• Table of contents

    • [+]Preliminaries (3)
    • [+]Introduction (4)
    • [+]Latin America (13)
    • [—]Sub-Saharan Africa (9)
    • [+]Arab World (11)
    • [+]Russia (11)
    • [+]India (11)
    • [+]China (9)
    • [+]Conclusions (6)
    • [+]Appendix (1)

Sub-Saharan Africa

Reading devices in an incipient market

The first observation a visitor might make with regard to digital publishing in sub-Saharan Africa is that it is in an entirely embryonic state. For a start, the presence of e-readers is minimal. A device like the Kindle has such limited network coverage that in February 2011, only 7 countries – South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Kenya, Gabon, Nigeria and Ghana – have access to this provision.[1] Moreover, given the disparity between the price of the device – including shipping and customs costs – and the average salary of the population, only the wealthiest inhabitants are able to acquire one. In November 2009, Arthur Attwell, a consultant and the director of the South African publishing house Electronic Book Works, made the following reflections on the introduction of the Amazon device into his country:

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 including the shipping costs) and is likely to be purchased by only a few wealthy early-adopters.[2]

Since March 2010, the Worldreader organization has been handing out the device to students in Ghana, to explore the reactions of these young people to digital technology.[3] According to David Risher, the founder of Worldreader and a former executive of Amazon, the medium term objective is reduce as much as possible the cost of each book read 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. [4]

Nevertheless, Jonathan Wareham, a professor from ESADE (Barcelona) who has studied the case, points out that in order to make any progress, Worldreader would have to create a system of content, distribution, pedagogy and administration, as well as obtain administrative, cultural and political support. The challenges, adds Wareham, are immense: the initial objective of the program was to fight illiteracy, but ultimately it is faced with the need to change cultural rules.[5] 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[6]– will prove to be easier to implement than other initiatives like One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).[7] This is no innocent remark on Risher’s part, since it reveals the rivalry that exists between these two experiments in introducing reading technology into the developing world.

Presided over by 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 in the remotest of places and the most adverse environments. According to its website, OLPC’s mission is to promote the education of school-age children in developing countries. The organization has produced hardware, software and content for over two million pupils and teachers, and has carried out various experiences in sub-Saharan Africa. OLPC receives financial support from companies like eBay, Google, News Corporation and Red Hat.

The question that arises – and one that has numerous implications in the field of digital publishing – is what kind of content Worldreader’s Kindles or OLPC’s laptops offer in Africa. According to information disseminated by OLPC, XO users can access hundreds of thousands of free e-books provided by the Internet Archive Foundation of San Francisco.[8] Of course no specific details are given about what happens with pupils and teachers that require personalized content, in particular when the foreign repositories contain no literature in local languages – as is usually the case.

In 2010, OLPC France promoted the inclusion of an electronic book in the Malgache language into the XOs on the island of Nosy Komba (Madagascar). Jeunes Malgaches, an independent local publisher, joined the initiative and contributed the first text.[9] According to Marie Michèle Razafinstalama, the director of the publishing house:

OLPC France discovered that when foreign books are introduced, difficulties arise, because there is always the language barrier. In some countries, books in French may work, but the problem is that these books are never adapted. In other words the content is not fitted to the context, and children can’t identify with that type of book.[10]

In addition to that one title in Malgache, the laptops contain 12 electronic books in French. Razafinstalama believes these texts will be less likely to interest pupils, because in primary school children don’t yet understand that foreign language well. Moreover, there still does not appear to be a clear business model for publishers, given that so far it has been a non-commercial initiative: Jeunes Malgaches transferred copyright free of charge, OLPC received the text in PDF version and then adapted it to the device. Nonetheless, a publisher like Sékou Fofana, from the Donniya publishing house, in Mali, sees an advantage in including local texts in the XOs:

In commercial terms there isn’t much to be gained. But in terms of recognition and diffusion it may be a good option.[11]

Regardless of the possible virtues of Worldreader or OLPC, what is certain is that both initiatives are based on a technological platform that seeks to install itself “from above”, in completely heterogeneous contexts.[12] 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 renown – no doubt because of the stature of the actors and contributors involved –, but they are not the only projects related to digital publishing in sub-Saharan Africa. On the contrary, there are numerous local ventures that start from very different premises.

  1. Cf. http://client0.cellmaps.com/viewer.html?cov=2&view=intl.
  2. Cf. Cummiskey, Gary: “The Kindle arrives in South Africa”, The Bookseller, November 2009. In another article, Attwell refers to this sector as the “First World bubble”, beyond which e-readers are unlikely to have any impact. Cf. Attwell, Arthur: “Applying publishing tech in southern Africa”, On technology and information in the developing world, October 2009.
  3. According to its website, Worldreader is a non-profit organization that aims to put whole libraries in the hands of people in the developing world, by using tools like e-readers. Their motto is “Books for all”.
  4. Boss, Suzie: “What’s Next: Curling Up with E-Readers”, Stanford Social Innovation Review, winter 2011.
  5. Ibidem.
  6. Cf. Fowler, Geoffrey A.: “Nonprofit Tries One-Kindle-Per-Child In Ghana”, Digits: Technology News and Insights (The Wall Street Journal Blogs), 5th August, 2010.
  7. Ibidem.
  8. Cf. Roush, Wade: “Internet Archive Opens 1.6 Million E-Books to Kids with OLPC Laptops”, Xconomy, 24th October, 2009.
  9. Cf. Razafintsalama, Marie Michèle: “Le premier livre jeunesse malgache en numérique”, Presse Edition et Diffusion (Prediff).
  10. Personal interview, December 2010.
  11. Ibidem.
  12. The criticisms already outlined several years ago now by Lee Felsenstein make interesting reading on this point: “Problems with the $100 laptop”, The Fonly Institute, 10th November, 2005.


  1. thierry quinqueton

     /  27/08/2011

    “L’absence d’accès aux livres a été résolue grâce aux e-books. Il n’y a derrière cela aucun dessein commercial d’assurer des débouchés pour les e-readers dans le monde en développement.”
    Alors là, le monsieur de “Worldreader”, il en plein “rêve de l’homme blanc”. Ton analyse sur la place – ou l’absence de place – des contenus émanant des créateurs et intellectuels africains dans ces modèles est très juste.

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