In certain parts of South Africa, mothers and caregivers spend more than 9 hours each week hand-washing clothes. A team of young social entrepreneurs from Oxford University believes that these women’s time could be better spent with their children by reading and bonding with them and has piloted a program called the “Libromat,” which brings literacy and laundry together. After outfitting an early childhood development center in Khayelitsha with washers and dryers, the team offered a month-long course to parents during the time their clothes were being washed and dried. Lessons involved book sharing with children as well as pointing out and naming objects and generally boosting verbal and emotional engagement with children. The proximity and affordability of the washers and dryers allowed the parents (mostly mothers) to spend quality time with their young children and to take a much appreciated break from hand-washing, which can be extremely physically taxing in addition to being a lengthy process.
The Oxford team, who was originally inspired by a study that demonstrated the positive impact of an interactive book sharing program in Khayelitsha, recently competed as finalists for the international Hult Prize, which would have awarded them $1 million to fund their venture. Although the team did not win, they have garnered enough financial support to plan to open three more Libromats in South Africa and to extend the length of the parent-child classes to eight weeks. The group is also exploring other countries such as Lesotho and Guatemala as well as different regions in South Africa for opportunities to expand; surveys in targeted countries showed that 80% of people were willing to pay for the services and, in South Africa, almost 94% were willing to walk as long as a half an hour to go to a Libromat. Team Libromat will also offer free slots to community members who cannot pay for laundry services so that they can benefit from the program as well. The Libromat will serve as a fully-functional laundromat and walk-in children’s library when classes are not in session, with the funds raised from the laundry services being used to staff the center and help the Libromat operate.