Profiles – Cliff Schmidt of Literacy Bridge

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Talking Book

The Talking Book

If it hadn’t been for fate Cliff Schmidt’s life might have ended up very differently. The former Navy submariner once had dreams of being a filmmaker, but a detour into software development led him to being a keynote speaker in 2006 for a multi-city software conference. During some downtime in Atlanta, Cliff decided to take the long way back to the hotel and found himself wandering on an arc through the city that, by chance, took him past Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached, and into the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Site.

Walking around the grounds and taking in the life’s work of Dr. King, thoughts began building. And when Cliff rounded the site’s reflecting pool and stood in front of Dr. King’s grave, it all caught up with him. “Bam! That was the moment when everything changed for me. In that moment I felt really small compared to what [Martin Luther King, Jr.] chose to do with his life and how he changed the world.” Cliff didn’t have any regrets with his life thus far, but he said, “I felt that [Dr. King] wouldn’t be proud of me. I could be doing something different and more bold than what I was currently doing.” It was at that moment that the seeds of inspiration for the Talking Book and Literacy Bridge were planted.

The Talking Book is a deceptively simple device, really, but one that carries a hefty punch. Its purpose? To bring accessible knowledge in an oral form on issues of health, agriculture, maternity, and other topics, for people who might not otherwise have access to such information, either because of literacy issues or because they simply can’t afford the education and means necessary to improve their lives. A few simple buttons provide an intuitive interface to each device’s wealth of information. Small, rugged, and looking somewhat like a child’s Speak and Spell, it can be programmed and updated locally, as well as connected directly to any other Talking Book to share or update information. The device is ridiculously simple to figure out and use, and the information it contains can be life changing, if not literally lifesaving.

“There is one thematic idea here,” says Cliff. “Illiteracy is preventing people from leading healthy lives and increasing their income and productivity.”

I had the opportunity recently to sit down with Cliff and discuss at length how a once-aspiring filmmaker ended up in a small village in northwest Ghana following his vision to do something bold, different, and good in a quest to better people’s lives.

So how do you get from that reflective moment of being humbled in front of Dr. King’s grave to creating the Talking Book?

Cliff: For about six months after that experience I was actively trying to figure out what direction I was going to head in – trying to figure out what that “thing” was that I needed to be doing. Around September of that year I decided it was poverty, and it was probably not until December that I decided to focus on global poverty and preventable health diseases.

In April of 2007 I was put in touch with One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), and I spent some time working with them about how they could use their laptops to allow locally created content; allowing people in Ghana for instance, or anywhere there was a laptop, the ability to create content in the local language for their fellow citizens. That was an important idea to me, so we were brainstorming possibilities. The focus was around literacy: can you help kids learn to read by seeing text on the screen and hearing it spoken?

In parallel with that, I’d been taking a class at the University of Washington – The Law and Politics of International Trade – and I heard about a six-week study abroad program in Ghana. What attracted me to the program was that it was in a very remote area, and it would be working with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). So I signed up for the class. I told One Laptop Per Child I would bring some of their laptops with me, if they wanted. At that point, they hadn’t even started their program yet.

Was Ghana One Laptop Per Child’s first insertion point for their program?

Cliff: No, they had no relationship with Ghana at all. They had other countries that they had formed relationships with, and they had a couple of prototype laptop models, but they hadn’t started manufacturing anything yet.

Right before I left I looked at Ghana’s education budget and I saw that, on average, they spent $60 per student, per year, and I remember wondering how a $200 laptop was going to work in that kind of situation. How would these governments afford it? OLPC’s model was that they would sell the laptops to the governments, and it just didn’t make sense to me how governments would be able to afford to give a laptop to each child. It got me really disillusioned.

I felt like this was not reaching the very poorest children – that it wasn’t reaching any children – and I just didn’t see the financial model. In frustration, I thought about what one could do that would be similar but would be very, very low in cost. Could you go to that kind of extreme? I thought of holiday greeting cards; the ones you open up and it plays a recorded greeting. If that stuff can be done, for what couldn’t be more than a dollar a card, couldn’t that same concept be applied to textbooks?

That was the basic idea I had, and I went to Ghana and grew it from there.

I suspect you spent much of your six weeks in Ghana trying to better flesh out your idea?

