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Send  Share  RSS  Twitter  30 Aug 2010

VENTURES: The Yoza M-Novel Library is Launched


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Last week a new library of cellphone stories – also known as mobile novels or m-novels were launched by the Shuttleworth Foundation as part of its m4Lit (mobiles for literacy) project. Yoza is the name of the m-novel library, which uses cellphones to support teen reading and writing. The m-novels are cool, interactive and free. Yoza is available on and on MXit (go to Tradepost > MXit Cares > mobiBooks) on all WAP-enabled cellphones, as well as on Facebook (search for Yoza Cellphone Stories).

Steve Vosloo, founder of Yoza and fellow for 21st century learning at the Shuttleworth Foundation, says: “For the foreseeable future the cellphone, not the Kindle or iPad, is the ereader of Africa. Yoza aims to capitalise on that get Africa's teens reading and writing.”

The m4Lit project began in 2009 as a pilot initiative to explore whether and how teens in South Africa would read stories on their cellphones. Most of the reading and writing that happens on cellphones is of very short texts, e.g. SMSes and chat messages on MXit. The Shuttleworth Foundation published a story called Kontax in September last year– twenty pages in length – and actively invited reader participation through this longer content; cellphones are interactive after all. Readers could leave comments on chapters, vote in opinion polls related to the story and enter a writing competition. By the end of May 2010 another Kontax story had been published.

The uptake was tremendous. Since launch, the two stories have been read over 34 000 times on cellphones! Over 4 000 entries have been received in the writing competitions and over 4 000 comments have been left by readers on individual chapters. Many of the readers asked for more stories and in different genres. Encouraged by the high uptake of the stories and by these reader requests, the Shuttleworth Foundation decided to launch Yoza.

Yoza’s goal is to get young people reading and writing, and in the ‘book-poor’ but ‘cellphone-rich’ context of South Africa, the phone is a viable complement and sometimes alternative to a printed book. If, as a country, we want our youth to read, then both books printed on paper and books on cellphones are needed. The paper versus pixels debate consistently takes up a lot of page space, but in a country with a severe literacy problem, it is necessary to move beyond that and focus on reading and writing, whatever the medium.

First and foremost, stories published on Yoza offer compelling, entertaining reading for teens in South Africa. The aim is to captivate teens and inspire them to catch the reading bug. To that end, an initial line up of appealing stories in different genres have been planned (see Yoza's story line up below). Enjoying well-written stories by good authors is part of the Yoza experience. The m-novels are written in conventional language, with txtspeak only used when a character is writing or reading SMSes or instant message chats. Also included are prescribed school reading from the public domainKB: Is this important to mention? And will you put up full text, or some abridged or txtspk version? for example, Macbeth.

To use cellphones to make reading material affordable and widely accessible
There is a growing awareness around the impact that a lack of books has on literacy levels in South Africa. Books are scarce and prohibitively expensive for most South Africans. Stats show that 51% of households in South Africa do not own a single leisure book, while an elite 6% of households own 40 books or more. Only 7% of schools have functioning libraries.

What South Africa’s teens do have access to are cellphones, with stats indicating that 90% of urban youth have their own cellphone. The take up and interaction with the first two Kontax stories published in English and isiXhosa clearly demonstrates that cellphones are a viable platform for local teen reading and writing. There is no charge for the actual stories, but users do pay their mobile network operator for mobile data traffic. Images have been kept to a minimum to keep the mobile data charges low – they range from 5c to 9c per chapter, making Yoza m-novels a very affordable option for great reading material for teens.

Part of Yoza's success will be measured on the number of teens that read, enjoy and share its stories. The more, the better. For this reason stories are published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike licence. This means that anyone can freely copy, distribute, display and remix the content, as long as they credit the original and subsequent authors.

The Praekelt Foundation was commissioned to develop the software platform that drives Yoza, and this too will be released as open-source software.

To grow the library of stories and create a community of readers
Over the next six months the plan for Yoza is to build a library of cellphone stories of multiple genres that are available to teens not only in South Africa, but ultimately throughout Africa. Kontax has already been published in Kenya through MXit. Competitions with airtime prizes prompt readers to participate in the interactive questions at the end of chapters, keeping readers engaged and coming back for more.

Current story languages include English and isiXhosa, an Afrikaans story is being written, and ideally stories in all of the South African languages will ultimately be published on Yoza. The Shuttleworth Foundation encourages the public to get involved in translating the stories into local languages – “if you translate it we’ll gladly publish it.”

While the Foundation is incubating the project, it will need to be sustainable from early next year. The project is actively looking for sponsors or partners to help make it sustainable.


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