Plain Ink: Fueling a Better Story in Afghanistan Through Comics

07/22/2011 02:34 pm ET | Updated Sep 21, 2011

There was a Afghanistan policy that was widely talked and discussed about in early 2009 and it was to "to advance security, opportunity and justice-- not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces-- we need agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers. That's how we can help the Afghan government serve its people and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs."

This is exactly what a Italy based social enterprise called "Plain Ink" is doing. Compelled by the transformative potential of storytelling, Plain Ink harnesses the power of books, multimedia and imagery to spark change.

Maybe a very simple idea, but one very well worth pursuing: there are almost 1 billion illiterate people in the world. Or, if you prefer, 1 out of 7. A hard fact, no less. And it is even harder if you consider literacy to be a basic prerequisite in order to have a functional society: from asserting your voting rights to getting a job, from honing your professional skills to being able to understand how to take medicine. No matter how you look at it, literacy is a human right and a requirement for reaching one's full potential.

With this clear in mind -- and after a six-month stint spent working on children's textbooks with the UN in Afghanistan -- Selene Biffi decided to launch Plain Ink, a publishing social enterprise that harnesses the power of books and storytelling to spark change globally.

Plain Ink employs a visual methodology to teach children and adults about areas such as health, food security, clean water access, disaster mitigation and others in an engaging, straightforward and appealing way: comics. Starting with comics being produced for Afghanistan, Plain Ink has created an unique layout that has graphic-only messages and basic texts on the same page and in the local language to reach out to those with limited skills as well as those with no literacy skills at all. Considering the conservative society in Afghanistan, comics are a great solution to educate and modernize the society. These comics are piloted with different stakeholders locally and with area experts, and are printed locally in order to contribute to the creative economy of the locale they will be distributed to.

But this is not all that Plain Ink does. To support its programs overseas and ensure that they are available free of charge to children and communities, Plain Ink creates and sells bright, engaging and captivating children's books in Italy with a strong focus on intercultural dialogue, respect and understanding (according to the National Institute for Statistics, 8% of the Italian population is of foreign origins and Italy ranks third in Europe for the number of immigrants it welcomes each year -- despite this, very few books and other cultural tools are available to foster interaction and integration). Proceeds from sales make the organization and its programs sustainable.

Other than this, Plain Ink also aims at engaging communities and individuals around the world in contributing to its work and finding solutions to local problems. As such, it has created a 'Project Marketplace' where members -- a membership can cost as little as $5 -- can propose projects for Plain Ink to undertake, vote for their favorite ideas, help allocate budgets and control the organization expenses. A crowdsourced way to manage the organization and increase transparency and participation, and a true innovation in the field of social enterprises.