Cliff Schmidt of Literacy Bridge

Cliff Schmidt of Literacy Bridge

Cliff: Exactly. I spent a lot of time with kids, students, teachers, and education administrators exploring the idea of using audio with books to help improve literacy. At the same time, I wanted to also learn everything I could about life in the most impoverished region in Ghana. Luckily, because of the University of Washington’s connection to a local NGO – the Rural Aid Action Program (RAAP) – I got to spend a lot of time with them. Another lucky thing was that RAAP was doing a five-year strategic plan, and as part of their funding they were getting peer reviews from other NGOs and government agencies, so I went with RAAP on many of the interviews they conducted as part of that.

RAAP would go to health and agricultural agencies, and I listened and tried to learn as much as I could. After the meetings, we’d all often go out for a drink and I would tell them all about my ideas. The interesting part was that when they would hear me talk about my ideas for having a device that would have audio recordings, that would help people learn to read, and could be for school students but could also adults, what I kept hearing [from the NGOs] was, “Let me tell you about my job. I go into these villages – many of them I can’t reach more than once a year because there’s just too many of them – and I get there, gather everyone around a tree and tell people how to improve their crops, how they can plant differently by spacing seeds out to an optimal distance, or prepare their soil differently. All things where they didn’t need to buy some special seed. Instead, it was just doing things a different way from what they’ve learned from their ancestors.”

Most of these villagers are subsistence farmers, correct?

Cliff: Yes, exactly.

What is the literacy rate among Ghanaians?

Cliff: Across the entire country it’s pretty similar to the rest of Africa and other developing countries: about sixty percent literacy for adults.

And I take it that’s mostly centered in the country’s urban areas?

Cliff: Yes, and that centralization obviously influences things. Where we were working, the literacy rate is around ten percent. Every year it gets better and better, and even though opportunities now are still not great because in a lot of villages only half of the kids are in school, at least that number is just half now. If they can make it through primary school their chances to become literate rise dramatically.

You were saying earlier that the Ghanaian government spends $60 per child annually for education?

Cliff: Yes, if you take the total budget and divide it by the number of kids. Keep in mind, that number includes buildings, teacher salaries, and stuff like that.

And what does the family have to pay out-of-pocket to send a child to primary school?

Cliff: Ghana is fairly progressive in that regard. For a while now they haven’t charged any official tuition for students attending school up through junior high school. Senior high school is usually a boarding school, and you do have to pay to attend. It’s akin to sending your child to a private school. But even in primary school there still are fees. You have to pay for your school uniforms, and other things – there’s just not a fee for tuition.

What is the average income for rural Ghanaians? How do they afford the school uniforms and everything else?

Cliff: Where we’ve worked in the northwest region of Ghana most people are living on $1 a day or less. For a lot of them there’s just no income at all. People, and especially women, do have some money because they’ll sell items like t-shirts and vegetables on the roadside, but for pure subsistence farmers there’s no real income to speak of, unless you produce more than your family needs and you can sell the extra harvest, and there’s only one harvest per year in northern Ghana. The valuation of those crops is where we get the dollar-a-day number from.

So you’re following these NGOs around from village to village, learning how they operate and gaining knowledge from the local villagers about who they are and how they live, and better conceptualizing what you think would work to help solve some of the problems you’re encountering. How do you go from that first trip to the Talking Book?

Cliff: I went into Ghana thinking that you’d, literally, have the greeting card device attached to every book that mattered. I didn’t know exactly how it would work, but that was my initial idea. I called up a hardware engineer friend from college explaining my idea to him and he told me that trying to localize all the information to accommodate different languages just wasn’t going to work the way I had envisioned it because of the production costs involved. That’s when I realized that I needed one device that contained lots of books, instead of lots of books containing one device. The other realization I had is that it should be used for health and agriculture.

There is one thematic idea here: Illiteracy is preventing people from leading healthy lives and increasing their income and productivity. There are two ways to address the issue. One is to help someone who is illiterate get access to literacy education and become literate. The other is to say let’s not wait for the one billion adults who are illiterate – which is one-seventh of the world’s population, by the way – let’s instead bring the knowledge they need in an oral form.

For the first couple of years with Literacy Bridge, I was seeing those two ideas as having different approaches. We were doing both with the same device and with the same team, but they were still different ideas. But in the last couple of years we’ve really focused on bringing the knowledge to people orally via the Talking Book. Most of the reason for that is because proving educational outcomes is hard, as far as literacy goes. For us, mostly it was just focus – we had to pick one or the other. We’re too small to try to be doing both.

