'Data-light' in the deep field with Worldreader

'Data-light' in the deep field with Worldreader

"What if the most disruptive thing ebooks ever do is make books truly ubiquitous?" asks Worldreader's Danielle Zacarias in her article for us today. Worldreader's mission uses e-readers, mobile phones and other devices. The programme, a 501(c)3 (non-profit) charity based in San Francisco, reports it has beneficiaries in 27 countries, with more than 6,000 titles in 23 languages from Afrikaans to Swahili. Seventy percent of its publishers are African or Indian. The agency quotes UNESCO in a finding that reading on Worldreader Mobile is particularly popular with women, who spend on average 207 minutes reading per month, compared to 32 minutes for men.—Porter Anderson

'It doesn’t seem that we are so different'

In June, I spent a day at Marfokrom Anglican Primary, located about an hour’s drive outside of Accra, Ghana in a fairly rural setting.

While there, I met a precocious student named Abigail Nketiah. I asked her what her favorite book was and why, expecting the usual kind of answer a child her age might give—a shy smile or a vague recitation of the plot. Abigail surprised me by confidently telling me she couldn’t pick just one but that she would show me her favorites.

She went through a considerable list of books, scrolling through them on her e-reader one after another. When she got to a Kenyan book I asked her what she thought of Kenyan stories.  

“They seem very Ghanaian,” She replied almost immediately. “It doesn’t seem that we are so different. I think we are African.”

If you don’t know the African publishing scene or know that more than 5,800 kilometers separate the capitals of both countries, this might not seem that significant. But it speaks to a kind of innovation that has so often been overlooked in conversations about the place of ebooks in publishing. What if the most disruptive thing ebooks ever do is make books truly ubiquitous?             


The book in its most traditional form—organised text that is sometimes accompanied by static images —is a powerful way to capture, organise and convey information. In the digital age of ubiquitous devices, books are even easier to transport and receive because they no longer have to be shipped to their destinations or take up much space when they get there.

Ebooks have another benefit: compared to other means of conveying information, straight text and static images are data-light.

In the developed world, those of us with money no longer pay a great deal of attention to how much data we’re using. We stream videos on demand on a variety of devices and use data the way we use water or electricity: vaguely cognizant that it isn’t free but without really considering the difference between using it for ten minutes or 30. As with water and electricity it doesn’t take much to realise that a great deal of the world doesn’t function this way but it does take a moment to think through what this means for those who must by necessity meter their access.

Millions of Worldreader’s readers in developing countries read over Edge or 2G connections.on low-cost cell phones with limited storage capacity, low processing power and small screens. Many of them are conscious of the data they are spending. The difference between being able to watch a YouTube video and read a book is profound.

In more concrete terms it looks a bit like this: watching 10 minutes of a YouTube video on relatively fast data consumes 22 MB of data whereas downloading one book uses between one and four MB. This is the difference between being able to get 10 minutes of information about one topic and consuming up to 22 full books, some for pleasure, others to help you figure out why your child has a stomach ache. 

For us, this means making sure that the books we seek out or optimise for our readers are as simple as possible. Worldreader works with re-flowable ebooks that don’t turn into games or have embedded videos. We look for books with simple formatting and when possible simple illustrations. We might shorten books, breaking large pieces of information into smaller, more digestible chunks, but we otherwise do not stray much from the formula that has for centuries made books such a powerful means of conveying information: words, carefully selected, and organised.

Which is not to say we never will—perhaps as technology and connectivity improve we’ll happily embrace more technologically complex books. But for now what’s working is the book, as close to being a book as it ever has been.

East-West African trade in books

My conversation with Abigail couldn’t have happened a few years ago. It would have been very unusual to find a schoolgirl in rural Ghana who had read enough Kenyan books to be able to comment on them.

Four years ago when I first started working with publishers in sub-Saharan Africa, I saw a lot of libraries in under-resourced schools with a limited selection of books. I never saw a Kenyan book in a Ghanaian school library or vice-versa. I did see a few Nigerian books or South African books, but the idea of this East-West African trade in books had yet to really take hold.

On that same trip, perhaps even just a day later, I returned to my hotel to see  a woman who worked there reading a tattered copy of A Woman in Her Prime by Asare Konadu. The cover had been ripped almost in half but she seemed immersed.

“I love that book,” I said.

She was sceptical that I even knew the book until she saw the stack of books I was carrying. I had just been to visit several publishers that day including Adaex, the publisher of her book. After a short chat, she admitted she was bored of A Woman, not because it was not good but because it was the only book she owned. 

“I’ve read it so many times,” she said. “I know it by heart.”

“And yet you keep reading it?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Books are expensive.”

I ended up giving her the stack of books I had brought back with me, but before I left, I told her to go to read.worldreader.org on her cell phone. I didn’t say it, but I didn’t think it was likely she’d ever get bored with just one book again.

Main image - iStockphoto: AfricanWay, shot outside Accra, at Sogakope, Ghana