Publishing and the Internet – What does the future hold for Africa and the Caribbean?

Two major technology ventures are underway in the Caribbean and Africa and they have the potential to radically transform the book trade and knowledge transfer in both regions.

British-based Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC) in conjunction with its Caribbean business, LIME is building a submarine fibre-optic cable in the Caribbean Sea which the company says will give the region increased access to high-speed broadband connectivity and have an immediate impact in cost reductions in Internet and telephone services.

The Caribbean is a major traffic corridor between South America and the major internet, content and carrier hubs in the United States and is acknowledged as one of the fastest growing intercontinental routes in the world today.

The 900 gigabyte-capacity cable will span 1,750 kilometres (1,087 miles) and link Jamaica and the Cayman Islands to the British Virgin Islands (Tortola) and the Dominican Republic to form the new ‘East-West Cable.’ It will reportedly improve connectivity between the islands of the region and the United States as well as Latin America. It’s expected to be operational by early 2011.

Meantime, across the Atlantic a 7,000 km (4,350 mile) submarine fibre-optic cable linking West Africa to Europe has gone live, opening the way for cheaper and more reliable internet access in a region hailed as one of the world’s fastest-growing telecom markets.  Known as the Main One Cable, it runs from Portugal to Nigeria and Ghana, and branches out to the Canary Islands, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Morocco and, in so doing, links West Africa to the United Kingdom and the rest of the world.

The Main One Cable Company, the owners of the cable, say it delivers more than ten times the broadband capacity of the South Atlantic Terminal, Nigeria’s sole existing undersea cable, and 20 times the satellite capacity of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s set to bring competition to a market where wholesale Internet access reportedly costs nearly 500 times as much as it does in the U.S. The Main One Cable Company is a wholly-owned African company.

“Given the increase in bandwidth and the falling cost of accessing that bandwidth, it is really going to move West Africa and Nigeria into the 21st century,” said Andrew Alli, Chief Executive Officer of the Africa Finance Corporation (AFC) which financed $37 million of the $240 million project.

The Nigerian telecoms firm Globacom is installing another fibre optic cable that will connect Nigeria and Ghana with Europe. It is due to go live this year. Also, the South Africa-based mobile phone company, MTN Group is building an undersea West Africa Cable System that is scheduled to be completed in 2011.

Meanwhile, France Telecom and a consortium of 20 telecoms companies are building another cable between Europe and South Africa that is expected to provide broadband internet access to 19 African countries by 2012. The French telecom provider is also partnering with the Lower Indian Ocean Network (LION2) consortium to construct a submarine cable in the Indian Ocean off the eastern Africa coast.

Also in East Africa, a 10,000km fibre-optic cable dubbed the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy) has been deployed along the east and south coasts of the continent to provide voice, data, video and internet services to the region. It links South Africa with Sudan via landing points in Mozambique, Madagascar, the Comoros, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti and provides transit connectivity to at least 12 landlocked countries in the region. It will also enable direct connectivity between east Africa and Europe and North America.

The following map provides an instructive picture of the continent’s undersea cable system. It was designed by Steve Song, a Shuttleworth Foundation fellow with extensive knowledge and experience in ICT development issues, particularly in Africa.

Altogether, there are about 10 undersea cables either being built or on the drawing board around the whole of Africa. Ultimately, the region’s participating governments and private stakeholders plan to construct a submarine optic fibre cable system encircling the whole continent of Africa and connect it with the global system.

What do all those developments portend for the book trade in the Caribbean and Africa? Potentially, they can serve as a catalyst for change in the two regions’ book-publishing sector, creating new avenues for writers to get published and for readers to discover new and more culturally diverse voices.

CompletelyNovel.com is one of a growing number of self-publishing websites showing what can be done when writers and readers have unfettered access to the internet.

