It is on a Thursday afternoon when I got the chance to speak with Beatrice Barco, founder of The Bookfeeding Project, a non-profit organization bringing education closer to children around the world and one of the charities that Frontiers recently supported through a fund-matching campaign.
Originally Italian, Beatrice studied in Italy, China, and the UK. She has volunteered internationally for several organizations prior to establishing her own. Currently based in Lausanne, Switzerland, Beatrice works for Frontiers, an open-access publisher.
Beba, when did you first have the idea of setting up a Not-For-Profit initiative?
The Non-Profit initiative was actually a thought that arrived later. After founding the actual initiative and seeing that The Bookfeeding Project was working, thanks to European funds and a project called EVS (European Volunteering Service), I went to Tamil Nadu for seven months where I taught in a school linked to an orphanage/shelter home. I then realized that the school and its structure lacked a library and books. This is how I started to collect books and to refurnish the library.
That was the beginning. Eventually things evolved. It started in 2011, when I first had the thought, and it then became real in 2012. I was very lucky and it was partially a matter of coincidences as well.
Why did you decide to found a NGO with a specific educational focus?
For me, education has always been the most important thing, provided that a community manages to support itself. My target are the “borderline communities.” These communities have not found a way to support themselves. They are usually medium sized communities that are trying to achieve a fair and equal education to all the layers of society and its members.
Education is something that can turn mirrors into windows. When you help people achieve a fair education, you give them the tools to change everything and possibly improve. Giving education is also a way to give people the will to do things, and of course education comes in different shapes. I am not referring to the standard education (e.g. schooling systems), I am referring to different kinds of education. This will give them the chance to evolve or to change direction.
This is what happened in Tamil Nadu. We worked mainly with girls who had problematic family situations. They were mainly testing to become nurses or even brick layers – approximately 80 percent of Tamil Nadu is rural. Through The Bookfeeding Project we gave them the chance to read classics, to read more books, to choose a different path and to start college. Now they are teaching and becoming qualified Tamil and English teachers.
Yes, now these girls are 21. They have started college. I met them when they were 17 or 18, and they didn’t know whether to go to nursing college as they were not sure they wanted to be nurses – or to become lab technicians or similar. We had the chance to speak about books. They already knew English. They started reading a lot and decided to study English Literature. That was a great achievement because now they could provide for their smaller siblings. Many of them have smaller siblings and many times the shelter home unfortunately cannot support them.
As the name already slightly hints, The Bookfeeding Project aims at building libraries and filling them with books. This project survives solely on private donations. I imagine that the capital investment to finish a project varies from one project to another, however, what is the approximate capital needed to build and finish one library?
We survive on private donations but we got a lot of non-monetary donations. The Australian Airlines, for example, shipped books for free to Tamil Nadu. We get discounts and help from cargo companies as well.
When we build a library the cost varies. In Africa, we have managed to build two libraries complete with a water piping system and electricity system in two-story buildings that we equipped with shelves and books. All together the cost was €1000 . We always employed local workers, and never outsourced anything. Even the raw materials are local.
The building belongs to the community and will become a part of the community. The only way to achieve this is to have the community build it. We received help from two German volunteers, who studied architecture. They contributed to make the building more efficient. Two other volunteers from New Zealand and Austria are reaching out to our project in Madagascar to help with the water piping system. One of them is willing to build furniture, such as the shelves.
It is great to see that you are receiving so much help and support from an international community.
The contacts arrived from the outside – I must admit it is mostly people who are passionate about it and enthusiastic to contact us. I think The Bookfeeding Project works in two ways: we help the community and also the volunteers, who feel the need to do something concrete, change path, and show themselves they can do and give more.
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered, and are perhaps still encountering, while setting up and running The Bookfeeding Project?
This is the shipping of books. We always receive help, so that in one way or another we find a solution. However, we believe this will not last forever. We had 300 kilos of books stored in Scotland in a storage room. This storage room was given to us for free, but the owner asked us to leave in three months, so we had to ship these 300 kilos of books to Kenya to the project they were meant for. All of a sudden a NGO came and helped us, providing us with the contact of a cargo company that gave us a huge discount. Instead of £800 to ship the books we only had to pay £ 200. This was amazing.
This luck will not last forever and we need to find an economic way to ship the books. In India we realized it is much more convenient to buy local books, but different types of literature, worldwide literature, from Flipkart, which is an Indian Amazon. However, in Africa, we cannot do that and we have a huge problem because it is very hard to find books. We want to explore the literature and we want people to read different authors – this is also education – to give a different choice, more choices, and you can then choose what suits you best.
I had a very interesting conversation with a man from Madagascar, who read The Old Man and the Sea for the first time. He told me it is unbelievable that this book is basically what we live every day here in Madagascar and that there are so many connections. This means there are so many bridges between two cultures just through a book and it is unbelievable that nobody knows about it in Madagascar. It is crazy when people realize we are all metaphorically on the same boat – you help people achieve a higher level of freedom, I believe.
How many volunteers are currently active with The Bookfeeding Project?
