Poor mothers often spend way too much time hunched over a washboard. What if they could use those hours to curl up with their kids and read a book instead? A group of friends at Oxford University plans to find out by developing a combination childhood education and laundry services center, a concept they've dubbed a "Libromat."
The five team members have extensive backgrounds in childhood education, and they pooled their talents to apply for the 2015 Hult Prize, a $1 million award for young social entrepreneurs tackling some of the world's biggest problems.
This year's challenge: provide self-sustainable education to impoverished urban areas.
Team member Nicholas Dowdall, 25, zeroed in on picture book reading after stumbling on a study in Khayelitsha, a township of more than 300,000 in Cape Town, South Africa. Mothers of infants were recruited and given eight weeks of training to read to their children. The women reported a significant increase in the number of words that their kids understood and vocalized.
"I thought, 'This is fantastic research, but how do we take this to scale so that it doesn't just sit in a journal article?' " Dowdall says.
The group's members figured out their answer when they learned that residents are desperate for laundry facilities. According to the team's research, mothers and caregivers in South Africa can spend a whopping nine hours per week hand-washing dirty clothes. "That's one whole working day," team member David Jeffery, 23, says. So they aimed to solve two problems at once and teach mothers effective ways to read books to their infants in the amount of time it takes to complete a wash and spin cycle. And with the money collected from the laundry, they could keep this up for load after load.
As finalists for the Hult Prize, the team was given the opportunity to pilot a Libromat in July and August at an early childhood development center in Khayelitsha, where Jeffery had previously volunteered. Washers and dryers were installed and the fee for a wash and spin cycle was roughly $1.50 in South African currency — on par with the limited laundromat options available in the area.
For four weeks, they offered courses on book sharing between parents and children. Lessons started with videos clips that taught parents techniques like pointing at and naming key objects, connecting pictures in the books to familiar things, and taking opportunities to talk about feelings and emotions with their child. Then parents practiced these techniques and received immediate feedback from two women in the community trained at a nearby university.
In interviews conducted after the pilot, Dowdall was thrilled to learn that many of the mothers believed their relationships with their children had improved. Some even said their children were asking for story time every evening before bed.
One participant, Ntomboxolo, 34, a mother who attended the sessions with her infant daughter, says, "I am a working mother, so more often than not I am tired. But now, I make time to share something in a book with my daughter every night." Ntomboxolo also says she saw changes in her daughter's behavior: "There was not much communication before. I see her drawing closer to me."
And the added laundry services helped mothers save some of their energy for those bedtime stories. "The machine does not complain when it is cold," says a mother of two named Paulina. "The machine never complains; it just does its job."
Team Libromat estimates the total cost to build and retrofit centers to be approximately $10,000 (including the machines, books and furniture). They hope to attract 200 regular customers every month.
As part of their research, the Libromat team members conducted surveys with over 300 parents in South Africa, Guatemala, Cameroon and Uganda. They found that roughly 80 percent were willing to pay for the service. Meanwhile, 94 percent of those surveyed in South Africa even said they would walk as far as 30 minutes to go to a center.
Dowdall suspects the enthusiastic response is due to the lack of laundry services in urban areas. Once people experience a Libromat, however, he believes they will recognize that they can get more out of it than just clean clothes. He also added that each course will offer free slots for members of the community who cannot afford laundry services.
Although the Libromat missed out on the Hult Prize — which went to an idea that will improve informal day care centers in urban slums — the team members are going forward with the project. They have received initial funds of $200,000 from an investor to start three new centers in South Africa. They will extend their program to eight weeks and, when classes are not in session, operate the center as a walk-in laundry and library service with children's books. Centers will be managed directly by the team and will employ one educator, laundry manager and general assistant from the community.
"Everyone can go to the local Libromat center and get a class," Dowdall says.
Andrew Boryga is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications.