Four companies that are changing digital reading in Africa

The digital reading revolution is not going to look the same in developing countries as it has in the developing world — but that doesn’t mean that ebooks don’t have potential there. Efforts to get them into readers’ hands, however, are complicated by low incomes, spotty or nonexistent internet access and lack of credit cards.

At the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference last week in New York, Paperight’s Arthur Attwell and Worldreader’s Michael Smith outlined several companies’ efforts to bring new ways of reading to developing countries. Here’s a brief introduction to each of those companies.

Paperight screenshotPaperight

Arthur Attwell worked in educational and scholarly publishing in South Africa for several years while cofounding and running a digital publishing company called Electric Book Works. But, he said, “The more I worked in ebooks, I found that I was essentially making ebooks for rich people. I didn’t think that was a very interesting challenge.” South Africa’s digital publishing market, he said, is supported by just one or two million wealthy people; the country’s remaining 48 million residents can’t afford it.

Digital wasn’t the solution for Attwell: The most recent South African census found that 65 percent of the country’s residents have no internet access at all. But, Attwell said, every South African village, town and city has at least one “photocopy shop” with copy machines and those buildings usually have internet access. His company Paperight, launched in May 2012, takes advantage of those shops to distribute books. A store registers on, opens a prepaid account of credits and instantly gets the legal right to download and print books for their customers. Over 200 South African shops, as well as a few in other African countries, are now using Paperight.


Worldreader, an NGO I’ve covered in the past, gives Kindles to students in sub-Saharan Africa and has become increasingly well-known in part because of its partnership with Amazon (s AMZN). (CEO David Risher was previously an Amazon executive.) The company has distributed 428,000 ebooks to 3,000 kids as of January 2013.

Worldreader is now pushing forward with reading on basic mobile phones. An app called biNu lets users download Worldreader books (and other content — including Facebook) over a basic feature phone’s data signal. biNu is now enabled on 5 million subscriber phones, primarily in Nigeria. (The top five book searches, Worldreader’s Smith said, were “sex,” “romance,” “the Bible,” “Harry Potter” and “physics.”) Worldreader is also working with students to self-publish their own writing on Amazon’s KDP platform.

Right now, Worldreader is tied to Kindle. Smith said the company is “definitely looking to get beyond” it, but right now Kindle is the only e-reader that supports 3G. And in many countries where Worldreader operates, internet access isn’t easily available. Smith said Worldreader also needs Amazon’s Whispercast technology to push books onto devices, and other e-reading companies don’t yet have that system in place.

Mxit screenshotMxit and Siyavula

Mxit is a social network for mobile phones, with about 50 million users across the African continent. The network relies primarily on instant messaging but also allows access to other kinds of content — including books. One of the first books distributed on Mxit’s platform in 2009 was a novella called “Kontax.” Aimed at teens and available in both English and Xhosa (one of South Africa’s official languages), the book was distributed in parts, allowing readers to discuss it as unfolded. “Kontax” was read 34,000 times, and Yoza, the initiative behind it, has expanded to offer more cell phone novels (which it calls m-novels).

Now, the South African open-source creative commons textbook publisher Siyavula is distributing free math and science textbooks on Mxit. (Attwell’s Shuttleworth Foundation is a backer of Siyavula.) In 2010, following teacher strikes, the South African government arranged to print copies of Siyavula’s textbooks and distribute them to high school students. As a result, over 200,000 South African students have read Siyavula’s content. Now corporations are sponsoring books in new subjects and for younger students.