How long did it take to come up with the finalized version of the Talking Book?

Cliff: I started Literacy Bridge in September of 2007 after returning from that first trip to Ghana. I started looking for a team and about a year later we had our first device. During that year I went to Ghana again to take a prototype of what we thought was going to work and put it in the hands of the people I’d met in the villages to see what they thought of it. Every time we tried anything, we always took it right to the people who would actually be using it to get their feedback.

There was a bit of iteration in figuring out the right design, but in January of 2009 we were at a point where we pretty much had a finished, working device. We had 100 devices and that was when we launched our first pilot. So it was about fifteen or sixteen months from the initial idea to launching the pilot.

What was the village in Ghana where you launched the pilot?

Cliff: Ving-Ving. It’s a village that I stayed overnight in on my first visit to the country. The great thing is that someone from Ving-Ving, a young man about twenty-two years old at the time, who spoke English and who went on to get a two-year degree, which was extremely unusual for that village, is now part of our staff. We’ve hired him because he’s brilliant. Not only brilliant in terms of being a smart guy with good ideas, but he understands what it’s like to grow up in one of the poorest villages in Ghana.

A Talking Book Introduction

So the Talking Book gets manufactured and then sent to wherever the local site is, and someone there then programs them with the necessarily localization?

Cliff: The original business model for this was to bring in donations to get things figured out and going, but we eventually hoped that our model would change and we would sell these devices to NGOs, as well as government agriculture and health agencies, and they would use and distribute the Talking Book. The idea behind that was because I was worried about cultural and/or content imperialism. I was worried that if I said, “This is how it should be used and this is the content that should be put on it,” that I would be wrong. So I was really just thinking at the time that Literacy Bridge would create the technology, then we sell that technology and people use it however they think makes sense.

However, over the last couple of years, and more specifically over the last couple of months, we’ve made a really major change. We’ve started seeing that we have a role to play in content creation, and that the content is incredibly important. We’ve learned a lot of things about what works and what doesn’t, and we need to share what we’ve learned with other people and not just assume because I’m American, or because my staff in Ghana is influenced by me, that we shouldn’t tell a district health officer how they could record content that would be more engaging.

Have you gotten any pushback from people on the ground in regards to that shift in the content creation?

Cliff: No, not at all. I think I’d get pushback if I tried to tell them how to plant corn, but if I tell them how to explain it to people in a way that’s going to make the biggest difference in terms of crop yield… No, there’s been no pushback at all.

Actually, it’s rarely me explaining these concepts. It’s our local staff in the country doing that, and the staff and I work together to figure out the best approach to that.

So the devices are sold to governments or local agencies?

Cliff: Well, that’s the change, and that’s what we’ve stopped doing. We still sell a few devices here and there in that way, but a few months ago I started feeling that, in our selling, we weren’t seeing enough impact and we weren’t learning fast enough.

We’ve got devices in upwards of twenty countries all over the world just through selling them to NGOs, but the issue is that technology is not the solution. It’s an important piece that can make a big difference, but without content – without really, really good content – you’re leaving money on the table and you’re not accomplishing or making the impact you could.

Also, without thinking about who should have these devices, how to make it equitable but still have opinion leaders who will influence other people to invest in these devices, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. How many is the right number of devices for a particular community? How often should it be updated in order to keep people interested? Should there be music and stories on these devices so people are engaged? There’s so much that will make a difference in deciding whether someone starts washing their hands with soap, or whether they apply a bed net well.

What is the cost to put a Talking Book into the hands of a villager?

Cliff: The devices themselves cost about $35 each. If you don’t include all the fixed one-time costs, it can get down to as low as $25 a piece. And that’s at low volumes, like a 1,000 units. Over time we’re hoping it will get down to under $10 each.

That’s for just manufacturing the device. Then you have to get the units in-country, and depending on how you bring them in a unit that was $30 could end up being $50-$60 just to get that one unit out into a remote village. I generally drop a few in my suitcase when I travel and manage to get them through customs without being harassed.

Given that the Talking Book is meant to be shared and used by more than one villager, have you figured out the number of units you need per village or population area?

Cliff: Right now we’re working on about thirty units to one village. Roughly thirty-to-one. We were trying fifty-to-one for a while, but it’s also how you distribute them.

