Guest Blog Post: FunDza Literacy Trust

Joburg

Photo: Marc Smith

FunDza Literacy Trust believes that developing a culture of reading for pleasure is vital in order to promote lifelong literacy. We do this by providing exciting local content that our users want to read and by disseminating this content through popular social media channels that are available to young people via their cellphones. Cellphone usage among South African youth is high – a World Bank 2012 report found that 75% of South Africans over the age of 15 had access to a cellphone.

FunDza’s stories are available via its mobi network: accessible via computers, tablets and cellphones that are internet-enabled at or via Mxit – a highly popular and cheap-to-access chat service.

Every day FunDza’s mobi network attracts thousands of readers who leave hundreds of comments on the stories. Many readers are hooked by our use of serialisation: every Friday we start a new seven-chapter story – written specially for readers on their mobile phones. This is serialised over the course of the week, so there is a new chapter out each day. The stories are local, exciting and relevant, and some of our comments are from readers desperate for the next chapter. As one reader commented excitedly:

Just give us the full story, please author. I’m in a hurry to know what is going to happen. Nice story!

Once the story is completed, it is archived and remains available as a complete story. We have more than 100 short stories available, and our ‘library on a phone’ is growing each week.

We also have a range of other material on our site: longer fiction and non-fiction books and articles, with some only available behind a paywall for our Mxit users, who pay very small amounts to read each chapter. Most of our content, however, is free.

Our readers are responsive, and keep us on our toes. When FunDza first launched, chapters were around 500 words. Now however, our readers complain if chapters are less than 600 words, as they feel short-changed! So our writers – who are professional, commissioned authors – have had to increase the length of their chapters to avoid comments like:

Mxm! Do you call that a chapter. That’s too short, man. Yho! (This was posted on a chapter of 500 words.)

In a survey of our readers, 46% of respondents reported having fewer than 10 books at home. This shows that we are really getting to our target audience: those without easy access to reading material. Comments indicate that our work is promoting reading for pleasure:

Hey, FunDza family. I’ve been reading your stories for about a week now on Mxit and have become a big fan. Reading is my passion and your portal allows me to access original stories wherever I am… Thank you.

Wow. Congrats, FunDza. Your books are perfect! Looking forward to other books.

We are developing a pool of regular local authors. Simultaneously we are providing emerging writers with an opportunity to get their stories out and their voices heard. We have had well known and award-winning authors such as Sarah Lotz, Sifiso Mzobe, Lauri Kubuitsile and Jenny Robson writing for us, as well as many others. Partnerships with New Readers Publishers in KZN and with New Africa Books have meant that we have books available from other publishers too.

Some stories and books are also available in other South African languages. We aim that at least one story a month is made available in English as well as in another local South African language.

We also have a FunDza Fanz section where our readers send in their own work to be published. We do a light edit to ensure that there are no mistakes, and then these are loaded to share. Since March 2013, our FunDza Fanz have submitted and had published 35 short stories or novels, 46 essays, five plays and almost 500 individual poems.

Through our FunDza Fanz section we have also identified up and coming writers who we are developing through formal and informal mentorship programmes. Zimkhitha Mlanzeli, who edits the FunDza Fanz work, was herself a ‘FunDza Fan’ writer before she developed her writing and joined our staff. An exciting aspect of our work is to see how young writers grow and develop in confidence as they see their work published and as they gather a following.

Over the past year FunDza has busy with upgrades to its mobi network to make reading for pleasure on mobile phones easier and simpler for the 50,000-odd unique readers who access the network at least once a month. We’re now able to send our readers regular messages to tell them what’s new on the network. We’re able to host regular competitions that help increase usage and give rewards for comprehension ability. And, we’ve optimised the user experience for both the Internet and Mxit versions of the network, so page loading times are quick, data usage is light, commenting is quick and navigation easy to work out.

We can see – from the comments and the high usage on the network – that our work is paying off. In November 2013, 50, 289 readers collectively visited the site 252,776 times, accessing an incredible 1.4 million pages. With each visit lasting on average 15 minutes this translates into 63,194 hours of reading time!

FunDza is excited about developments planned for the new 2014 year. These include ‘Investigating Life’ writing workshops to encourage more young people to write non-fiction, bringing to FunDza real-life stories about communities, events and local heroes.

In addition, FunDza will be running a major ‘Rights and Responsibilities’ project that will see it producing 12 short stories (one to be published each month). Each of these stories will be inspired by a specific right enshrined in our country’s Bill of Rights. The intention is to help young people develop insight into their constitutional rights, to deepen their understanding of our highly progressive constitution and to enhance their ability to effectively access justice for themselves and their communities. This fits well with FunDza’s underlying aim – to contribute to the growth of an educated, empowered and engaged youth in South Africa.

With thanks to the staff of the FunDza Literacy Trust for providing this blog post.