A South African non-profit organisation has been named by Fast Company, a leading progressive business media brand, as one of the World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Education. The other nine nominees are based in North and South America.
The Fast Company website has honoured the FunDza Literacy Trust, an organisation created to promote reading among high school students, and Cover2Cover Books, the publishing house that spawned it, "for publishing a series of addictive YA [young adult] novels that deal with racial and social issues while teaching South African high school students to read".
FunDza (the name derives from the isiXhosa word funda, to read) has three aims: to popularise reading;to encourage readers; and to develop writers. Staffed entirely by women, under the directorship of Mignon Hardie, an expert in developing small businesses, it operates from a tiny, modestly furnished office in Muizenberg, Cape Town.
Cover2Cover established FunDza to further the social aims of the enterprise, says Dorothy Dyer, teacher, writer and one of the founders of the imprint. FunDza identifies libraries and under-resourced schools and sends them books published by Cover2Cover.
Today, more than 100 schools and literacy organisations in South Africa, some in remote rural areas, benefit from the programme. The main condition is that the recipients must report back on how readers respond to the books.
Despite the fact that the books are set in Cape Town, the response from all around the country has been enormously positive, says Dyer.
In a recent letter, Ben Henderson of the David Rattray Foundation, which supports 14 rural school libraries in KwaZulu-Natal, wrote: "The principal … was singing the praises of your books … She commented on the stories, the relevance of the moral tale built into them, the level of the English used and even the font … Many schools have commented, all unsolicited, all positively."
According to the principal Henderson quotes: "The kids are so enthusiastic about the books that they are not even waiting to return them to the library before passing them on … She says she goes into the library now and finds kids sitting there in silence, engrossed in their reading — your books have started what we hope will be a revolution."
The story is the same in Mpumalanga: "We were thrilled to receive the 40 books from FunDza, and our grade 10 learners snapped up the books … From the feedback we've received, the books are both topical and engaging — and our learners cannot wait to read more!"
FunDza's role in reaching teen readers through book distribution was the first step in a project that has taken off in several new directions. Although paper and ink are still an important way of communicating, the organisation realised it needed to broaden its horizons if it was to reach the widest possible audience. Because so many teens have access to cellphones, mobile seemed the perfect medium.
The result was the innovative fundza.mobi site, which publishes Mo-books, short stories youngsters can access on Mxit with their cellphones.
Ros Haden, author of several Cover2Cover books, commissions the stories from well-known South African authors as well as from young, unknown writers. They are published in serial form — a chapter a day for a week (occasionally two weeks), with a question at the end of each chapter that sparks "direct, unfiltered comments". The comments are largely written in SMS-speak, a language all of its own.
Although most of the stories are in English, FunDza has translated a number into other, indigenous, languages and, thanks to available funding, more will soon follow.
Once the story has been fully serialised, it is archived in a growing "mobi-library". There are more than 60 short stories now available, as well as a wealth of full-length novels, nonfiction books and inspirational articles. So far, more than 350 000 registered users have accessed FunDza's mobi-library, which carries beguiling titles such as Who Am I without My Weave?, Lying for Love, The Playa and the zombie story Things to Do in Durban When You're Dead.
The responses to the questions, although largely incomprehensible to those unversed in SMS-speak, are lively and varied. Some have a high moral tone: "Guys we dnt hv 2 lie especialy 2 our parent.bcz lyng cn lead 2 bigger problms dat u cnt escape on it," observes one young reader in response to a question following a chapter of Lying for Love. An extract from After the Kiss elicited an exasperated: "This sucked gotta wait for tmr to found out what happened how many hours left?" A less than enchanted reader wrote off Mothers and Daughters with a scathing "Wat a boring story", and an anguished reader pleaded, at the end of a chapter of Things to Do in Durban When You're Dead: "They musn't do it because it will be treated bad oh please don't."
Another FunDza project, called Big Reads — this one hidden behind a pay wall and costing would-be readers small amounts of Mxit Moola — features a range of books in categories including biography, business and advice, as well as fiction. "FunDza is in discussions with various publishers to release more titles in this format," says Dyer.
And for would-be young writers, and there are many of those, there is the FunDza Fanz section, which organises writing workshops and adds their stories and poetry to the site.
Some enthusiastic young fans have even managed to send in short novels written on their cellphones.
The efforts of one ambitious young writer, under the pseudonym Vixene Jones, ended in something of a personal fairy tale. Using the time during her train journey to her job at a call centre, she wrote a story on Mxit and her work was published online. Her writing so impressed FunDza that she was offered a job: Zimkhitha Mlanzeli now helps to facilitate the organisation's writing workshops in Cape Town and works to develop other young writers.
Learn more about FunDza at fundza.co.za