Funmi Ilori is an educational psychologist and social entrepreneur. She is the founder of iRead Mobile Library Network Africa, the first innovative and fully integrated “books on wheels” for children in Nigeria, bridging literacy gaps, empowering teachers and enhancing education for the African child.
She completed her first degree in Urban and Regional Planning, attained a postgraduate diploma in Education and thereafter a Masters degree in Educational Psychology. Funmi is passionate about education and the environment, and she represents this as a green ambassador for United Nations Carbon Credit Network, leading countless women and children to “go green” by empowering them with entrepreneurial skills and practical knowledge of climate change, renewable energy, and how they can contribute to saving the planet.
She is a 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow working to improve the quality of education with her dream of building the largest network of libraries in Africa, creating direct jobs in the education industry, making positive contribution to the shaping of educational practices in Africa while closing the gaps in youth literacy. She spoke to Olamide Babatunde.
You started the iRead project, what led to this idea?
I attended a leadership training at Daystar Leadership Academy, and we were instructed to write down a very big dream that seemed unattainable. I wrote: “To build the largest library in Africa”. We were challenged to start our dream with what we had, so I put my books and DVDs in separate baskets, and started moving from house to house, renting out my materials. 10 years later, I participated in the Youwin grant award competition, and I was selected as one of 120 finalists out of 66,000 applicants to win N10,000,000.
The mobile library is a novel idea, considering how a lot of children are seen roaming the streets during school hours. Is this project for them?
Yes, iRead mobile library’s mission is to make information and resource materials available and accessible to children through an efficient mobile library for the advancement of knowledge and the enhancement of the quality of human life. iRead seeks to promote the reading culture in readers development of values, attitudes and appreciation. We identify major obstacles that inhibits reading and proffer solutions. We provide easy access to quality and variety of materials that will open children to the world around them; books, pictures, maps, films, recordings and all other printed media. Children in underserved communities have been deprived of quality education and so we bridge that gap.
How much of an impact has the iread project made since inception?
Growing a reading generation by improving access to education for the African child through quality information and resource materials that inspire lifelong learners for national and global agenda is a passion that I pursue and continue to innovate. iRead is helping to bridge the literacy gap for children, in under-served communities.
Since inception, iRead has provided over 16,000 books to children across 200 schools and communities, using our four mobile library truck and vans. We have trained children who are ardent readers, creative writers, illustrators, and more, in the network. iRead mobile library carries a wide selection of physical books, audio books and information materials for the use of registered members across ages 3-19 years presently. Our educators help children set reading targets of one book per week. In my quest to bridge literacy gaps, I started seeing tremendous results with children reading and reading widely. However, I observed that some were reluctant to consistently write reviews of books read.
I launched the iReflect journal which will help children to capture formal and informal events happening to them and around them, using guided prompts. Children will record their progress and gain a sense of achievement as they reflect and describe present and future situations in writing and drawing. Every user of iReflect journal from age 5 will improve on self-awareness and prepare personal action plans.
Your aim is to reach 1 million children and help them rediscover learning. In what ways do you intend to achieve this goal?
My plan is to distribute iReflect journal across schools and communities in Nigeria and Africa, set up library hubs in every community across Nigeria and to give more access to our elibrary so that we are not limited by my few mobile libraries.
With approximately 10.5 million kids out of school (UNESCO/GMR), Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children; an alarming 47% of the total world statistics. Where an enrolment exist, the facilities and instructional tools to provide inclusive education are far reaching; Learning and education are expensive or not available in most part of our remote communities while corruption and stealing funds allotted by the government to address some of these challenges continue to increase.
iRead Mobile Library serves as an educational solution responding to the increasing illiteracy gaps between children, family and the community. iRead mobile library builds community-led professionals and volunteers to address these challenges in a friendly, innovative and sustainable way while information materials for children ages 3-19 years. iRead helps children set reading targets while engaging STEM education using technology gadgets. iRead project provides the missing link by removing education barriers for out of school children from marginalised and low income communities who have been deprived from educational opportunities.
The educational system needs redemption, given the privilege what changes would you effect?
In my youthful years, I saw the damaging and value-eroding educational system in my community, and I understood that – in order to improve the quality of education, a whole new approach to learning process was necessary. This birthed my dream to build the largest network of libraries in Africa, making information/resource materials available and accessible to the African child. Noting the lack of literacy programmes available to children within my community, I will continue to provide shelter (with the aid of mobile libraries) to help 1 million children tackle reading challenges. I will also continue to raise awareness on the importance of a healthy reading culture and communicate same to parents.
We organise series of camping programmes to teach children leadership and sportsmanship through computer education, literacy, etiquette, cultural heritage, environmental sustainability and financial intelligence. iRead is responding to the underserved and marginalised through Education Re-innovation and championing the change of building the single largest mobile library Network in Africa, where children can learn and develop skills outside of the regular school system, even if any exists. We do not have sufficient and convenient public libraries to serve the entire region and bring development to the people, therefore, iRead will model excellence by removing barriers to having convenient mobile library on demand without children having to travel miles to access the educational resource material they need for literacy, numeracy, research in special interests, sciences or soft skills. By 2030, no child in Nigeria will be left behind.
Have you partnered with other organisations since inception and how has it been so far?
We have partnered with several organisations, including, carbon credit network which powers our STEM programmes across schools, private schools in Lagos, Teensed Foundation, Beach Samaritans, Topjoy concepts, BookWorm Café, Readland, Association of Nigerian Authors, the Lagos State Library Board, and more.
At any point, did you feel you were not doing enough with the project. How did you handle it?
Libraries are facing a considerable and never-ending challenge: how to keep pace with the rapidly changing technological landscape and ensure the services we provide tap into the new technologies which are infiltrating society. iRead Mobile Library model is designed to provide essential reading materials to children at marginalised communities across Nigeria. With increasing educational decline standard in Nigeria, 70% of our children are deficient in receiving quality positive feedback or follow up on in-school curricular academics. Report of a survey conducted in nine northern states shows that over 80% of women are unable to read (compared with 54% for men). We are constrained by limited resources to reach far and wide as we currently serve only children within urban slums and peri-urban communities in Lagos and Ogun State (South West Nigeria). The road networks and traffic situation are major obstacles to our operations.
What is your biggest motivation?
I was selected by President Barrack Obama as a Mandela Washington Fellow for the Young African Leadership Initiative programme in 2015. During my fellowship in the United States, only 3 of us out of 41 persons were teachers from Nigeria, and this has continued to inspire me that the work I do is important and impacting lives. The joy of the children running out of their homes and schools at the hunk of the mobile library brings me fulfillment and it motivates me to do more.
One quote you live by would be?
Sow good seeds wherever you are planted, because you will reap if you faint not. Finally, start, start with what you have because dreams come through and your dream won’t be an exemption if you take the bold step to start.