Dr. Patrick Plonski loves living in St. Paul, Minnesota, but he also loves to travel. Luckily for Dr. Plonski, he found a job where he gets to do both. Dr. Plonski is the Executive Director of Books For Africa (BFA), a non-profit dedicated to collecting, sorting, shipping, and distributing books to children and adults in Africa. For over 18 years, Dr. Plonski has served Books For Africa’s mission with dedication and enthusiasm: to end the book famine in Africa. He is “incredibly proud” that the organization has shipped more than 50 million books, serving all 55 African countries in the past 33 years. Dr. Plonski loves “the mission driven nature of the work” and the opportunity to “get to work with a lot of different people, from partner organizations in Africa to freighters, diplomats, and people overseas.”
Books For Africa started with humble beginnings in 1988, “it used to be that whatever came in the door, went out the door”, says Dr. Plonski. At the launch, the books were sorted and stored in a rugged, old basement that was donated for their use, with access only by descending a treacherous set of stairs or taking a creaky, old freight elevator. Today, efficiency is the name of the game. “The more efficient we are, the more books we can deliver to our friends in Africa, and books of higher quality,” says Dr. Plonski. Books For Africa’s headquarters are in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, and warehouses in St. Paul and Marietta, Georgia. In the warehouses today you need a forklift to navigate the two and half football fields worth of books sorted by language, school level, and subject.
Innovating to Create a Culture of Reading
Dr. Plonski and the team of 15 at BFA are constantly thinking creatively on how to better serve readers in Africa. In 2020, under the new “Books For Africa Publishing” label, BFA printed a custom run of 44,000 Somali language children’s books. This initiative, in partnership with Lerner Publishing and the Minnesota Humanities Center, will deliver books to locations across Somalia. In 2020, BFA participated in a large-scale USAID funded project in Ethiopia, delivering hundreds of thousands of new children’s books across Ethiopia. They also continued their partnership with the Ethiopian Knowledge and Technology Transfer Society to develop a librarian training program, helping to ensure that library patrons are being well-served and a culture of reading is being fostered.
Shipping continued through the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020 alone BFA shipped over 3.7 million books, and 304 computers and e-readers containing almost 300,000 digital books, carrying a total value of $38 million. With a $150,000 grant from the Merck Foundation, BFA provided thousands of digital and hard copy medical resource books to doctors, nurses, and medical students across the continent. They also provided shipments of books that supported schools under quarantine. According to a Rwandan science teacher, “Because of the books received from BFA, each child went home with a book to continue learning while they were in quarantine.”
Connecting with the Minnesotan and Georgian Community
Sorting millions of books as a non-profit requires thousands of volunteers and Dr. Plonski is “appreciative of all the help” BFA receives to make their mission a reality. Thanks to social media and word of mouth, BFA was happy to host volunteer groups from Amazon, the Atlanta Falcons, AT&T, Coca Cola, Delta, Ernst & Young, Google, McDonald’s, Walmart, Bank of America, Caterpillar, CNN, Home Depot, Starbuck’s, US Bank, UPS, local schools and church groups, and many other organizations in their warehouses in 2020.
BFA has made an impact in both the local St. Paul community as well as in cities across the African continent. Former U.S. Minnesotan Congressman Keith Ellison shared, “In Kenya, we were in a small village and the students had a wonderful school. They were eager to learn. They had motivated teachers, but they didn’t have any books in the school. They had no library. And so, imagine how proud I was to open up this box of shiny new encyclopedias and dictionaries from Books For Africa. They want more of your books. They can’t wait. They can’t get enough of these books.”
Dr. Plonski is excited about the next 50 million books they aim to deliver to Africa. He says, “we have to deliver to the best of our ability, at the highest quality possible and at the lowest cost.”
Dr. Patrick Plonski, Executive Director of Books For Africa, is a Minnesota Advisory Committee Member of the of the U.S. Global Leader Coalition.