Can Digital Libraries Help Facilitate The Distribution Of Books In Africa?

It is widely agreed that Africa is?rising, especially the African e-commerce market which presents a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors alike.?Frost & Sullivan estimates the market will be worth $50 billion by 2018, compared to $8 billion in 2013. E-commerce businesses of various entities?and sizes are springing up across the continent, and investment money is flowing into the sector. This scenario may yet be too optimistic. Although e-commerce provides a long-term opportunity for both local entrepreneurs and investors, at the moment, the market faces just too many limitations, some of which include size, opportunity to scale (or lack thereof), infrastructure and talent.

The African continent?is also witnessing one of the strongest increases in mobile data usage in the world, which was predicted to double between 2014 and 2015, with a 20-fold increase by the end of the decade. Mobile banking in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania are?supporting a fast developing m-commerce sector, enabling mobile transactions, remittances and payments. This new technology could?be an opportunity creator, not only for the mobile financial services sector, but for the African publishing industry as well.

Digital publishing in sub-Saharan Africa is in an entirely embryonic state. Statistics show the rather unpleasant situation such as the minimal presence of e-readers,?technologically advanced public library?and technologies designed to facilitate the acquisition, distribution and consumption of books.?A device like the Amazon Kindle?has such limited network coverage that in February 2013, only seven?countries ? South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Kenya, Gabon, Nigeria?and Ghana had?access to this device. However, given the disparity?between the price of the device ? including shipping and customs?costs ? and the average salary of the population, which in most sub-Saharan countries is below 1.500 per inhabitant, only the wealthiest inhabitants?are able to spend the money to acquire an Amazon Kindle e-reader.

In November 2009, Arthur Attwell, a?consultant and the director of the South African publishing house Electronic Book Works, shared the following thought on the introduction of?the Amazon Kindle e-reader in South Africa,??I think it?s very unlikely the Kindle will make a significant impact in?South Africa. It is very expensive for most people (especially when you include the shipping costs) and is likely to be purchased by only a few wealthy early-adopters.??


Since March 2010,?Worldreader,?a non-profit on a mission to bring digital books to every child and their family, so that they can improve their lives,?has been handing?out the device to students in Ghana, Egypt, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and many more African countries, bringing their global reach to fifty-five countries, to facilitate the acquisition of books, and education in rural areas, while exposing youth to digital books.?According to David Risher, the?founder of Worldreader and a former executive of Amazon, the medium?term objective is to reduce as much as possible, the cost of each book using this technology:??Lack of access to books has been solved by e-books. But there?s no market-driven plan to get e-readers to the developing world?, he stated.

Nevertheless, Jonathan Wareham, a professor from ESADE (Barcelona)?who has studied the case, points out that the battle against illiteracy being fought by Worldreader is currently full of challenges. Foremost is the change in cultural rules. To be able to surmount them, says Wareham, Worldreader would have to create a system of content, distribution, training and administration, as well as obtain administrative, local, cultural and political support.

Risher is at any rate optimistic,?as he believes that since the teachers already know how to use the books, the Worldreader program ? sometimes called the ?One Kindle Per?Child? project, will prove to be easier to implement than other initiatives?like One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).

African kids with laptop

One Laptop Per Child

Driven by the leadership of?Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC is also a non-profit organization,?based in Delaware (US), which developed the XO, a low-cost?and low-energy-consumption portable computer that can be used regardless of the possible virtues of Worldreader or OLPC. What can be clearly understood is that?both initiatives are based on a technological platform that?seeks to install itself ?from the outside?.?As is to be expected, the difficulties don?t take long to surface: the?lack of content adapted to the users and the absence of a business model?designed for local creators and entrepreneurs. In other words, they?are projects that first get the technology on the ground and then face the?problem of generating nothing less than an ad hoc ?ecosystem? of people?and infrastructure.

Worldreader and OLPC have achieved international appeal, no?doubt because of the actors and contributors involved,?but they are not the only projects facilitating the growth of the digital publishing in sub-?Saharan Africa.?Needless to say, there are numerous local ventures that?start from very different premises.

The sub-Saharan Africa landscape

Digital books and information in Africa?Sub-Saharan Africa lag behind the developed world in terms of?accessibility and availability of digital content, the hardware necessary to use?it, and availability of the technological infrastructure needed to enable the?hardware to be used. The UK market for e-books was believed to be around?9 per cent of the sector?s revenues in 2010, yet in South Africa, the most?advanced country in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of availability of personal use?devices, e-book sales were just 1.5 per cent of total revenues.

However problems with internet connectivity and bandwidth are declining?in many countries. In 2009, the first undersea cable to bring high speed fixed?internet access to east Africa went live, and there is a massive extension of the?cabling, even into some remote areas in Kenya. Additionally, ninety-nine per cent of?Kenya?s 1.7 million internet subscribers are able to access the internet using mobile?phones. In Malawi, laptops are becoming more popular with university?students, with an increasing number using them in the library for their studies,?accessing the internet with 3G dongles. ?Unquestionably, more people in?Africa are accessing useful and relevant written content using digital means:?getting information about work availability; transferring of money and?obtaining commercial and sales information by mobile phone is becoming?commonplace.

