Group in East Africa uses technology to deliver books to underserved communities

By Blacks In Tech 4 Comments

The invention of the printing press in 1436 increased access to books and facilitated the spread of knowledge unlike anything before it in human history. Today however, many useful books sit idly on shelves largely out of reach of the world’s poor. In rural Africa, the problem is particularly severe. Great distances make the transport of heavy books expensive. The storage of large quantities of books becomes problematic when enclosed spaces are better used for housing or as classrooms. The harsh climate means that over time, many books eventually become delicate and unusable. The Nzega Digital Library Initiative (NDLI), however, is seeking to change this using technology. The NDLI is being carried out in the town of Nzega in Tanzania where there are few schools and even fewer teachers. The largest libraries there contain less than a hundred books.

The NDLI has its roots in the Books for Nzega Project started in 2004 by Dr. Hamisi Kigwangalla, a local medical doctor turned politician. The original Books for Nzega Project focused on delivering donated physical books to local schools. However, the transportation and storage of these books proved to be costly for donors and recipients. The NDLI by contrast, will focus on distributing books in digital formats, which can be done at minimal cost. With the increasing ubiquity of inexpensive smart phones and tablet-like devices in Tanzania, the opportunity exists to exploit these tools for book distribution.

The first digital library in Nzega will use laptops that are connected to a network storage appliance. This appliance will contain books and educational materials in text, audio and video formats. No Internet connection is needed. The entire set-up will be scalable and portable. The system will run on the open source FreeBSD operating system which is well documented, mature and highly customizable. The permissive licensing of FreeBSD is an added benefit. If local start-ups wish to package the NDLI’s free implementation into a commercial device or service, this is facilitated by the licensing. For example, a group could have the idea of creating self-contained mini libraries using tablet-like devices that they could then sell. This could potentially create jobs, promote technological literacy and foster technology independence.

The NDLI has already obtained nearly 15,000 digital books from international donors with most books being in the public domain. A local college has contributed a computer lab where the project will be housed. Visitors will be free to read or copy library books to their own storage devices at no cost. A dedicated printer will print books for a fee to help sustain the project.

The NDLI is led by the PeerCorps Trust Fund (, a Tanzanian non-governmental organization focused on health and community development. The PeerCorps wishes to appeal to the international community to help raise $5,000 to acquire three Lenovo ThinkPad X300 series laptops and modern equipment for a file server. For more information, please contact:


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