It was 30 years ago that Minnesota-based world traveler Tom Warth, shocked by what he called a book famine in Africa, shipped several mailbags of used books out of a church basement to libraries and schools there.
That modest gesture grew into St. Paul-based Books for Africa, one of the state’s best-known international charities that has become the world’s largest supplier of donated books to Africa.
Since 1988, Books for Africa has sent 40 million books across the Atlantic, stocked nearly 100 African law libraries and shipped electronic tablets loaded with nearly two million titles.
If you ask Warth, though, it’s not nearly good enough.
“We have to do more,” he said. “Forty million is not enough for 500 million children. We cannot rest on our laurels.”
As the nonprofit marks its 30th anniversary, Books for Africa is announcing ambitious plans. In addition to distributing books, it now plans to publish its own to meet the unquenched demand for reading and study materials on the world’s poorest continent.
“We’ve come a long way in 30 years from where we started in a church basement. We’ve had a substantive impact, but there is so much more opportunity,” said Patrick Plonski, Books for Africa’s executive director. “How do we harness the power of the market to distribute more books?”
Working with printing companies in Asia, Books for Africa is publishing 50,000 Swahili-English dictionaries and is in the middle of a deal with the U.S. Agency for International Development to help republish 300,000 children’s books in Portuguese for schoolchildren in Mozambique.
It’s exploring possible partnerships with book trusts — the equivalent of nonprofit bookstores in Africa — to get more reading material into homes. Most donated books now go to schools and libraries.
And Books for Africa is continuing to customize shipments of books to ensure they reach the people who need them most. It aims to expand book shipments by 15 percent this year, as it has every year since it was started.
Last year, the nonprofit collected and shipped 3.1 million volumes to 18 African countries, a 26 percent increase over the previous year.
Much is at stake. Half the world’s population younger than age 18 will be in Africa by the end of the 21st century, according to a UNICEF study. With an ever more interconnected world, the future and education of African children will touch all parts of the globe.
On a recent afternoon, Plonski and Warth visited with volunteers sorting and boxing books at Books for Africa’s warehouse in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. It also has a larger warehouse in Atlanta, close to the port cities of Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.
Attorneys from the Robins Kaplan law firm in Minneapolis recently volunteered at the warehouse, sorting and packing books.
“Part of their mission is sending law books to build law libraries in countries throughout Africa,” said Marla Butler, a Robins Kaplan partner specializing in litigation. “This matters because law libraries allow participation in a country’s legal and justice system by those other than just the most powerful.”
Warth grew up in England and moved to Minnesota in 1960 carrying little more than a suitcase. He built a publishing business, sold that and used some of the proceeds to travel the world.
One day in 1988 he wandered into a small library in Jinja, Uganda, and was floored to see empty shelves. He realized that African children and adults didn’t have the same access to books and reading material as Americans, who took such things for granted.
Books were such a rarity in some places, he found, that children didn’t even know how to hold them — they grabbed them by the pages instead of cradling the cover. The lack of access extended even to universities, where three law students often would share a single textbook.
So Warth decided to collect and ship some secondhand books. The seed was planted.
“The idea was so simple, yet the potential was profound. Reclaim good books destined for landfills and put them into the hands of African children,” according to the Books for Africa website.
Warth credits several things for its success. The charity has a simple, easy-to-understand name that doesn’t need explaining, for one thing. Also, he said, “Nobody ever wants to throw away a book. A book is incorruptible.”
Some told Warth that the Upper Midwest wasn’t fertile ground for an international charity because Midwesterners tended to be a bit insular. He pushed ahead anyway, confident about his idea and the growing understanding he found among Minnesotans.
“This is a part of the world that now thinks globally,” he said.
Books for Africa over the years has grown into a sophisticated international operation, forging critical partnerships and improving the quality of its materials.
Initially books were donated and shipped with little regard for what they were or where they went. College textbooks ended up at a grammar school.
“It used to be, ‘They’ll find some use for them,’ ” Plonski said.
As the charity grew, staffers began recycling outdated books rather than shipping them, and sorting the ones that went overseas so that elementary schools got storybooks and universities received textbooks. Books now are sorted into approximately 30 categories.
‘Excellent ideas fully implemented’
Books for Africa has forged partnerships with U.S. corporations — including Cargill, Pepsi, Boeing and Medtronic — that cover shipping costs. It joined forces with North Mankato-based Capstone Publishing and Lerner Publishing Group in Minneapolis to send their excess inventory to Africa. Thomson Reuters, which has an office in Eagan, agreed to donate books for law libraries through the charity.
Books for Africa also created alliances with federal agencies such as the Peace Corps and U.S. embassies, as well as nonprofits, social service agencies and African schools. That kept costs down and used existing community connections to better understand the need for books.
In 2018, Books for Africa expects to deliver at least one shipment of books to every country on the African continent. A 2015 World Bank report emphasized the urgent need for textbooks in sub-Saharan Africa: “No other input is likely to be more cost effective than making high-quality learning materials available to all students.”
“To be successful in life, you don’t need a million good ideas, you need one or two excellent ideas fully implemented,” Plonski said. “I think of Books for Africa as one of those excellent ideas fully implemented.”
As for Warth, this month he’s celebrating the anniversary by hiking up Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, touring the island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned — and visiting schools helped by Books for Africa.