by Tia

The school year is underway, but sadly, large numbers of children lack the foundation of all learning – the ability to understand what they are reading. In May 2023, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found that 81% of Grade 4s in South Africa struggle to unlock the magic of the written word – in any language – and are functionally illiterate. In fact, South Africa came last out of the 43 countries assessed.

A child who can’t read, can’t learn, so will be less likely to finish school and get a job to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. With little education and few prospects of employment, a young person has little to do and look forward to, putting them at greater risk of substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, shame and frustration. If one can’t support themselves, they are more vulnerable to pursuing crime to survive or suffering abuse as they are financially dependent on their abusive partners.

One issue fueling our child illiteracy crisis is children’s lack of access to books. A study commissioned by the Department of Basic Education and UNICEF South Africa found that the number of households who reported having zero access to books at home stood at 43%.  Book Dash, a South African social impact publisher, highlights that when preschool children own books, families are more likely to read with children regularly. This builds reading ability, oral language skills and early literacy skills; develops socio-emotional skills and general knowledge; and supports strong relationships between children and their caregivers. In turn, this leads to better school performance in all subjects, higher educational attainment, increased economic growth and reduced inequality. It’s therefore critical for young children to be given books.

In addition to the staggeringly high numbers of children in South Africa who lack basic literacy skills,  millions of children are also going hungry and don’t have access to nutritious, consistent, sufficient food. This is leading to alarmingly high rates of malnutrition in communities countrywide. According to the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, eight million children in the country aren’t getting enough nutrition. Child stunting, a marker of chronic malnutrition, affects 27,4% of children under five.  

Our overwhelming, heartbreaking child hunger and illiteracy statistics are stunting childhood development, hindering learning and education, and dimming the light of their future potential.  

But HOPE is on the horizon. HOPE worldwide South Africa, an NGO focusing on early childhood development (ECD), recently launched the Book & Breakfast Initiative (BBI). Targeted at children from birth to six years old, the time of greatest brain development, BBI is a beacon of light against this tragic reality. Our mission is simple yet ambitious: provide young, vulnerable children with a daily nutritious breakfast porridge and a new, age-appropriate book every month.

Dr Marc Aguirre, Country Director for HOPE worldwide South Africa, says: “For just R110 per month, you can unlock early childhood potential through nutrition and literacy. Imagine the impact – a full tummy to focus on learning and experience the joy of reading, while having ideas and imagination ignited by new stories. The BBI aims to reach 10 000 children in disadvantaged communities across South Africa over the next three years.”

You can join hands with HOPE worldwide South Africa to make a difference in the lives of young, vulnerable children by:

  • Spreading the word: Share the BBI story with your network and let the hope ripple outwards.
  • Getting involved: Volunteer your time or skills to support the initiative. To volunteer and for more information, email:

For more information on BBI, visit:

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