African Library Project

Africa Literacy Facts

For everyone everywhere, literacy is...a basic human right.
- Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary-General


In Sub-Saharan Africa

  • More than 1 in 3 adults cannot read. [1]
  • 182 million adults are unable to read and write. [2]
  • 48 million youths (ages 15-24) are illiterate. [2]
  • 22% of primary aged children are not in school. [3]
  • That makes 30 million primary aged children who are not in school. [4]

Africa Facts 1 What Is Literacy?

This is a simple question with a number of answers.  For statistical purposes, UNESCO defines a literate person as someone who can read and write a short simple statement about their life.  In recognizing its impact on poverty, health, active citizenship and empowerment, the development community recognizes that "Illiteracy is a condition that denies people opportunity."

Getting Better, but Not There Yet

  • In 1990 the adult literacy rate in all of Africa was 53%. In 2015 it is estimated to be 63%. [2]
  • In 1990 there were 133 million illiterate adults in sub-Saharan Africa, but by 2011 there were 182 million. [2]

Literacy rates are improving globally, but in terms of raw numbers there are more illiterates than 20 years ago.  In sub-Saharan Africa, youth literacy rates (ages 15-24) have increased over the past 20 years, which suggests that adult literacy rates will increase as they grow up.  However, youth literacy rates in Sub-Saharan Africa (70% in 2011) are the lowest of any region.  For adults in sub-Saharan Africa the rates have improved by 10%, but there is a disparity between literacy for women and men.  While 7 in 10 men can read, only half of women can do so. [2] The biggest barrier to increasing literacy is the lack of books, especially in rural areas.

Comparing the U.S. to Africa

The U.S. literacy rate is 99% [6], while it is 59% in sub-Saharan Africa. [1]  Of the 11 countries with the lowest recorded adult literacy rates, ten are in Africa. [2]

Literacy in Our Partner Countries

Africa Facts 2Building on rich oral traditions of storytelling, many of ALP's partner countries have shown improved literacy rates over time and with strong government investment in education.  Botswana, for example, increased its adult literacy rate from 69% in 1991 to 87% in 2008, and invests 19% of its government spending in education (compared to 13% for the US) [4].   Lesotho invests 13% of its GDP in education (compared to 5% in the US) [4]; and while this is the highest in Africa, public and school libraries are rare.  The hunger to read for pleasure, for information, and to supplement textbooks (when available) exists in the countries we serve because of the improving literacy rates and investments in education made over the years.

General Facts about Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Population in 2012 - 913 million [7]
  • Life expectancy - 58 years [6]
  • 44% of people live below the international poverty line of $1.25/day [8]
  • 63% of people have access to "improved" (adequate) water sources [7]
  • 25 million people are living with HIV/AIDS [7]

Why Literacy?

Literacy is very important - many would say a human right.  A good quality basic education equips pupils with literacy skills for life and further learning; literate parents are more likely to keep their children healthy and send their children to school; literate people are better able to access other education and employment opportunities; and, collectively, literate societies are better geared to meet development challenges. [9]

Where we work

These slide shows about the countries where ALP works each has specific facts about them. You can view them or download them. If you download you will see additional notes, and you can customize them.

 African Library Project Slideshare 



[1] UNESCO Institute for Statistics. ÔÇťAdult and Youth Literacy" UIS Fact Sheet. September 2014.
[2] UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Adult and Youth Literacy: National, Regional and Global Trends, 1985-2015. June 2013.
[3] United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. MDG 2014 Report: Assessing Progress in Africa Towards the Millenium Development Goals.
[4] UNESCO Institute for Statistics Data Centre 2012 
[6] CIA World Factbook
[7] UNICEF, The State of the World's Children 2014 In Numbers: Every Child Counts: Revealing Disparities, Advancing Children's Rights.
[8] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision.
[9] Carr-Hill, R., K. Frostell, and J. Pessoa. International literacy statistics: a review of concepts, methodology and current data. UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2008.