Books For Africa feeds growing hunger for knowledge on that continent

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As COVID-19 continues to afflict Africa where, according to the BBC, more than 130,000 people have died of the coronavirus and cases are on the rise in many countries, the Saint Paul-based nonprofit Books For Africa is ramping up the quantity and quality of the books it supplies to reduce the continent’s high rates of illiteracy.

COVID-19 has been keeping schools and libraries closed on that continent, limiting access to the books it already has and making Books for Africa’s effort all the more urgent. Last year Books for Africa (BFA) raised $3.2 million in donations and sent 3.7 million volumes valued at $38 million to 20 of the 55 countries it serves in Africa.

“There’s a lot of hardship in Africa and a huge COVID problem, but people still can read at home,” said Joni Sussman, president of BFA’s board of directors.

The number of books shipped by BFA to schools, libraries and other institutions in Africa has grown exponentially since founder and Twin Cities resident Tom Warth began sending books to Ghana 33 years ago. A book lover, Warth was shocked to discover libraries in Ghana with empty shelves when he took a vacation there. He began BFA with the help of book publishers and other local donors. The list of its charitable partners has grown over the years to include numerous corporations, foundations, government agencies and individuals.

BFA is reported to be the world’s largest shipper of donated books to Africa. Since its inception, it has sent more than 50 million books to the continent. Some 46 million children, or about 40 percent of the children in Africa, do not attend school, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). More than 34 percent of Africans of all ages are illiterate.

The kinds of books most requested by Africans are reference books, textbooks and children’s books. The vast majority of those sought are in English, according to Patrick Plonski, a Merriam Park resident and BFA’s executive director since 2003. The organization also supplies books in French to the continent’s French-speaking countries with the help of partners in Paris and Montreal.