While 25 million Pakistani children are not in school, those who are in school are not learning enough. Nearly half of all children who complete five years of schooling cannot read a simple story in Urdu meant for Class 2 students. For the millions of families who struggle to put their children through school, this brings into question the very purpose of education.

“The syllabus in Pakistan is all wrong,” says Rayed Afzal, CEO and Founder of Literate Pakistan. “It takes 8 months to make someone literate and often ‘literate’ means being able to read a sentence or two, or being able to write one’s name.” Afzal wanted to find a way to do things better. “I wanted to create an alternate syllabus that can teach someone to read in 90 days.”

Launched in 2000, Literate Pakistan develops books, software and training for literacy centres. “Ours is the only scientifically designed literacy software in the country,” says Afzal. “At least 99.9 percent of adult literacy programmes are using our software. What Microsoft Windows is to personal computers, we are to literacy programmes in Pakistan.”

The learning programme Literate Pakistan developed is called Jugnoo (firefly). Besides literacy in Urdu and English, courses are also available for primary education, elementary education and Matriculation. The books are not free of cost but are affordable. The Jugnoo Urdu literacy package, for example, includes three books for literacy and one for numeracy and costs 300 rupees. Each book is accompanied by a CD. The programme is designed to be followed for two hours a day. On completing the course, learners are able to read a newspaper, write a letter in Urdu and do everyday maths. The time required to gain proficiency varies, with primary courses requiring 5 months to complete and English literacy taking 2 months. Training in the use of the materials is provided free of cost.

So far more than 170,000 people have learned to read and write thanks to the programmes that Literate Pakistan has developed. Its team of experts have also provided educational consultancies to over 1,500 institutions in Pakistan. But the battle for Afzal and his team is far from over.

Next on the agenda is a mobile application that makes the same materials available on smartphones and tablets. Afzal believes this will expand the scope of their work, making learning available even in inaccessible areas. “Our apps can help with girls’ education too,” he adds, “since in many areas girls are not allowed to go to school if there is no female teacher.” The app has been pilot tested in Sahiwal, with positive results. “We had mostly girls learning from it and within 90 days they were fluent in Urdu.”

Literate Pakistan works on a shoestring budget and has no official sponsors. Afzal personally bears development costs and other operational expenses. “I don’t want to take money for anything,” he says. “But I want it to written on my tombstone, ‘Here lies a man who did everything with his free will’.”

Time and time again, where the government has failed, Pakistan’s education heroes have stepped up to fill the vacuum. Ordinary citizens like Afzal are a reminder that a great transformation can be brought about by a simple idea. All it takes is one person to make change happen.