Access to books is fundamental to the promotion of literacy.  In Africa and other developing areas, the promotion of literacy through reading is hindered by the high cost of books and inadequate government spending on education, particularly in rural areas.  But two giant institutions through their unique partnership are, among other things, promoting access to books and changing Africa's future, “one book, and one child at a time”. The Sir Emeka Offor Foundation (SEOF), a Nigerian Non-Governmental Organization and Books For Africa (BFA), based in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, are two of an iconic kind. Their shared vision, and the special relationship that they have developed, would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but it has now become a major driving force for literacy in Africa.


SEOF and BFA are, in their respective ways, quietly changing our assessment of how the African private sector can join forces with local and foreign NGOs to have a dramatic impact on the social fabric of the Continent.  Putting books back onto the once dusty bookshelves of rural schools and local libraries and into the hands of young schoolboys and schoolgirls is their overriding mantra. This is the new face of African corporate social responsibility as Africa becomes the home of some of the fastest growing economies in the world.  In Africa, a new kind of philanthropy, homegrown and focused on grassroots development, is emerging, and the collaboration between the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation and Books For Africa is helping to set the stage for this new trend.


Recently, a visit to Books For Africa at their main distribution center in Atlanta, Georgia gave me better insights into the robust synergy between BFA and SEOF and what these two very dissimilar but equally dedicated organizations are trying to achieve. The distribution warehouse, which holds several million books, is spread over 30,000 square feet.  To carry out its mandate, BFA depends on critical local support from thousands of volunteers, young and old, to receive, catalogue, and process the books that BFA acquires from multiple sources and sends out to recipients throughout the Continent.


According to BFA management, about 14,000 committed volunteers annually give their time and energy to sort and process books at the warehouse, which is a hub of volunteer activity.  The volunteers come from local colleges and universities, high schools, churches, fraternities and sororities, senior citizen groups, local companies, professional associations, and a host of other civil society groups. The volunteers supporting Books For Africa are considered to be the largest volunteer force of any non-profit establishment in the Atlanta area, and possibility in the United States.  Several years ago, BFA moved its new warehousing operation from St. Paul, Minnesota to Atlanta in order to be closer to East Coast ports in Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans, and Houston.  This strategic move has paid off handsomely in terms of lowering transportation and shipping costs and drawing on a much larger pool of volunteers and donors.


Most books donated to Books For Africa are for African primary and secondary schools, kindergartens, and public libraries, including reference books such as encyclopedias.  BFA also, however, sources liberal arts, science, math, and other specialized books for universities, jurisprudential volumes for law libraries, and books covering all aspects of business administration. Many of the books are new and current editions; other are slightly used.  For the latter, BFA has a very strict vetting process and no books are shipped to Africa that would not be used in American schools.  Old books are recycled and processed to make the cardboard boxes BFA uses to ship its donated books.  BFA receives donated books from publishers, schools, libraries, churches, companies, other NGOs and the general public.  It also sometimes purchases new edition surplus books from publishers at greatly reduced discounted prices.  


In addition to books, BFA occasionally responds to special requests for school supplies, including pens, pencils, tablets, rulers, book bags and the like.  On request, it will also supply like-new, reconditioned fully loaded desktop and laptop computers.  The Sir Emeka Offor Foundation has purchased more than 300 computers at a cost of approximately $200 per unit. It has 400 more on order.    

SEOF in its partnership with BFA ensures that donated books are shipped to    identified countries and regions in Africa, usually to local NGOs but sometimes to local and State governments. From the inception of the partnership in 2010, the SEOF has underwritten the shipment of more than 73 40-foot containers of books to Africa.  Sixteen containers have already been delivered to Nigeria, which is the largest recipient country.  Five containers have gone to the Gambia as SEOF’s contribution to that country’s “Million Books Campaign”.  Thirty eight containers have been shipped to 18 countries in all regions of the Continent, with 14 paid containers scheduled for delivery. The SEOF has made special efforts to provide books to some of the most disadvantaged countries on the Continent, including Chad, South Sudan, Niger, The Gambia, Somalia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, among others.


For 2015, the SEOF has recently commissioned the shipment of 16 additional containers of books to Nigeria, along with 400 desk and laptop computers, and 27 specialized library collections (e.g., law, map and agriculture). The financial burden for this crucial role includes the cost of shipping to destination ports and inland transportation.  This cost is borne solely by the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation., which so far has expended more than $1.75 million.   


Delivering books to Africa does not stop with paying the cost for freight and forwarding.  There are other inherent and unavoidable challenges, which are encountered along the transportation chain. For instance, moving container loads of books from seaports over local roads to inland distribution centers or local NGOs can be hazardous due to poor road networks and security risks, particularly in areas mired in conflicts. Getting the books to land-locked countries presents special logistical challenges because once the shipment arrives at the closest seaport, the destination country can be hundreds of miles away over treacherous roadways. .  Such was the case with Chad, Niger, Somaliland, Rwanda, and even Botswana.


So far, the SEOF has successfully facilitated the delivery of about 1.7 million books and computers with a commercial, off the shelf value of more than $18 Million to 19 African countries, including Nigeria. The SEOF’s financial and logistical role in these chains of events is the engine that keeps the books and computer supply going; it is also a fillip to greater literacy in Africa. BFA confirmed that Sir Emeka Offor is the single largest independent donor to their organization since its inception.



The unique union between SEOF and BFA brings smiles and sometimes tears to faces of African children, who do not take learning for granted and who see literacy as the gateway to a better life.  Through a labor of love between SEOF and BFA, a lifeline to knowledge and a new world is open for young aspiring African youth. Inevitably, through the strategy of “one book, one child at a time”, SEOF and BFA are empowering the future generation of Africans through access to literacy and education.


Dr. Edwin Ndukwe writes from Houston

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