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Speaking Books Let’s Its Success do the Talking

An innovative joint project between SADAG (South African Depression Group) and American social entrepreneurs Brian Julius and Zane Wilson is helping to combat a range of social and health issues amongst illiterate parts of the population the world over.

In 2004, SADAG was carrying out a World Bank funded project to combat teen suicide in rural areas of South Africa and caught wind of an article in the Wall Street Journal about a talking book on healthcare issues being distributed in parts of Afghanistan. However, the books cost around $60 a book, far beyond the reach of most of the developing world.

SADAG duly noted that a more cost-effective equivalent could have a positive effect on illiterate members of the South African population, especially those in underprivileged rural areas, who were struggling to deal with mental health issues like depression, issues that were also often connected to physical health problems like HIV or TB. Unable to read, many of these people were obviously not being adequately assisted or reached by the standard written health information or pamphlets.

Based on SADAG’s findings, Speaking Books launched their first two titles, Suicide Shouldn’t be a Secret and Living with HIV and AIDS Doesn’t Mean Living with Depression, in 2005 with a view to “democratizing” healthcare information for all. As the company’s President Brian Julius says, “low literacy is a tragedy and should not be allowed to prevent disadvantaged communities from receiving the basic life-saving messages they have every right to know and understand”.

And this is clearly not just a South African problem. Estimates suggest that literacy stands at only 60% throughout the whole of Africa, and there are an estimated 1 billion illiterate people worldwide. With this in mind, working from bases in both the US and South Africa, Speaking Books has continued to extend its reach, with more than 300,000 books having being shipped to various parts of China, Africa, India, the USA and South America.

There are now 45 different book titles available in 15 different languages, including eight of South Africa’s eleven official languages. Topics range from HIV, malaria or suicide prevention to anti-smoking and children’s rights, and the books provide clear and detailed drawings and illustrations to go along with the voice recordings. The spoken text, which is also printed below the illustrations, is activated by a push button on each page.

The talking books are all created and adapted according to the cultural requirements of each particular community and the voiceovers are usually taken from respected local celebrities known to be supporters of the issue being addressed. In South Africa, stars including Lilian Dube have helped with this, all on a pro bono basis.

Julius goes on to say that “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”. And it’s a winner in terms of cost too. Books are valued at around $10 each for a minimum order, which means if they are being seen by 27 people then it works out at around 40 cents per head, or, as Julius say “per intervention”.

Since their launch in 2005 Speaking Books has received numerous awards and accolades. Having already received the TIGA award (Technology in Government Awards) in the ICT in Education category for their excellence in eLearning in 2011, this year Speaking Books was voted in both the Mail and Guardian’s and the Observer’s (UK) top 15 African innovations.

Boasting a host of successful partnerships with pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, government health departments and NGOs including UNESCO and Unicef, Julius says that “Speaking Books has proved a leader in the fight help to make health education available to all irrespective of their circumstances”.

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