With a vast market for audio content in Africa, the founder of the only publisher and distributor of African audiobooks in West Africa is hoping to capitalise.
Can you tell me your background and why you decided to launch AkooBooks? And why the name Akoo?
AkooBooks Audio is Ghana’s first publisher and digital distributor of African audiobooks. My parents instilled a love of reading in me at a very early age. My mother is a children’s book writer, and 10 years ago she began to lose her vision. Audiobooks became her lifeline and as her personal library of audiobooks grew, we realised that there were very few African books available for her to listen to. As a result, I started African Audio Publishers, a books-on-cassette tape service for distributing African books to the blind and visually impaired, and the seed for AkooBooks was sown.
Much of Africa is experiencing abysmally low levels of literacy, due to poor educational systems, collapsing book industries and bad reading culture. However, there is a hugely untapped opportunity to address these challenges. With Africa recording the highest penetration of the use of mobile phones, that is where the potential of audiobooks comes in.
In November 2017, I founded AkooBooks to publish and distribute digital African literature. Around 90% of African literature cannot be found in digital form. We provide African publishers and writers with the platform to transform their books, and reach as many people as possible. In an age where traditional booksellers continue to vanish, literature must adapt and take on new forms.
And "Akoo" means "parrot" in Akan language, which is spoken in Ghana, so AkooBooks are "talking books".
Ama Dadson with Elliot Agyare, the president of Ghana's Publishers Association
Can you sketch out how the company is developing?
We offer recording and production, marketing and distribution, licensing, and other services for African authors, poets and storytellers in Ghana. We earn revenue on downloads, and pay royalties to authors. We have a team of 15 professional narrators from Ghanian film and theatre on contracts, so imagine fantastic storytelling, read and interpreted by professional African actors, in our own languages.
Our first audiobook, the anthology Kenkey for Ewes & Other Very Short Stories, was launched in April 2018 through our partner platform LibroFM. Since then we have negotiated more than 150 licences from African publishers and authors from across the continent, and in the UK and the US; struck a distribution agreement with Youscribe.com to bring AkooBooks to readers in the five Francophone West African countries; and released the beta version of our AkooBooks app for Android and iOS.
Obviously, audio is a huge growth area in North America and Europe. What is
the market for it in Ghana,
The market is wide open and huge as there are more than 474 million Africans online. However, in Africa e-books and digital audio are largely unavailable to consumers, and access to the digital book markets is unavailable to many African authors and publishers. The foray into digital is mainly e-books, with non-profit Worldreader.org playing a major role in bringing books to nine million African readers, via mobile phones, since 2015.
South Africa is the leader in African audiobook publishing, with a handful of companies specialising in digital content and audiobooks for the South African market. East Africa has a few companies focused on low-cost access to digitised versions of all Kenyan textbooks and educational audiobooks. They also have a few new podcast companies and networks.
In West Africa, AkooBooks is the only publisher and distributor of African audiobooks, however there are a couple of Nigerian platforms for distribution of e-books. Some digital music platforms also support audiobook distribution.
None of the "Big Five" audiobook publishers (Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Amazon Audible) or the distributors (Audible, Storytel, Audiobooksnow, Rakuten Kobo, etc.) are in Africa, except Google Playstore, which is now only in South Africa. StreetLib, from Italy, has expanded its programme, launching author and publisher portals in Africa in the past 12 months in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Egypt.
What are the opportunities and challenges for
expanding the African audiobook market?
The global outlook for the audiobook publishing industry is very good. The industry is on the rise but African voices are absent from this digital publishing space. The explosion of African writing talent, the advent of new mobile technologies and the emergence of "voice" as an important commerce platform (e.g. smartphone and smart speaker voice assistants), bring the opportunity for Africa to offer digital African audio publishing experiences to a global community.
We foster online discovery of new African voices and African literature for enthusiasts of all ages through our playlists in English and local African languages. Most companies operating in this space are not focusing on international expansion and consolidation in the industry. African literature in foreign languages (English, French and Portuguese) is booming—new and established writers are producing internationally acclaimed writings. AkooBooks has targeted these African writers. We will aggressively acquire world audiobook rights before they go out with the other publishers in these languages, and also in local languages, building a large catalogue of quality African audio content.
AkooBooks has 15 professional film and theatre actors voicing its audio content
What do you hope to
accomplish at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair?
We believe that cultural diversity contributes to the vitality and quality of life throughout the world. Through the dissemination of African audiobooks and audio programming, we seek to strengthen people’s engagement with their own cultural heritage and to enhance their awareness and appreciation of Africa’s cultural heritage.
This year we have a story to tell, and a stand at FBF will give AkooBooks the opportunity for a unique dialogue with new readers, publishers and content owners. This will be the first year that an African audiobook publisher can aid in the discoverability of African and black writers. We will play visitors exciting African stories on the Acoustibox, an elegant wooden listening dock which operates on acoustic principles, meaning it needs no battery, no cables, no electricity and no bluetooth!
I want to learn and meet from the industry leaders in audio production and learn as much as I can about content and marketing strategies for audiobooks. One of the major issues I have is with audiobook rights as regards to territories. Many African audiobooks produced by the major international market players are restricted from Africans who do not have credit cards issued in the “right countries”. It’s absolutely ridiculous and frustrating. I hope to find content partners who are willing to explore ways to address these issues, and may be willing to work with AkooBooks to distribute African audiobooks and spoken word to Africans, regardless of where it is produced.