Anna Lewis, co-founder of CompletelyNovel.com

Based in the UK, CompletelyNovel.com (CN) was founded in 2008 by Oliver Brooks and Anna Lewis. They offer writers anywhere in the world innovative ways to publish, promote and sell their work. Using the CN platform, writers can upload their manuscripts as a Word Document or PDF and design their book covers online. The site links directly to print-on-demand printers, including world-renowned Lightening Source, and gives users instant access to multiple POD options to print paperback copies of their books in the UK and the US. There is no setup fee.

For authors needing professional help, CompletelyNovel offers publishing packages that allows them to sell print and e-book editions of their work through multiple retail channels. They can also sell their books via the CN website free of charge. Readers can read the books on the website using CN’s BookStreamer, an embeddable online reader. CN encourages writers to make their work available for reading on the site so that they can get feedback from readers and promote their work. Readers on CompletelyNovel can create an online library of the self-published and traditionally-published books which are available on the site. They can also do reviews, and give ratings and tags to the books.

On uploading books to the site, the author grants CN a non-exclusive license to display and sell the work. The author retains all rights to their work and can remove it at any time.

One of the more notable features of the CompletelyNovel crew is that they appear to be genuinely committed to limiting publishing costs for authors while allowing them to reap the most royalties possible from sales of their work. Authors keep 100% of royalties earned on sales of their books. CN takes no commissions. And compared to many, if not most self-publishing sites, their publishing package fees are quite reasonable.

CompletelyNovel’s co-founder Oliver Brooks reached the London final of The Pitch, a competition to find the UK’s best small businesses and co-founder Anna Lewis was shortlisted for the UK Young Publishing Entrepreneur Award 2010, run by the British Council.

In India where e-publishing has taken root, the Bangalore-based POD-backed self publishing platform Pothi.com is among those leading the way in the developing world and showing writers what’s possible in the global web-based technological revolution. Writers and publishers can use the platform to publish print copies of their books with, according to the company, “no or little upfront investment.” They can be sold via the Pothi.com website or other sites and retailers. Manuscripts can also be converted into e-book files without any upfront costs.  Writers retain all the rights to their books and have full control over the pricing and availability. An online dashboard provides real time statistics of sales and earnings for all their books. E-book prices start from as low as Rs. 50 or authors can give them away for free as a marketing tool.

Jaya Jha

The site is owned and operated by Mudranik Technologies Pvt. Ltd., a Bangalore-based start-up. It was founded in 2008 by Abhaya Agarwal, a computer science, IT and software engineer and Jaya Jha, also a computer science and engineering expert and a former product manager at Google India.

Interestingly, Pothi.com also offers paid services (e.g. cover design, manuscript formatting, editing and typing) at prices that, in some respects, give them a distinct advantage over companies offering similar services in the West. That’s because of the rupee’s exchange rate to the US dollar.  For example they offer a cover design package which furnishes two cover concepts from two different designers with two rounds of minor modifications for 4,500 rupees (US$99.49).

This ability to offer more competitive pricing based on currency exchange rates is a potential boon for online self-publishing outfits in other developing countries, including Africa. Maintaining a competitive edge, however, would depend on whether they are able (or willing) to deliver quality service levels, great content, and secure web-payment options comparable to those offered by US and UK-based companies. This latter aspect is crucial.

In much of Africa, limited access to web-payment options is currently a major drawback to the growth of e-publishing and other online ventures. However, reports indicate that in some areas there are signs of change. For example, in Nigeria local web-payment services are gradually emerging, giving users the ability to buy and sell online. They include Cash Envoy, Surepay, NetNaira and Virtual Terminal Network which runs web, mobile, and card services. Among the web-based businesses that are cashing in are Walahi.com Books, Naijareads.com, Debonairbookstore.com which sells print and audio books as well as e-readers, and the bookseller Kalahari.com.ng. In the Caribbean, online card payment options, including credit and debit cards, are still not widely accessible to consumers, although their use is growing steadily.