It also depends on what you want to do. If you’re focused on maternal and child health, then having a couple of devices in every women’s group – if there are active women’s groups in a village – is a good way to distribute maternal and child information. The men and women who aren’t in those groups aren’t going to be able to access what’s on the device, so now what we’re doing is putting about thirty or so devices in a village of roughly 700 or so people. What eighteen of those devices are doing is rotating through households. You might have seventy to seventy-five extended family households, with twenty to forty people in each, and one device spends a week in each house, each month. Then it goes to another house. Then another, and another, before coming back. That’s a way to make these ratios work and to give families privacy at home to listen to the content, and the time to listen to it.

Another thing is that with pregnant women there are so many important things for them to know. So we make sure that a pregnant woman has her own device for one week each month, and each time she gets the device it’s updated with new information that’s specific to her time in her pregnancy.

One of the interesting things about the Talking Book is the ability to directly connect one device to another and share information that’s either built-in to a Talking Book, or information that has been directly recorded by an end-user. What kinds of information have you been seeing people share cross-device with each other? And are you finding that with the ability to record and share recordings the Talking Book is replacing the traditional village storyteller, or is it just people making silly sounds?

Cliff: We’re finding people are recording and sharing their stories more than anything else. Kids will record all kinds of stuff, of course, and when a lot of people first see the device and start playing with it they love to hear their own voice played back, but storytelling is the biggest thing we’re seeing.

With the Talking Book having been out in the field for some time now, are you finding that people are taking advantage of what it offers them or are they looking at it more as a novelty to be played with?

Cliff: The valuation is important in all of this, of course. You can’t really convince a lot of people to donate, and you can’t get funding from a foundation, unless you can prove the device has value. Also, you can’t know for yourself if you’re doing any good unless you can evaluate how well it’s working.

Our first pilot in 2009 was really done as a feasibility study. We decided to spread the 100 devices we had around to health clinics and schools, and we put twenty-one devices in Ving-Ving. We started that in January, and we went back to Ving-Ving in August of 2009 to see how things were going. At this point we were focused a little more on the agricultural side of things, so we interviewed farmers who had the devices and asked them what they’d learned, and they started reciting information that was contained in the Talking Book. We asked them if they’d actually implemented any of what they’d learned, and they said yes. Then we asked if what they’d done made any difference, and they said it had.

We were a little worried that they were just telling us what we wanted to hear out of politeness, so we went out to the farm of a villager who said he’d been following planting advice on the Talking Book. He showed us some corn crops, saying, “These crops here were planted the way I learned from my parents and grandparents.” Then he pointed over to another section and said, “This corn crop I planted at the same time, but planted them using the knowledge I learned from the Talking Book.” And the second corn crop was thicker, greener, and taller than the crop he’d planted using traditional methods. It was amazing!

At that moment we realized that we needed to start measuring crop production, and what we found out was that farmers in Ving-Ving who didn’t check out a Talking Book had a five percent drop in crop production from the previous year. Those that had used the devices had a forty-eight percent increase in crop yield. We looked for demographic differences, education differences, and all kinds of things between those who saw a better crop yield and who didn’t, and when we did a more rigorous statistical analysis we saw there was indeed a serious contribution being made to crop production when farmers implemented the advice offered on the Talking Book versus those who didn’t.

Anthony Dery Talks About the Results of New Farming Practices

Did everyone in the village have access to the Talking Book at this point?

Cliff: It was the entire village. We estimated there were about 100 farms in Ving-Ving, and thirty-four farms had farmers who listened to it and used the advice. Those thirty-four farms showed a forty-eight percent improvement on average, and the remaining farms had a five percent drop on average versus the previous year. So it was just comparing each farmer against their previous year’s crop yield.

Why was there a five percent drop for those who used traditional planting methods? Possibly bad weather, or weather that wasn’t as good as the previous year. It’s hard to say. The important thing, and the assumption we were making, was that the ones who had the Talking Book would have also had a five percent drop if they hadn’t implemented the advice offered on it.

Do you find that when people receive a Talking Book and start to see improvements in their crops or in their health that they’re reluctant to return the device for others to use?

Cliff: No, not really. In Ving-Ving, we saw that people realized that it was something important and that it’s probably expensive, and so we found that some people didn’t check out a device because they were worried about something happening to the device while they had it and being held responsible as a result. So this is one of the reasons that we stopped the check-out method and instead implemented a household rotation to make sure every family in the village got equitable access to the device.

What the lifespan is for a Talking Book that’s in use, and how difficult it is for it to be updated?

