In addition to the devices and tools mentioned so far – all still in their early stages –, there is another actor that is perhaps the real protagonist of future electronic publishing in Africa: the mobile phone. In comparison to other technologies, the penetration of cell phones in the region is extremely high, not just in cities but in rural communities too. According to estimates by the International Telecommunications Union for 2010, access to mobile networks in Africa is around 41%, compared with 76% worldwide. Internet penetration, meanwhile, appears to be much lower: a mere 9.6%, in contrast to 30% for the rest of the planet. In Africa, then, mobile phones have four times more penetration than the Internet; and in relation to the global average, the African cell phone network is also much better positioned than the Web. In some countries, like South Africa, penetration appears to exceed 100%, to the extent that many African analysts point out that, there, cell phones constitute the real Net.
This particular situation has led numerous companies and areas of the public sector to prioritize the mobile phone network for activities that in other regions are carried out through the Web, such as electronic payments. Within this field, a vital role is played by M-Pesa, a cell phone-based money transfer service that emerged in Kenya in 2007 and which rapidly expanded to Tanzania, South Africa and even Afghanistan. What is interesting is that although it was designed by an international company like Vodafone – in conjunction with Safaricom – and promoted by US and European foundations – such as the UK-based DFID –, this system is supported by the locally available infrastructure and meets the concrete needs of vast sectors of the population, two decisive factors in the success of any technological project.
M-Pesa and other similar payment solutions have served as a model for many other mobile applications. In 2009, for example, the University of South Africa (UNISA) introduced the AirPac service to guarantee its library members access to a wide catalogue and even give them the possibility of reserving books using their cell phones. At the time it was launched, Rita Maré, a professor at the university, enumerated the benefits of this institutional repository: increasing the impact of the university’s research and facilitating the sharing of new knowledge, in order to give African academia greater visibility.
The possibilities offered by mobile phones have led some players to use the existing cellular network to distribute works of fiction. Although no longer active, the company CellBook, founded in 2007, was one of the first to follow this direction, by creating tailor-made software and solutions for publishers who wished to distribute their books through this medium. In 2009, Pieter Traut, the project founder, commented to NewsWire Today:
The possibility to distribute books on mobile devices opens up new and untapped revenue streams for publishers and enables them to monetize content in a dynamic way in a world where the mobile phone has become the most popular digital device. Since 2007, more than 100,000 books have been distributed on mobile in South Africa alone and we engaged with some of the largest publishers to create CellBook versions on a host of exciting book titles. What makes CellBook so unique is that it now includes a number of cutting-edge features such as book search functionality and book review postings to social networks.
It was apparently the lack of a clear business model that led to CellBook being discontinued. But the closing down of this project did not discourage other entrepreneurs. In 2008, the South African platform MOBFest introduced Novel Idea, a literature contest for cell phones. By sending an SMS, users could receive stories written especially for small screens – 28 instalments each of 900 characters – and then vote for their favourite author. Although the Novel Idea texts were sent free of charge, at least they served as an exploration of new formats and as a promotion tool for local writers. As Michelle Matthews, the publisher in charge of the project observed:
I think that for now, fiction on mobile phones is a different experience to your traditional 300 page novel. Writers tend to write differently for the platform and readers don’t want to read long texts on a small screen – at least not yet. I think it appeals to an overlapping market. It’s always possible that someone will seek out a book by an author they’ve read and enjoyed on their mobile phone. So Novel Idea is a good marketing tool for established authors.
MXit, for its part, is now one of the leading actors in the cell phone sector in South Africa. Its chat applications system, used by 27 million subscribers, makes this company the continent’s main social network. Users can pay for small applications in the system’s very own currency called the Moola. In May 2009, the writer Karen Michelle Brooks signed an agreement with MXit to sell her adventure novel Emily and the Battle of the Veil through the platform, where the work could be bought chapter by chapter, with Moola micro-payments. This 27-chapter-long book inaugurated MXit’s m-books (mobile books) series and in barely a month it had already sold 5000 chapters. In the words of Brooks:
M-Books is the evolution of e-Books. I thought that access to books via a digital medium was a great way to give everybody access to my novel. More importantly, Emily and the Battle of the Veil is suited to teenagers and I wanted to make it accessible to them – hoping it will foster a love of reading and writing.
In September 2009, the South African Steve Vosloo, an expert in IT systems, published the story Kontax, by Sam Wilson, first from his own site and then through MXit. The publishing project, known as m4Lit, was supported by the Shuttleworth Foundation and its objective was to promote reading among South African youngsters. Kontax was distributed free of charge in English and in Isixhosa – one of the country’s official languages –, while an interactive space was set up where readers could leave comments, discuss the story and suggest alternative endings that were later entered into in a competition. In just two months the mobile site exceeded 63,000 subscribers.
In 2010, m4Lit inaugurated Yoza, a free virtual library that now houses Kontax and other texts especially written for mobile phones, with genres ranging from adventure tales to stories about football, love stories and classic plays like Macbeth.
Vosloo’s reflections on the success of m4Lit are quite revealing:
I too love the form of a book, the weight and smell of it, the feeling of the paper. I would be devastated if books were to vanish, relegated to museums. But we can’t ignore the changes that are happening in the world, nor the advantages that new technology offers. Books are highly durable – read on the mountain top without fear of the battery dying –, but prohibitively expensive. Without libraries, our youth can’t access books. I agree that we desperately need libraries, but concede that we probably won’t see them built and stocked for some time (if ever). What our youth do have, however, are cell phones. The project that I lead, called m4Lit (mobiles for literacy), takes this book-poor/cell phone-rich context of South Africa, indeed of most of Africa, as a point of departure. If cell phones are what’s in the hands of young people then that is what we have to work with.
- Cf. “The World in 2010”, ITU.↵
- That is to say, there are more devices than inhabitants. Cf. “ICT Statistics Newslog – South Africa Mobile Penetration Level Breaks the 100% Mark”, ITU, 28th January, 2009.↵
- Cf. Matthews, Michelle: “Cell-lit is all the rage”, Mail & Guardian Online, 8th June, 2008.↵
- Cf. “About M-Paisa”, Roshan connection. M-Pesa has proved essential for those people who find themselves outside the formal banking system. Around 50% of the population of Kenya are estimated to use this system (Cf. Graham, Fiona: “M-Pesa: Kenya’s mobile wallet revolution”, BBC News, 22nd November, 2010).↵
- Cf. “AirPAC Launch”, UNISA.↵
- Cf. “Mobile Applications Developer CellBook Signs Agreement with Oxford University Press”, Newswire Today, 28th February, 2009.↵
- The first round of the contest saw the participation of writers such as Lauren Beukes, Sam Wilson, Sarah Lotz and Henrietta Rose-Innes – the winner of the 2008 Caine Prize. Cf. “Author biographies”, Novel Idea.↵
- Cf. Cummiskey, Gary: “Stories put to the text”, The Book seller, 25th September, 2008.↵
- Cf. “MXit Launches its First SMS Book: Karen Michelle Brooks’ Emily and the Battle of the Veil”, Book Southern Africa, 7th May, 2009.↵
- Cf. Vosloo, Steve: “It’s about reading, not paper vs pixels”, Steve Vosloo. Project leader in Cape Town: Technology + Education + Africa, 31st May, 2010.↵