Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winners have been officially announced, we are excited for you to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is an annual competition that awards cash prizes to early-stage tech entrepreneurs solving the world’s toughest problems. Now in its fifth year, the competition awarded its largest prize pool ever, $1 million USD, to 20 winning teams from around the world.
I had the opportunity to meet with Tanyella Evans, Executive Director & Co-Creator of NABU Global Inc, who was awarded a $10,000 USD prize as a Regional Fourth Runner-Up in the U.S. NABU is a free mobile app providing culturally relevant mother tongue books, aiming to improve child literacy outcomes in developing countries by bringing literacy tools into the homes of millions of children. While building a school for 3,000 children in Haiti, Tanyella noticed that even the poorest families had mobile phones which inspired her to utilize technology to create NABU along with Taniya Alexander and Isabel Sheinman.
What problem is your technology solution trying to solve?
Tanyella: Over 250 million children globally do not possess basic reading skills by the time they leave school. This is an immense problem as literacy is the key to opening doors and opportunities. We believe that access to literacy is a fundamental human right. NABU specifically researched the systemic causes of global illiteracy. An overwhelming number of children in the developing world, and approximately 40 percent of children globally, do not have access to early grade reading books written in a language they speak or understand. Can you imagine showing up on your first day of school, seeing a book and being read to for the first time in your life, in a language that is foreign to you?
Can you explain how the solution works?
Tanyella: NABU’s Authentic Book Creation (ABC) Lab is where we create collections of children’s books targeting different reading levels, focusing on early grade reading from ages 0 to 10 years old. NABU hires and trains local artists and creatives in addition to anyone who wants to learn how to write or illustrate children’s books. It’s critical that we work with local members in creating content to empower them to write stories for children in their own community within a culturally relevant context.
NABU publishes these books for free on our app, NABU.ORG which is optimized for low bandwidth environments. If readers are using our mobile app, the books they download while they are connected to the Internet become available when they are offline. All books on NABU.ORG can also be accessed offline using our hub version on a local server.
Our Bridge to Literacy program consists of teams of reading ambassadors who go out into the community to connect with families to teach them how to download the app and share some of the early learning behaviors at home that can increase children’s literacy and measurably improve their literacy by grade.
NABU.ORG is available in Haiti, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). We offer a collection of books to children written in Haitian Creole which is the language spoken by 90 percent of Haitians and in Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda. We are currently developing our Swahili collection which we launched last year. By 2025, there are four target language groups we have identified including Swahili, Tagalog, Tamil and Hausa that we will publish early grade reading collections for. Each collection will consist of 160 books.
Swahili is spoken by 75 million people across East and Central Africa, Tagalog is spoken by over 75 million people in the Philippines, Tamil is spoken by 70 million people in Southern India and Sri Lanka and Hausa is spoken by 150 million people in West Africa where the literacy rate for girls is especially low. These are amongst the most marginalized languages in the world, with millions of speakers yet very few books available. With the release of NABU’s additional reading collections in 2025, half a billion people will have access to free books for their children written in their mother tongue. NABU also provides over 2,000 stories in English and French.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
Tanyella: I’ve always been passionate about global education. Both of my grandparents were teachers. I spent a lot of time with them and that inspired me at an early age to realize how important education is. Later in my career, I was working at several organizations that were focusing on building schools for children. I built a school for 3,000 children in Haiti following the earthquake. These organizations were making a phenomenal difference, but I wanted to do something with technology. I believe that if we harness technology properly, we can overcome so many of the global challenges we are facing.
I wanted to create a platform to distribute free books to children. I identified a gap and began designing an app for low bandwidth and offline environments that was accessible via Android phones, as most users in developing countries are Android users. I tested and piloted the app. There was a huge demand, which eventually led me to co-found NABU in 2013. What inspires me to continue driving NABU is its potential to reach hundreds of millions of children and families through devices that are currently sitting inside of their pockets right now!
How will winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you advance your business?
Tanyella: We are honored to be included amongst the other winning teams who are applying technology and science-based thinking to address global challenges! Winning a prize in the challenge will help advance NABU by raising awareness for our cause. An obstacle we face is that people don’t know how critical providing access to mother tongue books is in solving the global literacy crisis. The $10,000 USD prize will be used to compensate the local artists and creatives NABU hires for their contributions to our children’s books. The prize money will allow us to continue to provide them with employment and training opportunities. Additionally, a portion will go towards the cost of maintaining and hosting our content and continuing to develop and improve the app.
How has the pandemic impacted your work?
Tanyella: It has been a really challenging time for a lot of organizations. We are grateful that we haven’t had to shut our doors because the virtual doors of NABU are always open. We’ve experienced an enormous increase in demand and growth. Last year, we more than doubled in growth from 40,000 to 100,000 children and families who are downloading and reading books on our app. As of today, we have increased in growth to 600,000 children and families now using our app. By the end of this year, we anticipate one million children will be reading on NABU’s platform.
What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs?
Tanyella: When you’re starting your social innovation, you don’t know where it’s going to lead. Things could look very different as you become more immersed in the research. Remain open to learning, consider what the data is telling you and avoid bias. If possible, don’t do it alone. I’m so fortunate to have the support and vision of our incredible co-creators and an amazing and diverse global team to help drive NABU!