Talking Book, A New Voice For isolated Communities

Photo Credit: Literacy Bridge, 2015, Cliff Schmidt

Photo Credit: Literacy Bridge, 2015, Cliff Schmidt

Isolated societies lack new-age know-how:

In today’s internet-connected, mobilized world, it is easy to forget that over 750 million adults remain illiterate, and 800 million still live on less than a dollar a day. The obstacles standing in the way of literacy and community development are numerous; and perhaps surprisingly, may be partially attributable to geography. Many of these adults live in remote areas with only minimal contact from the outside world and without access to modern or consistent education.

Since many of their inhabitants can’t read, remote communities have relied upon word-of-mouth education for thousands of years.

While word of mouth has preserved and spread some knowledge, the lack of literacy in isolated communities creates difficult conditions like: endemic poverty, deplorable infant mortality rates, energy isolation, underdeveloped agricultural practices, and generally preventable health issues. Attempts to address these difficulties with visiting teachers or temporary aid only help these communities briefly. To truly institute long-term change, there needs to be a knowledgeable, sustainable, durable, and orally-orientated “teacher.”

Literacy Bridge brings a new voice to orally-based societies:

In 2007, Cliff Schmidt, experienced a call to action to use technology to address the problems of poverty and disease. He left his job as a software developer at Microsoft to go on a six-week trip to Ghana. Once there, he came to the realization that more often than not these problems had the same root cause: A lack of education. His research discovered that the Ghanaian government had a sixty dollar per year budget for a child’s education, ruling out his initial idea of providing children with cost-efficient laptops.

After returning from Ghana, Mr. Schmidt realized that the need for education was not limited to children: The tool he wanted to create needed to educate anyone -- whether they could read or not, on almost any topic -- a “Talking Book". Over the next year, Mr. Schmidt forged a new path by involving potential users of such a tool, approaching local organizations and communities to assess what they wanted to learn. This research led him to found Literacy Bridge and through it the “Talking Book”.

Photo Credit: Literacy Bridge, 2015, Cliff Schmidt

Photo Credit: Literacy Bridge, 2015, Cliff Schmidt

The wide variety of problems in rural Ghana meant that the Talking Book needed to have an array of features to ensure its greatest utility as well as simple directions to ensure its usability.

These features came to include:

  • User recording and sharing functions

  • On-demand access to over 250,000 pre-loaded lessons in local dialects

  • Upload abilities through a simple cell phone connection

  • Easy command pad complete with straightforward instructions

All of these features played an important part in the overall user experience, and by enabling internet uploading and local recording on the Talking Book, Literacy Bridge was able to attain feedback on the lessons and product usability.

Mr. Schmidt partnered with numerous local NGO’s and government programs to ensure a streamlined and complete product. Although there are other topics available, Literacy Bridge decided to focus on five core lessons.

Photo Credit: Literacy Bridge, 2015, Cliff Schmidt

Photo Credit: Literacy Bridge, 2015, Cliff Schmidt

                                                                                                                                                       These included:

  • Health and nutrition

  • Gender issues

  • Agricultural production

  • Financial practices

  • General education

Establishing and Testing the Talking Book:

In 2009, he tested the first Talking Book prototype in a small village in the Upper West Region of Ghana. After gaining traction and seeing the Talking Book’s benefits, Mr. Schmidt realized he had to develop a concrete business and distribution plan, which brought him to the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship GSBI program in 2010.

The Talking Book’s simplicity is its greatest achievement. In an oral culture where words carry so much weight, the simple benefit of a voice capable of repetition lends a unique and previously unattainable benefit to these communities.

After completing its initial Development, Literacy Bridge needed to scale:

In 2014, after demonstrating clear product alignment and demand, Mr. Schmidt returned to the Miller Center to participate in the GSBI Accelerator and prepare Literacy Bridge for scaling. Mr. Schmidt would go on to develop a distribution system that relied upon two primary things: women and trust.

In these underdeveloped and isolated societies where foreigners are rarely trusted, Literacy Bridge worked with local partners to establish women as the distributors, as well as the managers of the Talking Books. These women volunteers are trained to ensure that the community-focused Talking Books trade hands within the villages and maximize their social impact. Their presence creates trust between the local people and their new chatty little friend, Talking Book.

Since finishing the GSBI Accelerator, Mr. Schmidt has continued to scale, gaining international recognition and partnerships. When the Talking Book was launched, it reached 970 children and adults; in 2015, that number is now over 20,000 Ghanaians. This exponential growth is even more impressive when you consider that the audiences it reaches are geographically isolated. Talking Book continues to strive for even better service, updating its lessons and tips regularly through a combination of user feedback and updated training programs.


  • 2008: Designed and field tested first Prototype

  • 2009: Achieved strong pilot impact

  • 2010: Participated in GSBI program, sold devices region wide

  • 2011: Won contract with World Cocoa Foundation’s public/private partnership

  • 2012: Launched last-mile distance learning platform in 10 villages

  • 2014: Participated in GSBI Accelerator program

  • 2015: 175,000 Ghanaians directly benefit from the Talking Book’s lessons and tips every month

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