Digital Publishing in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Good News, The Bad News

In Growth Markets by Tolu Ogunlesi

Sub-Saharan Africa’s dearth of cash, political will and a reliable supply of electricity are preventing the “digital revolution” from making large-scale changes in the way Africans read.

By Tolu Ogunlesi

The Namibian government has a goal of installing computers in every school and every community library in the country by 2014. This is one of the key objectives of the country’s Vision 2030 policy, according to Veno Kauaria, Director of the Library and Archive Service in Namibia’s Ministry of Education. But like many African countries, it faces crippling infrastructure challenges: an inadequacy of electricity supply, and of internet connectivity.

Kauaria said this during a panel discussion on “Sub-Saharan Africa in the Age of Digital Publishing” at last month’s London Book Fair. The discussion was chaired by Nigel Newton, President of Book Aid International and Chief Executive of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, and featured Chris Paterson, an International Publishing Consultant; Clive Nettleton, Director of Book Aid International; Liz Kendall-Jones, telecoms industry expert and Director of Goalquest Associates Ltd, a consultancy; and Kauaria.

The Good News

No doubt Africa is experiencing something akin to a digital revolution. J.M. Ledgard, writing in the Spring 2011 issue of the Intelligent Life, a publication of The Economist, noted that Kenyan mobile-phone company Safaricom, with 12 million subscribers, “is the most profitable business in east Africa.”

A broadband revolution is currently sweeping East and West Africa with the arrival in recent years of a swathe of optic-fibre cabling. In Nigeria there are more than 90 million mobile phone lines in the country, up from a negligible number a decade ago. The number of internet users has risen from 100,000 in 1999 to more than 40 million today. Around a tenth of these internet subscribers gain access to the internet via their mobile phones.

However, because of dismal infrastructure and high costs of optimal equipment and connectivity, Nettleton says “there will be a need for [printed] books for the foreseeable future.”

Wanted: Textbooks and Other Books, PDF or Otherwise

Textbooks are certainly very important in the African context. Paterson referred to a World Bank report that highlighted textbooks as the “second most important factor in a good education in Africa”, ahead of teacher training and the number of pupils in a class. Only the “home background” of pupils proved to be more important.

There’s a healthy demand (“desperate need” in the words of Nettleton) for textbooks in Africa. The enrollment figure for the Universal Basic Education scheme launched in 1999 by the Nigerian government stood at  21.7 million in 2009. This excludes the estimated 17 million children who should be in school but are not. Those who are fortunate enough to be in school are grossly underserved. According to a survey, more than 70 percent of enrolled pupils in Nigeria lack textbooks.

There’s remains a thriving textbook publishing market in Nigeria. In a 1992 paper, Tanzanian publisher Walter Bgoya noted: “Currently, the only really viable type of publishing in Africa is textbook production for primary and secondary schools.” Not much has changed since then. In 2004 Nigerian writer and publishing expert Chukwuemeka Ike noted that primary and secondary school textbooks make up as much as 90 percent of the Nigeria’s annual book output. “Foreign book donations help to fill yawning gaps in the publishing output of Nigerian publishing houses and will continue to do so for quite a while,” he added.

Book Aid International is one of those foreign donors. Depending significantly on donations from publishers, in 2010 it shipped half a million “new books” to more than 2,000 libraries in sub-Saharan Africa. (There is of course the downside to book aid; a reliance on donations jeopardizes the business prospects of indigenous publishers. But the current gulf between supply and demand means that Africa needs all the help it can get).

Turning to digital delivery of educational content would help to further bridge the gap, and reduce the costs involved in distributing books. “The cheapest form of delivery is the PDF form of the printed page,” said Paterson. That basic format (Western countries have since progressed to “interactive design”) would be a good place for Africa to start; in Paterson’s words an “interim solution.” (Newton said Bloomsbury currently belongs to a 13-publisher collective that provides –- by subscription -– PDF copies of books to public libraries around the world).

From the audience, Kunle Sogbein, Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Publishers Association, raised a question about the posiibility of “leapfrogging over PCs to smartphones” for the delivery of educational content. There are an estimated one million Blackberries in use in Nigeria –- only a third of these however subscribe to the Blackberry services offered by mobile phone companies; the rest are used as ordinary mobile phones.

The Bad News

Regardless of whether the focus is on PCs or smartphones, the challenges remain enormous. Electricity is needed to power devices. “When it comes to electricity, Africa remains the dark continent. There are a billion Africans, and they use only 4% of the world’s electricity,” Ledgard writes. “Most of that is round the edges, in Egypt, the Maghreb and South Africa.”

Paterson, who has twenty-five years of publishing experience in Southern Africa, said there are 16,000 schools in South Africa that do not have electricity. Considering that South Africa, with less than a third of Nigeria’s population, generates ten times as much electricity, one can only imagine how dismal the situation is in Nigeria.

Kendall-Jones pointed out other challenges apart from absent or grossly inadequate infrastructure: Equipment capability (many of the tens of millions of phones on the continent are low-end models, lacking the sophistication required for internet access, and for downloading and viewing files); government fiscal policies, and security (copyright and piracy issues). The security issue is a critical one; publishers will remain reluctant to digitize their content if there are no workable models for managing lending rights and ensuring that digital and online content are secure from illegal distribution.

The criticisms that have trailed the attempt to provide $100 laptops to children in developing countries will also have to be taken into consideration in any discussion of a digitization project in Africa.

While Africa continues to grapple with these challenges, the global publishing industry continues to move ahead rapidly. As e-books gain popularity in the West, and the production of printed books drops, organizations like Book Aid will find it more difficult to find to attract book donations from publishers. It is therefore in Africa’s interest to keep up with the rate of technological change in the West. Also, digitized illustrated children’s books by African writers will also find it easier to cross over into Western markets, since they will bypass the poor quality print publishing prevalent on the continent.

Nettleton said he believes that the question of digital publishing in Africa is not so much a “technological question” as it is a “political and financial” one. Truly, without any political will on the part of African governments, the continent will continue to be saddled with not only a dysfunctional public education system, but also with infrastructure inadequate to support a true digital revolution. Namibia seems committed to a transformation; several other African countries would do well to pay serious attention to it.

Tolu Ogunlesi is a poet, essayist and features editor at Timbuktu Media/NEXT Newspapers in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2009 he won the Arts & Culture Award at the CNN African Journalist of the Year Awards. He’s currently finishing his MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in the UK.

DISCUSS: Is’s Gift of E-readers to Africans the Right Precedent?

About the Author

Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi was born in 1982. He is the author of a collection of poetry, Listen to the geckos singing from a balcony (Bewrite Books, 2004) and a novella, Conquest & Conviviality (Hodder Murray, 2008). In 2007 he was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg poetry prize, in 2008 the Nordic Africa Institute Guest Writer Fellowship, and in 2009 a Cadbury Visiting Fellowship by the University of Birmingham. His fiction and poetry have been published in The London Magazine, Wasafiri, Farafina, PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing, Litro, Brand, Orbis, Nano2ales, Stimulus Respond, Sable, Magma, Stanford’s Black Arts Quarterly and World Literature Today, among others. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.