The Africa Literacy Project

Diatom Impact
6 min readSep 3, 2020

“Literacy is the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman, and child can realize his or her full potential” — Kofi Annan

About The Africa Literacy Project

The Africa Literacy Project (ALP) is a transcontinental initiative that partners with government agencies, literacy centres, development partners, and TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) providers to offer literacy courses en masse to vulnerable social groups. Our pilot project, in partnership with the Freetown City Council’s skills development working group, begins in Freetown, Sierra Leone with 250 female traders and domestic workers, 125 persons with disabilities, and 125 youth.

Why is literacy important?

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), literacy is defined as one’s ability to read and write a short simple statement about their everyday life (UNESCO, 2016). More than that, literacy skills allow us to understand, analyze, reflect on, solve, connect, communicate, and engage others with the written word. This grows increasingly important in a technologically enriched and connected world. Agencies like UNESCO and the Education For All movement launched in 2000 frame literacy as a right and a critical instrument for development. Literacy skills are an entry point to developing more advanced, stable, and better compensated skills for work (Worldbank, 2020; UNESCO, 2015). Literacy is also correlated with increased political participation and financial independence (UNESCO, 2006). This is especially important for women and girls who may be excluded from social and educational activities in regions like sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

Literacy varies across regions.

Three-quarters of the global illiterate population live in South and East Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Even so, world figures show that literacy rates are lowest in SSA (see graph below). In 2018, the average world literacy rate was 86% while SSA’s rate was just 67%, leaving approximately 213 million unable to read and write in SSA. Nigeria has the largest proportion of illiterate people in SSA with over 41 million people unable to read and write.

source: WorldBank DataBank

In SSA, improvements in universal primary education have increased youth literacy rates but not enough to eclipse population growth (UNESCO, 2016). According to the World Bank, adult literacy rates in SSA average 66% while youth literacy rates are higher at 77%. Out of the 10 countries with the lowest adult literacy rates in the world, 9 of them are in Africa. See the table below:

As shown above, only 22% of Chad’s population aged 15 and over are able to read and write. For the countries listed above — Niger, Guinea, South Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Sierra Leone — more than 50% of the population are illiterate.

Literacy is Gendered

Between 1990 to 2011, the total number of illiterate people increased from 133 million to 182 million, and across all regions, adult illiteracy rates were higher for women (UNESCO, 2016). Women comprise approximately two-thirds of all illiterate adults (USI, 2015) and these grave statistics have shown almost no change since 2000 (UNESCO, 2016). As shown in the graph below, gender gaps in literacy rates are greatest for many African countries including Niger, the Central African Republic, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire.

In 2018, 42% of adult men from Sierra Leone, as opposed to 58% of adult women were recorded as illiterate. In Nigeria the corresponding statistics are 29% of adult men, as opposed to 47% of adult women, were recorded as illiterate in 2018. Literate women are a key ingredient in building sustainable, healthy societies, and economies. Research has shown that literate mothers have healthier children. Maternal literacy also correlates with higher school enrolment, reduced child mortality, and less poverty (Chisholm & Hasan, 2009; UNESCO, 2006). Literacy supports economic growth through the additional income earned on average from higher-skilled jobs (Reder, 2010). Precise gains to the gross domestic product will depend on the structure of the labour market and the macroeconomic climate in each country. However, equally important is the impact that gains in literacy have on critical consciousness and empowerment (Trudell, 2009). Those who become functionally literate may experience gains in employability but they also have more choices in the ways in which they participate in society and the economy.

Sierra Leone Pilot Program

Our 4-month pilot will teach 500 non- to low-literate adult and out-of-school youth learners utilizing a digital solution that teaches literacy using a phone. Training will be delivered by Cell-Ed’s unique technology; a voice- and text-based app that offers 3 to 5-minute micro-modules via SMS, an app, and Whatsapp. Content will introduce learners to phonetics, the alphabet, and basic English Language. Topics will cover COVID-19, civic engagement, and financial empowerment. This is a novel approach to building literacy as all existing adult literacy programs in Sierra Leone are conducted face to face.

ALP is an initiative of JobSearch and Platform Capital Group.

JobSearch is a human resources management company that was established in 2007 to assist in reducing the skills gap in Sierra Leone. They partner with employers to create the right environment to attract, recruit, manage, and retain the right talent. They also work with other stakeholders across sectors to improve the quality of TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) and promote a culture of lifelong learning. Their vision is for Sierra Leoneans to be employees of choice for companies operating in the country.

The Platform Capital Group is comprised of Platform Capital, Diatom Impact, and Unicorn Group.

Platform Capital is a growth market-focused, sector agnostic, principal investment, and advisory firm. They deploy patient, value accretive capital alongside international and local value investors to create champion businesses with the potential for regional or global scale. Platform also provides end-to-end bespoke corporate finance and capital markets advisory services.

Diatom Impact is a social impact strategy and research organization committed to being a global change agent through collaborative partnerships with communities, corporations, and governments. They aim to change the narrative and practice of investment and development in Africa.

Unicorn Group is a pan-African, first-mover investment company targeting innovative ideas, start-ups, and early-stage companies in the technology and technology-enabled sectors across Africa that have the potential to emerge as unicorns. Unicorn provides education, training, mentorship, infrastructure, and long-term capital to entrepreneurs through its ecosystem strategy.

Partners for our pilot programme

Freetown City Council aims to Transform Freetown through 11 priority sectors, grouped within four clusters, using an inclusive approach, underpinned by innovation and data-driven performance management. The skills development working group, which is within the Human Development cluster, has a target to teach functional literacy skills to at least 15,000 adults in Freetown, focusing on women, by 2022.

Africell, the leading mobile telecommunications service provider in Sierra Leone, with 76% market share, is a subsidiary of Africell Holding Limited, with its parent company in London, United Kingdom. For over 15 years, Africell has been the leading voice in telecommunications in Sierra Leone; making innovation, affordability, and social responsibilities our priority. “In Sierra Leone, we are one heart, one soul, and one beat.”


Chisholm, L., & Hasan, A. (2009). Global Report on Adult Learning and Education. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL). Hamburg, Germany.

DataBank. WorldBank. Retrieved August 21, 2020 from

Reder, S. (2010). Adult Literacy Development and Economic Growth. National Institute for Literacy.

Trudell, B. (2009). Local-language literacy and sustainable development in Africa. International Journal of Educational Development, 29(1), 73–79.

UNESCO. (2006). Education for All Global Monitoring Report, ISBN 92–3–103976–8, 2005, UNESCO, Paris (430pp.).

UNESCO. (2015). Adult and youth literacy: UIS fact sheet. Institute for Statistics, (32).

UNESCO. (2016). Girls’ and women’s literacy with a lifelong learning perspective: issues, trends and implications for the Sustainable Development Goals. UNESCO. Paris, France.



Diatom Impact

Diatom is a social impact strategy and research organization committed to changing the narrative and practice of investment and development in Africa.