Building Libraries Along Fiber-Optic Lines in Sub-Saharan Africa

The Washington, D.C.-based startup, Librii, is rethinking what a library looks like.
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The Washington, D.C.-based startup, Librii, is rethinking what a library looks like.

By Li Zhou, SMITHSONIAN.COM

Andrew Carnegie once said, “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” The philanthropic steel magnate's investment in libraries ultimately established the earliest infrastructure for free and public knowledge sharing in the United States. During the Depression, the Carnegie Library in Washington, D.C. was even called “an intellectual breadline.”

Inspired by Carnegie's work, David Dewane, a sustainable architect, entrepreneur and educator currently based at the Halcyon Incubator in Washington, D.C., is looking to build more libraries — this time, in Sub-Saharan Africa, where only 13 percent of people have an Internet connection. His four-year-old startup, Librii, a name that comes from the root word for book in romance languages, plans to open its first site in Accra, Ghana later this year. Each Librii will consist of an anchor building that acts as a physical study space and houses collections, an e-hub made from a modified shipping container that contains high-speed computers along with other digital tools and an agora that serves as a public plaza equipped with WiFi. Dewane shares his story with Smithsonian.com.

Let's start with the problem. What problem are you trying to fix?

Librii’s goal is to bring access to information and the tools needed to create content to the developing world. For example, throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, there is a large population with very low access to high-speed Internet services. This used to be an infrastructural problem, but that is changing with fiber-optic networks rapidly spreading into previously isolated markets.

While cell phones can provide limited access, even leveraging a smartphone is still like looking at the web through a keyhole. Mobile devices are great tools to quickly access brief content, but imagine starting a business or going through school with only a smartphone. Full participation in the global economy requires powerful computers on fast connections.

So, what exactly is Librii? Could you give me your elevator pitch?

Librii is a network of physical libraries along the expanding fiber-optic network in the developing world. It is founded on the principle that if you put excellent educational resources into the hands of industrious and ambitious individuals, they can transform their lives and their communities.

Librii provides fresh, relevant content and vibrant, collaborative spaces. We are giving the library a business model by balancing free and paid resources and providing a personalized learning experience, which ensures every dollar spent at Librii is having the maximum possible impact.

How does Librii work?

Librii is designed to work very much like the Internet. Unlike the historic library, where individuals go to absorb knowledge in a contemplative environment, Librii is a place you go not only to learn but also to create. We get to know our users and understand their learning goals, then martial whatever resources we can to help achieve these goals. We use money from philanthropy to build the library, but activate a series of revenue streams within the library to pay the operating costs.

What are these revenue streams?

This is really the key to the whole project. Librii functions as a last-mile service provider linking local users with the Internet, and therefore many cloud-based companies. We believe most of our revenue will come from relationships with web companies, including many advertisers, trying to enter and expand in emerging markets. At the same time, we will also institute a freemium model for users, allowing them affordable access to various Librii offerings at tiered price points.

How did you come up with this concept? Why focus on libraries?

Over the course of roughly 30 years, Carnegie built 2,500 libraries around the world, 1,700 of which were in the United States — about half of the libraries in the country at that time. On average, he opened a new library every 5 days for 30 years. It’s a model for knowledge creation. We simply asked, What if we were to build another wave of libraries today? Where would they go, and who would most benefit? Our answer was Librii.

How would you describe your success to date?

Slow but precise. We have a large vision that could improve the lives of millions of people. However, we want to make sure that our development process is both deliberate and transparent. For example, because of our funding structure, we are a private, rather than public, library, which opens up new avenues to revenue, such as advertising, fee-for-service and big data.

Our goal is to construct a business model that best supports Librii’s long-term success, while also making sure that business model is clear and fair to our users. We have the support of organizations like the World Bank Institute and Dell, and we succeeded in raising $50,000 from 650 people in 30 countries in a Kickstarter campaign. Our plan is to go live in the coming months, which is very exciting.

We plan to open a pilot library in spring of 2015. This will be a test and will run as a "pop-up" - open for 30 days and then closed. We will use this pilot to test a variety of revenue streams and gain validated learning about what our customers actually want. We will also use the experience as the basis for a second, larger round of fundraising for our first permanent Librii. We're targeting the end of 2015 for a hard launch.

As you see it, what is the potential impact Librii could have on access to technology and information resources in Africa?

In his 2015 Annual Letter, Bill Gates stated that, "The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history." I believe that's true, and Librii is determined to play its part, specifically in Africa. If you closely examine the data, you'll discover that Africa has done a great job in cellular penetration, but far less than India and China in terms of hard-line fiber connecting businesses and households. That will make the kind of access Librii offers disproportionately valuable in this specific market.

When I was in Ghana, I had a driver named Posh. As we drove around, we discussed the concept of Librii, and Posh was excited because he had never been on YouTube. When I asked him what he would use Librii for, he said "I would get more education. I don't want to be a driver forever." Sharing information with someone like Posh would change his life.

What will the first Librii site look like? What kind of resources and tech will it include?

Librarians have advised us that what really drives use of a library is how light and clean the space is. Our first Librii will be a storefront, so it will probably look a lot like an Apple Store, but with more opportunities for concentrated teamwork. In terms of the tech, we're aiming to replicate or exceed the quality of experience you'd expect to find in the computer lab of an American university — powerful machines on fast connections with up-to-date software. We'll present both Macs and PCs and see what the users respond to. We're committed to having a physical collection and would like to have an on-demand book printer.

How did you decide on Ghana for the first site?

Ghana is a very attractive market in West Africa. It is politically and economically stable and has a lively press, and it is relatively easy to do business. It is English-speaking and maintains a strong GDP per capita. Many Western companies are launching their African operations from the country. Throughout the nation, there is a sense that "this is our moment," and Librii is excited to be a part of that moment.

How do you plan to scale your company? What's next?

Our concern at the moment is to get the model right in one library in Accra. Once we feel confident we are on the right track, our plan is to grow narrow and deep with several more libraries in Accra that can be guided by a single management team. From there we can expand to other cites and countries.

You've mentioned Andrew Carnegie's investment in libraries as an inspiration, are there other startups you see as models for how you'd like to establish Librii?

Starbucks has been very influential to us. Starbucks reintroduced a product that already existed in the marketplace — coffee — in a way that was more glamorous and attractive. We are attempting something very similar with information. Starbucks is also a very successful franchise with a significant place-making component that experienced rapid growth. You could say Librii is striving to be the Starbucks of libraries.

If you could toss out one question to the masses, in hopes of crowdsourcing an answer that would be helpful in building Librii, what would that question be? And why?

Would you be willing to develop a mentoring relationship with a Librii user to help them achieve a learning goal? This is one component of our business model we're interested in testing.

This article was originally published by Smithsonian.com.

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Top photo courtesy of Librii