One of the things that surprised me the first time I visited Kenya was the proliferation of cell phones.
It actually makes sense; there are plenty of places in Kenya where traditional telephone service has either never been run or is prohibitively expensive.
Cell phones -- many of them older and simpler models than the ones on sale here in the U.S. -- are a way to get phone service into places that have never had it before.
You can drive into the most out-of-the-way crossroads in Kenya, with only two or three shops, and one of them will be a little kiosk or booth selling pre-paid cards for putting minutes on your cell phone. (Another will undoubtedly sell Coca-Cola, America's sugar-laden gift to the world.)
On my last visit to Kenya, in 2010, I discovered that a payment system tied to cell phones is now in wide use. It's called M-Pesa. Many Kenyans who've never had a bank account of any kind can now put money into accounts associated with their cell phones. They can then use their phone to pay bills electronically, shop at participating stores, or send funds to relatives in another part of the country. And the phones don't have to be smartphones.
Well, a non-profit agency called Worldreader (www.worldreader.org) has now discovered another way to use non-smartphones (the industry term for anything that isn't a smartphone is a "feature phone") in developing countries.
According to an article at the website The Bookseller (goo.gl/zQ4TB), Worldreader has developed an application which can be used to enable older cell phones to function as e-readers.
If you have a modern smartphone in the U.S., you can download a Barnes & Noble or Kindle app and read e-books on your phone just as if you owned a Nook or Kindle. Admittedly, a smartphone screen is smaller than an e-reader screen. But it is usable; earlier this year, while waiting for my new Kindle e-reader to arrive, I ended up reading two classic Jules Verne novels on my smartphone using the Kindle app. Not ideal, but quite serviceable; nowhere near as bad as I was expecting. And it was absolutely free, since Amazon gives away both the Kindle app and classic public domain literature like "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea." (You can also get free apps for your tablet, desktop or laptop.)
But that was a smartphone. Worldphone has figured out a practical way to run a type of e-reader software on the type of feature phones common in developing countries. Most feature phones have smaller screens than smartphones, but even so being able to read a book on your cell phone may turn out to be better than not having a book at all.
Worldreader is working with publishers to make hundreds of titles available, including some children's titles by noted authors like Roald Dahl ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") whose works are still under copyright. The non-profit is distributing 75,000 copies of its e-reader phone app in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, according to The Bookseller's article. That's on top of its existing efforts to place dedicated tablet-sized e-readers in the developing world.
"These 'feature' phones -- or dumb phones -- may not look cool, but they are the phones that are used by billions of people in the developing world. We've created the app to give access to books to those who don't have it," said Elizabeth Wood of Worldreader, quoted by The Bookseller.
"The end-game is to have thousands of e-books on the app. Yes, this is a leap of faith for publishers, giving away some of their content for free. But once you give these kids in the developing world the tools and hook these kids on books, they will become book buyers."
The phones may not be smart, but that doesn't mean they can't help make the kids smarter.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.