Cellphone Stories

Some hope that the mobile driven technology book in Africa will also improve the availability of education across the continent. Most educational systems in Africa lack funds. In South Africa, only seven percent of public schools have functioning libraries, according to a study by Equal Education, a South African movement that seeks to improve the quality and equality of education in the country.


But these kind of statistics can create the wrong impression that most members of African society do not consider themselves to be readers or aren’t engaged in a developed reading culture. Because the amount of devices out there in the hands of the young tells a different story as writing and reading is no longer limited to paperback books.


One example is Mxit, the continent’s first homegrown social network began as a free instant messenger compatible with mobile phones, the majority of internet capable devices on the continent. Today, the network boasts over 50 million
users across the globe and at least until recently had more users in South Africa than Facebook and Twitter. Most of the users on MXit are youth below the age of 24 years from across the continent.


In 2009, a local story called “Kontax” that follows two characters, Sbu and K8, through everyday teenage life launched in 2009 on MXit. The story was created and split into bite sized chapters shared on the social network to test and see whether teenagers so full of “txt speak” could indulge in local storytelling and Shakespearian poetry or prose as well. In a month there were over 63,000 readers and 17,200 reads of Kontax. This gave birth to Yoza Cellpone Stories, which were created by the Shuttleworth Foundation and which recently picked up the 2013 Netexplo Award in Paris.


Yoza publishes short stories, poetry and classic literature allowing the audience to comment, vote, enter writing competitions and review stories on the platform.


It has since developed into a library of over 31 million novels, 18 poems and 5 Shakespearean plays. A comment by the reader Elsie, enchanted by a chapter in Romeo and Juliet, shows that teenagers in Africa do read: “If friar’s plan works then romeo wil b abl 2 cum nd take juliet wit him 2liv hapily 2geda at mantua bt if it fails, sumbdy’s gna b dead. Lol!” This is just one of the over 50,000 comments, largely comprised of text speak yet regarding one of the finest English writers of all times.


But African educational institutions are mostly in poor shape, which the mobile phone alone can not change, also because these institutions don’t make sufficient room for technology.


"The spirit of entrepreneurial change can be felt across many of the continent’s hub cities."


Two South African companies are attempting to improve the situation, Siyavula and Paperight. Siyavula is producing free, open-licensed textbooks and distribute them in a highly disruptive way. Both firms make their textbooks available in print, as PDFs, as web pages on desktop or mobile, and importantly on MXit. Within two months of the launch of their high-school math and science textbook on Mxit in 2012 they reached over 200,000 readers.


Siyavula’s business model is highly innovative and has challenged the local printing industry. The firm does not sell content, but rather the support and training services that surround a full implementation of multimedia learning materials. It also sells intelligent assessment of learners through an interactive question-and-answer platform that adjusts difficulty levels based on students’ performance. As was the case with the Kenyan banking industry, the spread of smartphones and in this case social media leaves a traditional industry with no choice but to adapt.


Paperight is a South African start-up that tries to take advantage of the presence of cyber cafes and print shops on every corner of African cities by turning them into legal book printers. Content piracy is widespread across the continent, be it in multimedia or photocopying of copyrighted content. Paperight seeks to build a network of cyber cafes and small print shops, allowing them to download licenses of books to be printed out while publishers rights are kept intact. So far 145 active outlets have come on board, some in remote parts of the country. The consumer does no longer have to travel to the nearest bookstore and the publisher, paperight and the cyber cafe or print shop each get revenue.


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