Cliff: Getting information onto the Talking Book is really simple: you connect two devices and you can copy updates from one to the other. Our staff in Ghana determines what content needs to be created or updated, and they work with local health and agricultural experts. They do interviews and prepare content updates. We have our own software suite that is, conceptually, similar to iTunes; but instead of “artist” and “genre” we have “language” and “category.” We also have a play count, so every time an item gets played on a Talking Book the device records usage data, and every time two Talking Books connect they share that data with each other. So if you grab any Talking Book in a village that’s been connected to any other Talking Book, and you plug that device into our software suite, you’re going to see how many times in total a particular topic has been played. You also see how many times a topic has started to be played, how many times it was played completely through, how many times someone decided to give a copy to their friends.

To update the device, you connect it to your laptop and drag-and-drop the new recordings you want to add to it. Then it’s on that one device, which you can connect to others and replicate the updated information out from there. In practical terms, what that means is one of our staff field agents stops in a village and visits his contact there, and then connects his or her Talking Book to the contact’s device. The device gets updated, and then the contact updates other devices in the village, and the field agent continues on to the next village.

The device lifespan is about five years. That said, we’ve now had Talking Books in the field for three-and-a-half years and they’ve shown no signs of significant wear. Physically, they’re fine. Some may be dirty or have a few scratches on them, but they’re still working fine. Sometimes memory cards get corrupted and the device needs to be reformatted, but that can be done from another device. That’s something that only an expert user in a village would probably be comfortable doing. They’re our point person in a village and they’re the one that people generally go to for help.

Because the batteries typically used in a Talking Book are carbon zinc and not alkaline, the battery life of a device is about twelve hours. Now, if you put Duracell batteries in a device it will last for 70-100 hours, depending on usage. But using the very cheap batteries that cost about thirty-five to forty cents for a pair, and because of that cost are what villagers typically use, the battery life is much lower. There’s also a power adapter on the device that’s designed to fit the most common cell phone found in Africa, which is the Nokia 1100. The charger for that and other phones in the Nokia family will fit the Talking Book.

Literacy Bridge has gotten attention and praise from the Clinton Foundation, if I’m not mistaken. Do you feel like you’re at a point now where you’re getting the kind of charitable attention you need for the device to succeed?

Cliff Schmidt and President Bill Clinton

Cliff Schmidt and President Bill Clinton

Cliff: Not the Clinton Foundation, but the Clinton Global Initiative. They’re separate entities. The former gives money. The latter, which we’re involved with, doesn’t give money but it gives you a lot of attention and a lot of exposure to celebrities, CEOs of foundations, and other people like that.

We’re getting a lot of attention, which is good. In the academic arena an article is being published this June in a top-tier academic journal on the evaluation of the forty-eight percent crop improvement we talked about earlier. I’m also frequently speaking at conferences about the Talking Book. Anyone who is really focused on technology and global poverty probably knows about us and the Talking Book.

Do you find that they’ve been receptive?

Cliff: Yeah, I find that the closer someone is to the field or to a rural village we’re involved with, the more excited they are about the project. In Washington, D.C., and here in Seattle, it can be pretty hit or miss. So whether people really know what conditions are like in the poorest areas of the world is up for grabs. Some people will ask why we don’t use smart phones or something like that.

Along those lines, do you get compared a lot to One Laptop Per Child?

Cliff: Not as much anymore. Unfortunately for OLPC, people aren’t as optimistic about what they’re doing these days. When they started they had a lot of attention, and possibly because of that it might be why they’re not getting as much attention now.

We get a lot favorable critical attention but not a lot of donations. It’s really tough. Part of it is that we’re small. Organizations like the Gates Foundation tend to give bigger grants, so they’re not going to look at us and give us a $5,000,000 grant because we’re too small to absorb that much money. They kind of want you to have to prove yourself through other means, and when you get to a certain size as an organization they’ll evaluate you. That said, I recently had a meeting with one of the most senior people at the Gates Foundation, and we’re hopeful what might come from it.

So we kind of piece things together, mostly through individual donors. This year we really need to break out, and we’re doing it in a couple of ways. One is that we need to start raising serious cash for the project. It’s been about five years since we started. We’ve learned and proven a lot, and we’ve got a really good model now. We’ve proven ourselves in agriculture, and we’re now starting to get some results in regarding healthcare. So I need to go out and start talking to people and foundations to see if we can get some serious cash. Not several million dollars, but at least a few hundred thousand to get a serious staff to really follow this through and expand the project.