We are three co-founders, and we are all volunteering. It is completely no-profit, and even if we need to meet and organize things, everything is on our shoulders. We are around seven volunteers actively involved in projects. Just now a girl from Chile arrived in Tamil Nadu, for example, and she will be there for three months teaching English and monitoring the situation. She’ll see whether we need more books for the project there or if the structure needs some improvement.
So you are a limited number of people, but yet very active?
Yes, and every month we receive at least five serious applications from people who can be volunteers. I am very well concerned about the fact that we want to send people to our projects who are aware of what it means to be a volunteer. it has nothing to do with the “White Volunteer Business”, which is people who spend a lot of money to go volunteering in a foreign country for a certain period of time. To be a volunteer, you can just contact an association and pay a flight, with health insurance being a recommended option, especially when going to India. It is then possible to survive with a relatively small budget.
So volunteering is not costly and can be relatively cheap?
Yes, exactly. We just want people who are aware of what volunteering means, who know how to contribute. If they do not know how they can help, we can of course advise them, and give them some hints – we are all skilled in something. Mostly, we do not know our skills, but these kinds of experiences help people to find out new things about themselves. This is a positive achievement.
In which ways can people actually actively get involved in your organization?
Sending an email is always the safest (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you are an individual, you can either organize a collection point, or organize a stand like we are doing for the Commune de Lausanne at the end of September. At this event there will be a second-hand clothes market. we will also sell gluten-free food and possibly some manufactured earrings in exchange of not only donations, but second-hand books.
If people would like to get more informed about The Bookfeeding Project, we are willing to explain what our organization is all about. Also, as an individual you can simply share The Bookfeeding Project, read our contents on the blog, and spread the word. If you have any skills or any idea to contribute, let’s just talk about it.
It is an amazing experience because you see the results; it is something great because you see your idea being put into practice, while “giving fruits” and seeing the people’s response. As long as you are passionate about it, nothing will stop you – you will always get somewhere, and this is the most beautiful thing.
If you are not a company, there are many other ways to get involved, like adopting a box. At the moment, adopting a box to be shipped to Africa or India is about CHF 40-60, depending on the dimension of the parcel. You can make a donation, and/or match donations, like Frontiers did. This way you involve your employees and the company will match the amount of money given by each employee. As a team-building exercise, you can collect books and ship them; this is what the Rotary Club in Venice did. In that case, they collected second-hand English books and then put the money together to ship them, which was very nice because they also included a message to the kids and a poster of a map of the world, so it was amazing.
Could you tell us more about your future projects?
It is mostly reaching out to more communities. The majority of the times, the communities are the ones that learn about us. They contact us saying they are stable. They are the “borderline communities” I was speaking about that just need to take that step of education.
We need to spread the word as much as possible, so more communities out there can get to know about us. We had a project in Mexico that was about to take off, but then eventually we realized the person of reference was not reliable enough and we didn’t have the resources to go there and analyze the situation. Unfortunately, we decided to put this on hold, but it is something that we will perhaps get back to in the future.
Many communities reach out to us, trying to contact us, but, still, unfortunately, we need to be selective, also for The Bookfeeding itself. We need to direct our resources to a safe harbor, because it is voluntary and non-profit, so everything is limited. If we had more volunteers and more people at the site who could reassure us that the situation is alright, then we can ship books and build a library; then it will be better.
I am going to collect ten laptops from a company in Lausanne. This is the first time we have the certainty that the community in Kenya will take care of the laptops. For two years we had volunteers constantly going there, monitoring the situation, and giving us feedback. We know if we send laptops there, they will not be stolen and the community will take care of them. I was asked by a Ghanaian company, which produces low-cost e-books, whether they could help and contribute, so that the kids could have everything on e-books. Then eventually one realizes how many communities can afford a plug at home or electricity to charge an e-book – not that many. Moreover, it is an object that, unfortunately, only a very small number of communities would know how to use and maintain.
With technology, one needs to investigate further, you cannot really just do it right away. These laptops need to remain in the community until they break down. It was honestly a big achievement. In Tamil Nadu we already have laptops, but in this case we received help from a Dutch company which provided not laptops but actual PCs. The room is locked and we have guards – they even bought a dog. The PCs in Tamil Nadu, which is our oldest project, have been there for three years now and they are still there, which is great.
Finally, one last question: Where do you see The Bookfeeding Project going in the next five to ten years? Do you have a perspective or any particular view on how you would see it developing over the coming years and where this project is going to be then?
This is one of these questions that you are asked in interviews… The Bookfeeding is me, but it is not only me. This makes me realize that this is what makes me happy and it is one of my goals in life. Of course I want to pull this “boat” as far as I can, but I am also aware that at some point we will be more people, more people will help out and we will have more features, and not only more communities.
I am not aiming at spreading it all over the world – I want it to work. Even if in ten years we are still only three co-founders and six volunteers, it is fine. I think that as long as it remains with the same ethics we founded it with and works in a small but stable way, then even 50 years can pass and we will all be happy about it — and communities and people around the world will benefit from it.
More on The Bookfeeding Project may be found here: http://bookfeeding.org/