Twenty-five years ago, Tom Warth walked into a library in Jinja, Uganda, and was shocked to find rows of empty shelves. Upon returning to Minnesota, he organized a shipment of several mailbags of books from Minnesota donors.
That gesture evolved into the creation of a nonprofit, Books for Africa, which is now the largest donor of textbooks and library books to the continent.
Since 1988, the St. Paul-based nonprofit started by Warth has shipped more than 28 million books to 49 countries. There are no plans to slow down.
“I’m amazed at how far we have come, but there is still so much to do,” Warth said. “We’ve sent nearly 29 million books, but there are 450 million children in Africa.”
Books for Africa has garnered supporters across the United States, Africa and beyond. Kofi Annan, former U.N. secretary-general, recently wrote a letter congratulating the group on its anniversary.
“In the 21st century more than ever before, the natural resource which matters most is the talent of a nation’s citizens,” wrote Annan. “Education is the key to unlocking this potential. For hundreds of millions of individuals, literacy is the bridge from misery to hope.”
Books for Africa collaborates with booksellers, publishers, libraries and others to acquire the books. Among its biggest donors are Follett books in Chicago, which donated nearly 8 million books over the years, and Better World Books based in Indiana, which donated nearly 1 million, said Pat Plonski, the nonprofit’s executive director.
In recent years, Books for Africa has begun sending computers to Africa, as well as customized law libraries affiliated with universities, he said.
Last year, it shipped 2.2 million books valued at $28.3 million to 22 African countries. The countries chosen have significant English-speaking populations, Plonski said.
Meanwhile the little library in Jinja has not been forgotten. And it’s no longer little. This year, it will receive 22,000 books.
Said Plonski: “It’s come full circle”