In parallel with that, we never really made it easy for a donor to have a connection with where their money was going. When our model was selling devices to other organizations it was really hard to ask people to donate money so that we could sell devices to other NGOs, possibly in situations where we couldn’t tell our donors exactly how the device would be used or where it might end up. Luckily, we’ve had hundreds of people who’ve donated over the last five years who’ve gotten us to where we are now, and we’ve spent that money on the research and development of the Talking Book itself.

We originally pushed this “technology is the answer” kind of thing; and while I’ve learned that technology is an important part, the content is also important, as is the program design. We’ve now taken an idea that came out of the Clinton Global Initiative and we’ve made a commitment to address maternal and child health for 24,000 mothers and children in seventy-five villages in Ghana. We made a bold commitment that we would do this in two years, and now we need to find the funding to make it happen. We looked at what we were doing and said let’s actually do full comprehensive programs and run it this as a model for how the program should really work. Let’s simply make that all we do and forget selling devices to NGOs, governments, and others until we’ve really got this figured out. Then after a couple of years of doing this we can tell other organizations, “This is how we did it. This is how many staff we paid. These are our best practices in content development, whether it was health or agriculture.” There’s just so much in behavior change communication to understand.

Why the Talking Book Matters

So it’s more of an open source model towards product development and implementation of the Talking Book.

Cliff: Yeah, exactly. Basically, our offering would no longer be just the Talking Book. Our offering would be the device, along with an open sharing model of what did and didn’t work for us, and allowing people to adapt it as they need to in their respective countries. That’s what we’re trying to do now.

The idea is that we invest in these communities. We bring the Talking Book to them and learn all we can from them, then we go out to the government ministries that used to buy these devices and we tell them, “You don’t want to buy these devices. What do you want hardware for? You’re an agriculture or health organization. What you want is to have your knowledge turned into behavior change to help people start farming in a more useful way, or to treat health issues better. So we’re offering a service now for these countries and organizations to do this. They pay us a fee to maintain this operation: to produce the content and to install them on Talking Books.

Like any business, the issue is that you have to put forward an investment to really get it started. These governments are not going to pay us to put in several dozen Talking Books in a village because that’s not the value they want. Instead, they want to pay someone for a certain amount of content that affects a certain amount of behavior change, and to do that incrementally as they need it. So we make an investment in a village to create a financially stable model. Then we can say to the health department that for far less than you spend on any other methods that aren’t working as well to get people educated about how to keep their babies healthy, etc., you can pay us to make this program work and we’ll get this out and you’ll see that it’s making big changes above and beyond the changes that we’ve already seen.

And so this is where we actually have a way to actually connect with donors. Instead of asking for cash on the promise that we’ve got a whole bunch of great ideas that we want to make happen but I can’t tell you exactly where your cash is going because there’s so much that has to happen, and look at our books one day if you want to know what we do, what we can now do is say, “Here is the village of Ving-Ving, and they would really like the program. They fit our criteria and we’re ready to go. Here’s what we’ve done in other villages, and here’s the difference it’s made. Now, do you want to help us make this happen in Ving-Ving?”

Many hundreds of donors have helped us to date, but if we want to really grow, learn, and reach these seventy-five communities, this is how we need to do it.

What is the cost per village to make this happen?

Cliff: It costs $5,000 per village for the cost of all the Talking Books, the training, and the batteries to keep the devices running for a year. $5,000 to make an initial investment to bring Talking Books to a village and have it run successfully for a year. That works out to about around $7 per villager.

The key thing is to not give someone a year’s worth of information, but to make an investment into something that is ongoing and lasting. That’s what I’m really excited about. No more selling devices, but instead focusing on doing the work ourselves; developing the program, expanding, figuring out how scaling would work from a business perspective, and then getting the capital from donors who want to know that their money is going to a particular group of people.

And, of course, the affinity that comes with donating to a specific village or group of people.

Cliff: Exactly.

Looking back to when you were standing in front of Dr. King’s grave, and looking at what has transpired since, do you think you chose the path you were meant to take in life?

Cliff: Yes. I definitely don’t feel like I’ve reached the goal, or that I should be patting myself on the back or anything, but I feel like I’m headed in the right direction. It’s definitely been the right decision, and I’ve never questioned it.

For more information about the Talking Book and Literacy Bridge please visit You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.

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