIDS, Mental Health, Vaccines, Clinical Trials, Anti Smoking, Safe Use of Medicines, TB, Malaria, Pneumonia, Diabetes, Government Grants, Hypertension, Drug Abuse, Pediatric Immunization, Psycho social help for caregivers, Maternal Health Care, and Children’s Rights,

Where do you operate? Number of books published?

We are based both in the USA and South Africa. More than 300,000 books have been purchased and shipped to sponsors in most Sub Saharan countries, India, China, South America and USA

Can you talk a little about the production of the books? Is it cost-effective?

We offer a one-stop shop, in partnership with our sponsors to create the text, artwork and voices to create Speaking Books that are culturally appropriate for the particular community. Production is completed in less than 60 days working with our suppliers for the programming and manufacture of the sound boxes and printing of the books.

The Speaking Book is a most cost effective “edutainment tool” with research showing in the case of an HIV and AIDS study that each book reaches an average of 27 users with messages that are seen, heard, read and – most importantly – understood. So for a cost of around $10.00 per book for the minimum order quantity, the cost per intervention can be less than 40 cents for something that is in the readers own language and is much more likely than traditional materials to be understood. Furthermore the user reads at his or her own speed repeating pages if they are not clearly understood the first time.

Studies have shown a comparable level of comprehension among Speaking Book readers when compared to comprehensive levels of people who receive traditional labor intensive outreach programs. In one study, knowledge retention and comprehension was only 5 percent lower when compared to the full outreach program with trained counselors. The outreach program for 10 counselors for this study and to cover all their expenses was running at $3000 per day to reach between 1000 and 2000 children depending on the school – ie $1.50 to $3.00 per intervention as compared to a $10.00 book able to reach 20 to 30 children

Do you think speaking books are comparable to mhealth strategies?

Like cell phones, Speaking Books democratize access to health information. With a Speaking Book or cell phone, a reader or listener can access critical information when they need it, locally. We have also worked with Voxiva, a leading mhealth company who converted one of our malaria Speaking Books into an animated version that can be viewed on a phone. This is complimentary to our Speaking Books program, which is able to reach and communicate with all users irrespective of access to enabling technology. All our Speaking Books are also formatted as You Tube videos so the design and content can be shared by our sponsors with their colleagues worldwide to review and then order supplies of the book for their community

How are the partnerships with local celebrities formed?

Typically we approach a local celebrity like a singing star, DJ, TV or radio star that is known in the community and often a keen supporter of the issue we are addressing. For example we recruited Yvonne Chaka Chaka, the renowned singer, and UNICEF Ambassador for malaria to record our first malaria book. She was only too happy to record the book for us. This is always pro bono.

Stayed tuned for the second part of the interview slated for next week!

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