Youth in the slums of Nairobi. Future readers of literature delivered by mobile phone?
Yoza publishes short, hip novels and classic literature on mobile phones for African youth. Designed to encourage reading, writing and responding, Yoza engages African youth with stories and social issues. The project, which was spearheaded by Steve Vosloo – a technology researcher in Cape Town – and financed by South Africa’s Shuttleworth Foundation, is dedicated to a participatory culture hungry for micro-doses of literature that are accessible as pixels not paper.
Officially launched last September, Yoza is based on Vosloo’s observations that African youth are book-poor yet mobile-rich. An estimated 90 percent of urban South African youth have access to cell phones and 70 percent of those phones are web-enabled. In stark contrast, more than half of South African households own no leisure books and only 7 percent of public schools have functional libraries.
Illustrations from Yoza’s premiere edition: Kontax
Yoza’s first story, Kontax, followed the adventures of a local graffiti crew around Cape Town. Its 20 pages were initially published over a month of daily dispatches via a mobisite and later on the popular MXit social network. Each episode, released in both English and isiXhosha, was around 400 words long. Prizes were offered for the best comments and sequel ideas from Kontax readers.
Via Yoza, 17,000 users accessed the full premiere Kontax series for free — well eclipsing the South African “best-seller” standard of 5,000 book sales. Each chapter costs the reader around 1 US cent to download. Explains Vosloo, “Mobile data is cheap relative to voice and SMS — and of course, books. It’s also about access.” According to Vosloo, readership exploded when Yoza was made available to MXit’s 15 million local subscribers — a share currently far greater than Facebook’s.
Yoza content on MXit social network and on a mobisite (Image courtesy of Yoza)
The comments feature allows Vosloo to stay in touch with what readers want. “It’s become clear that youth are keen to be both educated and entertained,” he notes. “We get many requests for stories which are relevant to their lives. We’ve had requests for story lines which cover drugs and teen pregnancy, careers, money and more.” Feedback has helped to shape onwards content which includes Streetskillz, set during the football World Cup, Sisterz which explores dark family secrets and teenage life plus Confessions of a Virgin Loser which follows a boy steering his way through a complicated world of peer pressure, teenage sex and HIV/AIDS. Social issues provide a further avenue for interaction. A story which touched on domestic violence elicited a slew of comments in support of the affected character and posts of personal accounts which empathised with her situation.
South African students read and respond to Yoza content. (Image courtesy of Yoza)
Alongside popular culture content, Yoza has also been adding episodic versions of classics from Shakespeare to Wordsworth and other curriculum related texts. Feedback from teachers in low-income schools tells of class assignments given in conjunction with Yoza content and applauds the access to classic literature which the platform has provided. While some may criticise the informal use of language by readers – comments across the site also highlight an engaged audience ready to amend mistakes which have eluded Yoza’s editors. Although youthful readers may comment in text-speak, they eagerly respond with corrections on errors which creep into stories.
Looking to the future, Vosloo has been speaking with various potential sponsors who understand the bridge he has created between reading, response and social issues. One such discussion has been with a bank around the notion of a series featuring elements of financial literacy within its storyline. An aspect which is attractive to sponsors is the appetite created through releasing stories in installments but also that the entire series is then available on the Yoza site and continues to attract commentary. “It’s a bit like the transition from a box-office to DVD release,” adds Vosloo. “There’s the initial rush to devour a fresh feature yet the legacy contributes to a growing library of accessible content.”
An edited version of this article appears in my Change Observer Report on Design Observer.