When Carol Kimari started reading with her son and his friends from his elementary school in Nairobi, Kenya, she realized that his seemingly age-appropriate reading level was far ahead of his classmates. Kimari had been obsessed with reading since childhood—“I loved hiding in books,” is how she puts it—and had passed that affinity onto her son. And now his proficiency was bringing into sharp relief how little exposure his classmates had had to books.
As she began researching the problem, Kimari, a former IT consultant, discovered that her son’s school was not an isolated case but, rather, fairly typical of the region, where too many schools lack the resources not only to hire enough teachers but even to buy books. So in May 2013, she founded Grab A Book, a for-profit venture that brings reading education to Kenyan children aged 6–13, through a mix of book rentals, outreach programs, and activities designed to create a culture of reading in Kenya, where about half of all primary-school students fail to make the jump to secondary school. And even those who do often struggle with advanced reading comprehension, according to Kimari. “If we don’t bring back the reading culture, kids graduate from school without being able to express themselves,” she says.
Prompted by her experience with her son and his classmates, Kimari approached their teacher and asked if she could read with them on the weekends. The teacher agreed but said she didn’t have any books. So Kimari started with her personal collection while also seeking donations and borrowing additional books from friends.
In her nonprofit model, students at her sons’ school could join voluntarily. In addition to the weekend reading workshops, membership gave them access to reading games, book-summary competitions, book rentals, visits to local companies, and recreational activities like swimming and camping.
Within two months, demand was so great that Kimari had expanded into a second school (at their urging) and found herself going through the Unreasonable East Africa startup accelerator and striking partnerships with other organizations. To help reach scale, she is transitioning to a for-profit model that will include revenue streams like membership fees, book rentals, and sales of Grab A Book merchandise.
Kimari is also looking to expand the program into 40 additional libraries within the next four years. “But that’s a conservative number,” she says, adding that her ultimate goal is to reach 8 million primary school students in roughly 25,000 primary schools throughout Kenya.