There certainly seems to be an appetite for digital content for personal?devices in some sectors of the population. A U.S. NGO, through its social?enterprise arm is developing kiosks inside Nairobi bookshops to sell dedicated?e-reader devices, tablets, phones and e-books. ?This initiative will use two key?pieces of technology to enable it to work: Adobe digital rights management?software, which will give both local and international publishers reassurance?that their intellectual property is being protected according to international standards, and M-Pesa, to enable Kenyans to pay for books even if they do not have a?credit card.

In South Africa, a social networking mobile phone service launched the first?e-book solely for reading on a mobile phone screen on the continent. Fantasy?e-book Emily and the battle of the veil had 5,000 chapters downloaded in the?first month. The ability to download the novel, chapter by chapter may have?held particular appeal in enabling people to read the content on their phone?screens. Another South African initiative, MOBFest, introduced a literature?contest for mobile phones and included a contribution from the 2008 Caine?Prize winner Henrietta Rose-Innes.

Much of the discourse on the potential of digital books in Africa is subtly?focused on ?literature?, which, to a large extent, requires reading of large?volumes of pages of prose at a time. But what people actually read ? in the West?as well as in Africa and beyond ? does not necessarily require that kind of?approach. Newspapers, magazines, and even textbooks, often do not require that the?reader focus on large amounts of text, but lend themselves to a more ?dip in,?dip out? approach. Perhaps the issue of reading from a screen much smaller?than the average printed novel is less important than is often assumed. Already,?enormous volumes of information are consumed (and often contributed to)?through mobile phone screens around the world and websites like Facebook,?Wikipedia and Google.

African girl with ipad

Very few, if any, public or national library services in sub-Saharan Africa are?delivering library resources via e-reader or mobile phone. Many university?libraries have subscriptions to online services like HINARI, INASP and?AGORA. These are mainly used by students and academics through their?library computers, but also, increasingly, at the institutions through privately?owned laptops using 3G dongles. Many public libraries report that internet-enabled computers are used?mainly for games, CVs, email and Facebook ? an experience similar to?many public libraries in the UK and US.

Often users have limited knowledge?of how to access other digital resources, and frequently, more support needs?to be provided to both public and specialist librarians to equip them with the right skills and knowledge to support their users. Lack of access to computers (21%), poor connectivity (25%) and the lack of awareness of?e-resources (18%) are quoted as the most common hindrances to utilization of?e-resources in academic and research organizations in Kenya. ?Unreliable?electricity and low bandwidth remain widespread problems: Copperbelt?University in Zambia reported that their entire institution has access to only one?megabyte of broadband.?However, in several countries, national library services and other institutions?have begun to digitize national archives and other beneficial documents,?particularly content of specific local relevance. For example the?comprehensive collection of digital documents relating to health research at the?Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania.

These projects are often driven by?concerns about protecting fragile texts and documents and the need for more?useful reference material for students, particularly for local research and papers.?Projects with a more international focus are also being undertaken: the?National Library of Uganda has been one of the primary partners, and one of?only two sub-Saharan African partners, in the World Digital Library project?which aims to make available on the internet, ?free of charge and in multilingual?format, significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the?world?. The Kenya National Library has a project to digitize rare books,?government reports and past newspapers.?Accessing information through mobile phones?One route to accessing digital information in sub-Saharan Africa may have real?potential.

The role of mobile phones

Mobile phones have taken off in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa?with a trajectory that no one could have predicted. In 2000, mobile network?coverage by population ? i.e. the percentage of the population covered by a?mobile network ? across sub-Saharan Africa was estimated at 25 per cent. By?2014 that number had more than doubled to 78.5 per cent.

The increase in mobile?phone adoption has occurred despite some enormous barriers, in particular?very high taxes.?In countries where infrastructure remains poor in both urban and rural?areas, unique arrangements such as mobile phone charging kiosks have sprung?up to ensure that phones can be charged, and solar power projects are also?being initiated. But mobile phone ownership in rural areas remains low, and?women are much less likely to own a mobile phone than men. ?Many access?mobile phones through phone sharing schemes amongst friends and family.?Perhaps one of the reasons for the success of mobile phones is that the?technology helps provide services that people really want and need. For?example, M-Pesa, in South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania (and Afghanistan),?was developed on the back of increased mobile phone penetration.

This mobile?phone payment system can be used on very basic handsets to pay almost?anyone for almost anything. Improving access to information about job?opportunities or commercial information has made mobile phones popular,?and mobile phones are decreasing the cost of communication.?Mobile phones are used in increasingly innovative ways: in South Africa,?Mxit, a free message service also has its own currency and includes apps,?games, a maths education initiative ? and a digital novel download. ?Initiatives?such as this and World Reader?s app, if successful, could help open up?the path for other innovative solutions consequently facilitating the distribution and books in Africa.

Original post featured here.


Donald Hagbe?is?the founder and CEO of the MonDonald Group, a multinational company that oversees and manages subsidiaries across the world.?Donald?is?considered by many to be a man for all seasons due to his passion for knowledge, and dedication to improving himself and the world around him.?His?is?a university graduate in Law, Business and Finance. While undertaking his studies he gained experience by working in top firms and international organizations.?Through?Wivela Holdings, his biggest company in Africa, he works with?other local start-ups?to help?grow and expand beyond their communities and countries.