Program sparks new opportunities for old books

Chris Janssen has big plans for the New Year, the biggest of which is growing a social enterprise he recently started here in London.

While completing his studies at the Ivey Business School last year, Janssen was on a committee tasked with coming up with a novel idea to raise money for the Terry Fox and Shinerama campaigns, which students take part in during Orientation Week.

“I noticed a lot of people had old textbooks around, collecting dust and a lot of them were the same versions first-year students were buying. So, we got the connection there, got a few books, sold them and made about $500 for the two causes,” Janssen said.

He saw potential in the idea. Soon after, Textbooks for Change was born. Janssen teamed up with fellow Ivey grad Tom Hartford and the two got to work.

Textbooks for Change collects used textbooks and either resells them to university students across Canada currently, and, hopefully, across North America soon, or ships them to African universities for libraries. The money raised from sales funds a microloan program that helps small African entrepreneurs get up and running.

“We started working on it part-time, a couple hours a week, trying to see the kind of impact we could actually make, kind of as a larger trial run. We got a couple drop boxes at Western, at Ivey,” Janssen noted, adding spreading the word by way of social media helped the initiative grow. “We kept it grassroots to see if this model would work.”

It did. From collections, libraries and personal pick-ups last year, the group gave more than $20,000 in microloans, donated more than $2,000 to non-profits, recycled more than 15,000 books and sent 15,000 to African universities and student as well.

The group now looks to be in 15 different colleges and universities this year in Ontario.

For Janssen, it’s a win-win scenario that has benefits all around. But it’s the microloans that excite him the most.

“I loved the impact of microfinance loans, how people who don’t have access to credit, how these little loans completely change their lives. That’s something core to me, and I figured once more people know what microfinance loans are, how it could change people’s lives. That’s a good model to work with,” he said.

“Currently we’re giving through Kiva, an online organization where you’re able to choose who you want to give to. A year down the road, we want to give out more personal loans. I spent this summer in Africa. I was teaching at a university in Rwanda, and I went to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. I wrote a case for Ivey and did research and entrepreneurship. I did a little trial run and gave personal loans to people there and I Skype them once a week and give them continuous mentorship, to see if the model could work more on a personal level,” Janssen added.

“The benefits are all around. I love giving back. I love entrepreneurship. I’m learning so much more than I would in any other opportunity right now. The microfinance loans – you understand that it causes that impact but you don’t really know it until you see it on that personal level. In Africa, I saw that and it’s absolutely huge. While I was at the university, I saw the bareness of their libraries. A lot of these universities are in dire need of educational material.”

Janssen’s website,, lists drop box locations where students can donate used textbooks. There are currently 10 locations, including bins at Fanshawe College. He hopes to see the initiative grow and will, with Hartford, visit other campuses across Ontario this semester helping them get similar operations off the ground. There are also textbook drives across the province in the works.

“We’re partnered with Goodwill Industries so we have an office space warehouse for storage on White Oak Road, in a new facility they have. It’s been a tremendous help to us because we’re a start-up and they really believe in what we’re doing. Eventually we want to hire people in Goodwill to do some of the sorting, keep things in London, and grow jobs,” Janssen added.

When books come in, Janssen and Hartford sort through, decide what can be used for resale to maximize revenue, and place those items online.

“It’s a price threshold issue; if it’s good, it goes online. That means a bigger return for us, and gets us more for microloans,” Janssen said.

If a book is tattered, it is recycled. But most of the books, about 60-70 per cent, are shipped to Africa through a partnership with another Ivey-originated initiative called 39 Countries.

“They plan to send a crate of books to 39 countries around Africa and we will continue a partnership with that. They sponsor a crate for us. We loved that this was a Western initiative as well, and that’s something we’d like to continue.”