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Is Worldreader.org’s Gift of E-readers to Africans the Right Precedent?

Is the dependence on expensive devices a Western solution to an African problem?

By Edward Nawotka

Today’s feature story considers the challenges of digital publishing in sub-Saharan Africa. Amongst the key obstacles preventing further proliferation of digital reading across the continent is a lack of cash, political will…and electricity. Innovative programs such as Worldreader.org, which has distributed some 500 Kindles to communities in Ghana and Kenya, cannot help but be viewed in a positive light. The not-for-profit was founded by, among others, David Risher, a former senior vice president of product and platform development at Amazon.com. It has support from Amazon.com, has solicited donations of e-books from Random House, and is active in helping to digitize African titles — around 40 are now available online at the Kindle store. It is drawing interest from the World Bank; several notable authors have also signed on to help as well.


One author who has made his work available for free to Worldreader.org is Cory Doctorow, a pioneer in the free-to-read e-book market. He told Publishers Weekly last month that participating in WorldReader.org was a “no brainer”:

“It’s the first inkling of the real promise of electronic publishing, the realization of the ancient and noble drive to deliver universal access to all human knowledge…” it’s “a situation in which a writer can do good at no cost to himself, no cost to his publisher.”

Worldreader.org is a role model. But is the focus on e-readers — devices which will be largely out of the price range of the vast majority of Africans — a Western solution to what is an endemic African problem? Or is it the answer? As noted in our feature story, finding a reliable source of electricity can be a problem for many Africans and the general consensus on the continent is that the distribution of PDF files is still the cheapest solution, one that allows greatest access to the material to the widest range of people. Many people also believe that focusing on formatting work for cell phones — particularly on those modest feature phones that run Java — might help publisher reach a broader range of readers.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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  1. Posted May 10, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Many African cities have a large population of keen readers, but visiting book shops in those cities is disappointing as there are so few titles for sale.
    The best bet for African readers and writers, in my opinion, would be access to the Espresso Book Machine – the on-demand book generator that stores thousands of titles electronically and prints as customers make an order.
    I believe this machine is ideal for many African cities – no import of books, no storage of books, but access to thousands of new titles.

  2. Posted May 10, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I think of the cell phone. I am sure at first you would have read the same questions and arguments against introducing the cell phone. Look how that has turned out! Today’s e-reader is expensive, but with time the price is sure to drop. Other businesses will grow out of need as they have with cell phones. More people learning, more people working, I think that is how my problems will be solved!

  3. Jodi
    Posted May 10, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it’s a no-brainer. E-readers can be charged with solar chargers. It costs a tremendous amount of money, fuel, and man-power to ship paper books. Then you have to have an actual library. People have to get to the library, which could be many miles away. Women, especially, are at risk of violence against them.

    And when a village of people have to flee….they won’t be lugging paper books with them.

    Thousands of e-readers can be donated for less than the price of shipping one truckload of books.

  4. Posted May 11, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    The electricity issue can’t be discounted (altho solar chargers would work for sure). In Bamako, the capital of Mali, phones were often being powered by paraffin as recently as two years ago. About a decade ago I saw a photo of an amazing solar powered ‘transistor’ radio designed for use in Africa. Oddly it looked in design terms a lot like the original iMac (translucent plastic, bubble-shape). So yes – eReaders can be the solution. But only when/if adapted for the region.

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