Ebooks in Africa: 1

Recently I had the pleasure of going to South Africa, and whilst there attended a conference in Joburg on how digital books are impacting publishing, and what kind of changes and strategic decisions need to be effected as a result. In this post I'll talk generally about the situation out there and in a follow up post I will highlight some of the initiatives I came across. The conference so easily could have been the same old thing we have all been hearing about for the past couple of years, but was added with a fresh set of challenges that mean ebooks and digital publishing in South Africa, and indeed the continent as a whole, are likely to be substantially different than in the UK.

There are two main challenges. Firstly is the low level of bandwidth in the country as a whole. The low capacity of the data cables in and out of SA creates expensive and slow broadband, which in turn has meant broadband penetration is slight. In the first half of the nineteenth century Cape Town was at the heart of global trade; in the 21st century only a new cable coming into effect this year is bringing SA into the terabyte, let alone petabyte, age. General desktop access is also low, reflecting this infrastructural blockage.

Secondly is that the distribution of internet access is heavily weighted towards mobile (as many as double the number of people have access to the mobile web against desktop) with this trend continuing apace. However for most South Africans the internet is way down the list of priorities, given endemic poverty, the AIDs epidemic, world beating crime statistics, mass unemployment and a host of other issues largely alien to the populations of North America or Europe. That said people are willing to spend large portions of their income on "cellphones" and the phenomenal growth in this area is expected to continue.

The retail situation is also different. I visited the brilliant people at Pan Mac SA and learnt more about how things work out. For a start Amazon has no direct presence, which alters the web retail environment immensely. Instead online portals like kalahari.net and distributors like Booksite Afrika are the dominant players. However somewhere like Exclusive Books will be familiar to any UK consumer who has been in Waterstone's, and even more aptly Ottakars, before the merger.

With desktop web access not being key and without the ready availability of e-reading devices, a significant amount of the content focus is on mobile, and specifically ways of cleverly adapting content to mobile. In this and related areas like micropayments we are way behind. We don't have a developed reading audience comfortable with this, and neither have we thought as deeply about how to use our content. In engaging with mobile- although not necessarily smartphone- SA publishers are leading the way.

Against c4.5 million web users there are 43 million mobile phones (80% of the population), a $2.4 billion market dominated by carriers Vodacom and MTN (collectively 82.5% marketshare) and manufacturers Nokia and Samsung. Local services like mxit, a chat app, have been in the vanguard of SA tech innovation and scaled rapidly.

Selection of content is, understandably, also crucial. In a country with the historical and present day divisions of SA, a nation of no less than 11 official languages, broad appeal is going to be tough and niches important. An ecosystem has evolved that combines local with international publishing; international being the broader base.

Interestingly many people said that it was Christian content that had a bright future in digital. This seems to be a massive area of publishing, and critically an area that is already working in digital versions- something I confess to never having previously thought of as being a digital pioneer.

In sum South Africa is, like everywhere, poised on the edge of a revolution in reading. With its feet in the developed and the developing camps, its outward looking temperament balanced against limitations in the market and the technology at home, this will differ greatly from the experience overseas, where expensive devices and online access are already realities. Yes, that might be a trite statement, but all too often we forget about the genuinely global impact of how reading is evolving and the enormous ramifications of this.

Ebooks in Africa could be a way of massively increasing people's exposure to books, people who historically have been denied the opportunity to read. That has to be important, and worth following.

Pictures (CC licence)

Johannesburg1 by lemoncat1

Joburgcity by a_kep