To date there are 9,647,000 internet users in the Caribbean, 23.2% of a population of 41,632,722, according to Internet World Stats. The growth in internet usage in the region over the past 10 years was 1,624.5%.  Currently 10.9% of Africa’s estimated population
of 1,013,779,050 are internet users. From 2000 – 2010 there was a 2,357.3 %.growth in internet usage on the continent. Both regions have vibrant and youthful populations with a thirst for technology. The prospects for growth in ICT and internet use are quite promising, provided those services are affordable and the service providers and the governments are serious about bringing down the barriers to universal access. Equally important is affordable access to electricity and PCs which is still very limited in many parts of Africa and Asia.

In 2005 the CARICOM Secretariat commissioned a study of the creative industries in the Caribbean to try and figure out what could be done to give a boost to the sector. Remarkably, five years later, the findings of the report as it relates to the Caribbean’s publishing sector remain strikingly relevant, not only to the region but to practically all developing countries.

Entitled “The Cultural Industries in CARICOM: Trade and Development Challenges,” it stressed, among other things, that there is need for an internet-enabled distribution network within the CSME that would make the import, export and distribution of text more cost-efficient.

The report adds: “The convergence of the new information-driven economy has to prompt a redefinition of content providers, with authors now having to shift personal paradigms from being “book writers” to creators of text that can assume multiple formats and generate multiple income streams as their works find traction in specifically targeted markets.”

The recent launch of the i-Create Regional e-Content Competition developed by the Caribbean Association of National Telecommunications Organizations (CANTO) shines like a light in the dark, and should serve as an indicator of where the region’s publishing sector ought to be heading. Unveiled in September, 2010, the competition was created to develop and reward the most creative and innovative e-Content developers in the Caribbean. Participants compete for US$30.000 worth of prizes. The winners will get the opportunity to compete in the prestigious global e-Content World Summit Award Competition 2011. According to the organizers, the aim of the competition is to promote creativity and innovation through the development of mobile and web content products that meet local, Diaspora and international needs and give content developers the opportunity for recognition outside their home countries and markets.

Will this seedbed of digital innovation help to awaken Caribbean governments from their age-old stupor and indifference and make them see the need to help the region’s struggling writers, indigenous publishers and booksellers transition from the Gutenberg Era into the new digital economy — with the same enthusiasm and purposefulness that they display when they rush to the aid of foreign hoteliers and other international investors. It’s a long shot, but one can hope.

Meanwhile, the region’s writers and book traders (and those in other developing countries) would do well to mull over the thoughts of publishing guru, Jason Epstein.

“The radically decentralized digital marketplace has already rendered traditional publishing infrastructure — warehouses, inventory, shipping, returns and so on redundant … The future of traditional booksellers in the radically decentralized worldwide marketplace is unclear, but enterprising retailers with limited shelf space but with access to practically limitless digital multilingual inventories and print-on-demand technology will offer readers unprecedented access to titles anywhere on earth, including areas in Africa, Asia and Latin America too thinly settled or culturally isolated to have developed a literary culture during the Gutenberg era … Word of mouth has always been the best source of information about books for which the web is an ideal medium.”

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5 responses to “Publishing and the Internet – What does the future hold for Africa and the Caribbean?

  1. Pingback: St. Lucia: Technology & Publishing · Global Voices·

  2. The news of this high speed undersea fibre optic cable is tremendous news.
    However it would be even more welcome if it were to include Barbados as we
    really need the increased speed this will bring.

    Business in Barbados is ever more dependent upon fast internet and we need the ability to connect to the rest of the caribbean more every day. the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy) which has been deployed along the east and south coasts of the African continent shows what we need in the caribbean and the
    start is very welcome.

    • In an interview with http://www.compasscayman.com Country Manager of LIME Cayman, Anthony Ritch said “we [LIME} plan to invest another half a billion dollars over the next three to five years to upgrade our networks, investing in the latest fixed, mobile and data technologies.” The figure was confirmed by LIME Jamaica Chairman, Chris Dehring in an interview with the Jamaica Observer in August. He said the company intends to invest US$600 million in the Caribbean over the next five years upgrading their network infrastructure. Presumably, this would impact their service in all the islands where they operate.

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