Brij Kothari

Year founded: 

PlanetRead is dedicated to innovative, research-based, cost-effective and mass impact solutions for literacy development in India and other countries. Its mission is “Literacy for a billion!”

Focus: Communication/Media, Education
Geographic Area of Impact: India
Model: Leveraged Non-Profit
Number of Direct Beneficiaries: 200 million
Annual Budget: US$ 150,000
Percentage Earned Revenue: 33%
Recognition: Social Entrepreneur of the Year, India, 2009

According to UNESCO, India's literacy rate ranks it 147 out of 177 countries. And while India is home to 273 million illiterate people and 778 million literates (2011 census), over half of the “literates” cannot even read a newspaper headline. Studies have found that over 50% of rural children in Class 5 cannot read a Class 2 level text, and every year 27 million Indian children complete primary school as non-functional readers. In the majority of rural homes there are no children’s books.

Innovation and Activities
PlanetRead operates on the tenet that literacy skills must be constantly reinforced to improve throughout life. The organization’s key Same Language Subtitling (SLS) innovation is simple and effective: it uses subtitles on popular song-based TV programming and exposes viewers to written text, providing them with an inescapable opportunity to practice reading. Subtitles appear in synchronization with the audio track so viewers read the exact text they are hearing.

SLS is grounded in rigorous research, is culturally appropriate and cost-effective. IIM Ahmedabad and the Nielsen-ORG Center for Social Research have studied the effects of SLS in 3,179 households since 2003, demonstrating that exposure to 30 minutes of SLS per week increased the functional literacy rate from 25% to 56% among students with at least five years of schooling.

SLS implemented on 10 weekly, half-hour song-based TV programmes, in as many languages, is currently delivering reading practice to 200 million weak-reading TV viewers in India (2012). PlanetRead’s goal is to implement SLS on all songs, in all languages, across TV networks, through national policy, and to scale up in India first and then expand to other countries. PlanetRead estimates that US$ 1 spent on SLS generates about 30 minutes of reading practice for approximately 1,000 people for a year. Compared to India’s national literacy mission efforts to distribute reading material and build libraries for weak-literates, SLS is an extremely affordable and innovative way of raising literacy levels.

PlanetRead’s “BookBox” took the challenge of delivering a reading experience to Indian children, and innovated AniBooks (animated stories) using SLS. BookBox stories, once produced in one language, can be recast into +30 other languages and distributed on any screen, including TVs, mobiles, tablets, computers, media players and in print. They are averaging 20,000 views/day on YouTube (2013) and countless more as stories-on-demand on Indian television.

The Entrepreneur
Brij Kothari hit upon the idea of SLS in 1996 while watching a Spanish film. As a Spanish student, he wished that the subtitles could be offered in that language so he could easily grasp the dialogue. Kothari has an MA in Physics from the Indian Institute of Technology (Kanpur) and a Master's and PhD from Cornell University in Communication and Education, respectively. After his dissertation, he joined the faculty at IIM Ahmedabad, where he continues to research the SLS innovation. PlanetRead and BookBox were born during a Reuters Digital Vision Fellowship at Stanford University, and combating illiteracy through SLS has since become his personal and professional passion. SLS has been awarded: the World Bank Development Marketplace Award (2002); the Clinton Global Initiative (2009 and 2011); USAID’s All Children Reading Grand Challenge (2012); and Library of Congress International Literacy Prize (2013).