Africa reading: books, enterprise, and technology

As anyone who has read The Ordeal of the African Writer by Charles R Larson (Zed Books, 2001) will know, book distribution is not the continent’s strong point. 

But a number of enterprises are beginning to change the situation, using digital technology to do so.

For example, Worldreader, a not-for-profit has been distributing Kindles, pre-loaded with educational content, to selected schools and colleges. As a result, pupils can go from having little or no access to books to having access to hundreds.Some of the titles in our Professional and Higher Education series have featured in this programme.

Worldreader is now developing a programme for distributing educational content to mobile phones.

Paperight is a company based in Cape Town and funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation.  It enables copy shops to become bookshops. That is, a copy shop that has some form of internet connection can apply to become a Paperight outlet: the outlet can then use its  printers to print copies on demand for customers, having purchased from Paperight a licence to print. Paperight’s network of outlets is based in southern Africa, Again, our Professional and Higher Education series features in this programme.

Snapplify is also a South African company, though it is now based in New York and London too. It creates apps for publishers to make it easier for readers to consume content on mobile phones. That an African company should focus on mobiles is surely no accident: mobiles have become hugely important in Africa as a means – in many cases, the means – to get online. Of course, Snapplify work with publishers and readers well beyond Africa.

We’ve used Snapplify to develop our ‘P & H books app’, on which more anon. Our books are now available to read on phones and tablets via the app, which is available from Apple and Android app stores.

Digital enterprises such as the above are not going to suddenly transform the continent into a book distribution utopia, but they’re certainly increasing availability for readers in widespread locations.

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