Africa Literacy Facts from UNESCO

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]
  • 176 million adults are unable to read and write.[1]
  • 47 million youths (ages 15-24) are illiterate.[1]
  • 21 million adolescents are not in school. [2]
  • 32 million primary aged children are not in school either. [2]

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." [3]

Getting Better, but Not There Yet

  • In 1990 the adult literacy rate in all of Africa was 52%. In 2008 it was 63%. [4]
  • In 1990 there were over 177 million illiterates in all of Africa, but by 2008 there were over 200 million. [4]

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 by 6% over the past 20 years, casting light on adult literacy projections.  However, youth literacy rates in Sub-Saharan Africa (72%) are the lowest of any region, as is enrollment in secondary school (34%).  For adults in sub-Saharan Africa the rates have improved by 9%, 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. [1]  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% [5], while it is 63% in sub-Saharan Africa. [1]    Of the ten countries with the lowest recorded adult literacy rates, 9 are in Africa. [3]

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 83% in 2008, and invests 21% of its government spending in education (compared to 14% for the US) [4].   Lesotho invests over 12% of its GDP in education (compared to 5.5% 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 2010 - 863 million [6]
  • Life expectancy - 54 years [6]
  • 4 in 100 people use the Internet [7]
  • 23 telephone lines per 100 people [7]
  • 24 million people 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. [8]  

Where we work

Here are a set of slide shows made available to you regarding the countries ALP works in and some specific facts about them.

 African Library Project Slideshare 



[1] UNESCO Institute for Statistics. “Adult and Youth Literacy: Global Trends in Gender Parity.” UIS Fact Sheet, September 2010, No. 2.
[2] UNESCO. “Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2010: Reaching the marginalized. Regional fact sheet – Sub-Saharan Africa,” 2010.
[3] UNESCO. Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2010: Reaching the marginalized. UNESCO, February 2010.
[4] UNESCO Institute for Statistics Data Centre:
[5] CIA World Factbook:
[6] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision, New York, 2009
[7] UNICEF, The State of the World's Children, New York, 2009
[8] Carr-Hill, R., K. Frostell, and J. Pessoa. International literacy statistics: a review of concepts, methodology and current data. UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2008.