It has been nearly two years since the day Fahmida Limpa's life changed forever.
A car accident caused her a head trauma, and with time, its effects started to manifest. She became visually impaired.
For an avid reader, this came as a blow to Limpa. The person who used to finish reading a book in a single day now found out she could not read at all.
Her predicament prompted Limpa to find a solution. Before the accident, Limpa and her two friends – Tatini and Rezwana – were already planning to launch a social venture together.
Now, this social venture blossomed into an app that would help people like Limpa continue their love for books.
"Shuni is making it possible to 'hear' books for people who cannot read due to lack of time or those who are unable to read owing to visual impairment," Limpa explained.
She said Shuni's goal is to preserve, distribute, and increase the availability of good audiobooks.
The number of physical libraries where people can read books for free has already dwindled in Bangladesh.
"We want to make sure no one has to stop reading books because they cannot afford it," Limpa added.
The journey of Shuni
Shuni is a social venture which aims to make Bangla literature accessible to all, regardless of their financial situation or visual impairments.
Their target audience includes visually impaired people, senior citizens, non-native Bangla speakers, busy commuters, and anyone who wants to listen to audiobooks.
The first version of the app was released online on February 21 this year. After several updates, the beta version was launched in March.
In the first two weeks, more than 250 people downloaded the app, which encouraged the three founders further.
At present, Shuni is a self-funded venture. In future, the founders plan to introduce banner ads and voice ads to make up for the operating cost.
They are not looking to make a profit, and plan to keep the app free for all.
"We three friends, despite our family commitments and physical constraints, are using money from our savings to run this free library app," Limpa said proudly.
She said Rezwana – with a computer science background – is taking care of the technical side while Tatini helps with the graphical interface.
"We wanted to make an app that would not ask people for money or to subscribe," Limpa stated.
"A student who has little to no money cannot go to his parents and ask for money to listen to audiobooks.
"So, we decided to keep Shuni completely free of charge," she added.
Audiobooks are not the only kind of content Shuni is offering. It also has a stock of podcasts for people who are looking for serious, wholesome content.
"Entertaining, light content is not enough. To add value to our lives, we need something educative, something of substance. Sadly, when I searched for such content in Bangla, I could not find many," Limpa said with disappointment.
"We are trying to include high quality podcasts in Shuni as I could feel the scarcity of such content."
Sharmin Banu, an executive coach whose podcasts can be found on the app, said Shuni founders have been great visionaries by creating an audiobook and podcast platform in Bangla.
"I have been very pleased to work with them. It has given me this opportunity to connect with my Bangla speaking audience," she said.
Another feature that makes Shuni user-friendly is the option to read offline. After downloading an audiobook, the user can open it even when he has gone offline.
The Bangla audiobook ecosystem
Apps for reading audiobooks in different languages are abundant. Several Bangla audiobook apps have also surfaced over the last few years.
Boighor boasts of being the first and the only audiobook app in the country, which was launched in January 2016.
"We have 12,000 books, but we have the copyright for 8,000 of them only. So, that is what we are offering," explained the founder and chief executive officer of Boighor, Md Hasanuzzaman.
When asked if they employ narrators, he replied that they do not need any as they use a text-to-speech AI that converts any written text to spoken words.
Boighor has free books as well as paid ones, and the app does not have a single ad. The audiobooks can be downloaded to listen offline.
Panjeree Publications also offers audiobooks. However, its stock comprises only the National Curriculum and Textbook Board textbooks.
"Audiobooks are also available on YouTube, although they do not bother with the authors' permission," Limpa explained. "Whereas we take written permission from an author for converting his book to an audiobook."
After taking permission from the author, the founders of Shuni contact their pool of narrators. They look for a narrator's voice and reading style that would best suit the book.
Practice sessions follow after the selection is done.
In the end, the audiobook is recorded by the narrator and edited by the three founders. The demo of the audiobook is also sent to the author for his or her feedback before public release.
"In a sense, we are publishers, producers and distributors of these audiobooks at once," Limpa said.
She also disclosed that they would be able to offer royalty to the authors once they start earning from ads.
At present, Shuni's impressive collection includes audiobooks of Crutch'er Colonel by Shahaduzzaman, Agunpakhi by Hasan Azizul Huq, and Amar Bondhu Rashed and Hat Kata Robin by Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, among others.