Photography courtesy of Solen Feyissa

Photograph courtesy of Solen Feyissa (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This isn’t a blog about the sights, sounds and tastes of Cairo. So I won’t talk about the chaotic bustle of the airport, the extravagance of the conference venue, nor the awe-inspiring light and sound display at the pyramids. Suffice to say, it felt hugely appropriate to be talking about the reading and writing in Egypt, the land that gave birth to some of the earliest known forms of writing.

What I do want to write about is my presentation – as preparing for it gave me the opportunity (yet again) to fall in love with what we at FunDza do every day: getting young South Africans reading and writing.

My talk centred on the lessons that we’ve learned in the last almost five years of publishing content for people to read through their phones on – our FunDza mobile phone-powered network, accessible to both feature and smartphones through our site, our Android app, our Mxit app, and – more recently – our app on Since June 2011 we’ve been publishing content online. And, we’ve connected with hundreds of thousands of online readers over the years. A quick look at our monthly stats via Google Analytics just before the talk showed that more than 70,000 unique readers had visited FunDza in the last 30 days. That, in itself, was incredible to see.

We’ve conducted a number of studies – formal and informal – to learn more about our readers. We also keep a constant eye on how our readers engage with the content: through our moderations of comments, checks on story ‘likes’ and short surveys of readers.

In the presentation I shared what we’d learned from our formal evaluation in 2013/14 by UCT’s Institute of Monitoring and Evaluation which found that those who read on FunDza reported reading more and enjoying reading more, as their proficiency increased.

We’re also learning quite a lot about our readers. 67% of our online readers fall within our 13-25 year-old target group. But there is a long ‘tail’ – we have readers in their forties and fifties connecting with (and enjoying) the content. From the feedback received we know we are reaching people living in the base of the pyramid, which is our specific aim. We know that a large number have few books at home and little available funds to spend on data.

From the demographic information supplied by readers, we see that while approximately 40% of our readers are studying either at school or university, 43% are trying to find a job and 2% have given up on finding a job (the balance are employed). That so many are unemployed is not that surprising, given our country’s high unemployment rate. But this figure does speak to the urgency of building a more literate society. The ability to read and write with proficiency is a vital skill in almost any work environment.

When you are aiming to encourage reading for pleasure one has to keep the ‘pleasure’ principle top of mind. For us, understanding the underlying motivations for reading – whether through intrinsic motivations, extrinsic motivations, social motivations or self-efficacy – is key.

We know from experience that people are motivated to read for a range of reasons. Ultimately, we’d like to see that our readers read because they simply love to read. Building that in to the equation means that readers will become lifelong readers and lovers of text. I also spoke about how the external environment can either encourage reading, or it can make it impossible or difficult. For instance, lack of access to books, poor literacy levels, little reading for pleasure in the community and other factors can all act as inhibitors of reading for pleasure.

I touched on the findings of a study from 2014/15 that sought to determine the underlying motivations of our readers for reading on FunDza. This study showed that there were stark differences between the genders: girls tended to read more due to intrinsic motivation, because they’d learned to love it, and self-efficacy, because they felt that they were becoming more confident readers; while boys were, in general, motivated by extrinsic factors, such as competitions or being the best reader in their class.

But, very importantly, preparing for the talk meant that I simply had to find the time to do a thematic analysis of the long-form unstructured answers to questions we’d posed in a December 2015 survey of our readers. We’d asked our readers three open-ended questions: what do you like most about reading on FunDza, what would encourage you to read more on FunDza, and if and how FunDza has had an impact on your life.

The answers were inspiring. I learned that 82% of the respondents felt that FunDza had positively impacted on their life. And, even amongst those 18% who said they had noticed no change, many stated that they were reading more.

The biggest theme in terms of impacts centred on personal growth and development from reading FunDza stories. 37% felt that the stories had helped them understand themselves better. A further 13% shared how reading FunDza’s stories gave them a wider perspective on life.

Another theme was around reading frequency: 16% said that they were reading more because of FunDza, while 9% said that their attitudes towards reading had shifted thanks to access to the content. One reader said she’d joined the library after reading FunDza stories.

Some of the comments were heart-breaking and others uplifting. Many spoke about how they had made a behavioural shift thanks to the inspiration of a story. One reader recounted how her parents had given up on her, until she had had her poetry published on FunDza – now they believe in her again.

Three readers recounted how they had been sexually abused and were afraid of speaking out. One said that through the stories she had found the courage to share her experience with others, while another said that she was reading stories about abuse specifically to help her understand and come to terms with what she had been through.

Other readers wrote about how they had learned tolerance and understanding, while many others spoke about being able to read and speak English with confidence in class.

Here are just a small selection of the comments received (as they were originally reproduced):

At first I did not like to read stories and poems.But since i read stories and poems on FUNDZA i enjoyed them and now I am interested in reading stories and poems. I ALSO ENCOURAGE MANY TO VISIT FUNDZA PAGE TO LEARN SOMETHING FROM IT .:)

FUNDZA has indeed made alots of difference in my life, especially in the area of forgiveness. I learnt that, it pays to forgive, to err is human, but to forgive is divine.

I used to spend time watching tv but after finding out about FunDza I became interested in reading stories. I’m now applying for a library card so I can get books and read some more. I use reading to relax me whenever I’m stressing about anything.

i had low self esteem i came across funDza and found hope in the poem encouraged n helped me to stand for my self and to fight my own battles. im now a good public speaker in class cos im a better reader. i thank fundza for that.

i was lazy to read at first but as time went by i fell in love with FUNDZA stories they taught me more about different issues we’re facing in our countries and in our lives also…best thing is it gives me hope that whatever goes on i life have to be positive.

There is a caveat however: many readers say that they would read more if they could afford to. Data costs. Many of the people we are reaching – and want to reach – do not have access to unlimited data or free wifi options.

In the last couple of months we can see that there has been huge growth in the numbers of readers accessing our content via, which is zero-rated by Cell C. This is important. We want and need to reach those who are living in the poorest communities. We can only do this with the help of others.

We support the #FreeInternet4All movement to get our (and other helpful educational) services to get those people who need it most at no data cost.

Check out the presentation on Slideshare for more.