What Africa’s poor are reading on their phones —trah lah lah romance is top

With mobile phone subscriptions on the continent growing exponentially, the potential educational benefit is big.

LOVE is the one universal language across mobile readers in developing countries, it would seem, even on a continent regularly accused of not reading.

But a leading mobile reading platform says that young Africans have increasingly taken up reading on mobile devices, with romance (popular phrases include sex, love, Romeo and Juliet), education and inspirational content the main draws.

Through its mobile application, Worldreader, a not-for-profit organisation, allows people in low income countries to access books and stories through mobile phones, including still-dominant feature phones, which are priced lower. 

Started in 2010, Worldreader hands out e-readers and e-books to children in African countries, in addition to making its library, which now has 15,000 books in 10 African languages, accessible to them. 

In 2014, it says it reached 1.2 million unique readers, who spent an average of an hour reading. “We average about 200,000 active monthly readers, and 125,000 of those are across the African continent,” Worldreader Europe managing director Elizabeth Wood told  Smart Monkey TV, a new web channel of Balancing Act, an Africa-focused tech consultancy.

The majority of Worldreader’s books are free, requiring the user to only have a data connection, and cost an estimated 2-3 US cents to read 1,000 words. Wood said they have sold 5,000 books last year, 90% of these in Zimbabwe and Nigeria, through credits and payment gateways.

The organisation is looking to add more African authors to its platform, which is expected to grow as mobile phone access continues to expand in the region. Penetration in the region is estimated to have reached 69% last year,  according to the international Telecommunication Union.

While still lagging, mobile broadband penetration in Africa reached 20% in 2014, from 2% in 2010.

To further understand the habits, preferences and attitudes of mobile readers in developing countries, the organisation came together with UNESCO and Nokia on a  study, which was launched last year.

Seven countries—Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, India and Pakistan were surveyed, where it found that access to text, specifically books, was as in many other developing countries, low.

This contributed to low literacy rates, and by extension, to high poverty prevalence—what researchers identified as the Matthew Effect. Essentially, in the same way awards are disproportionately given to people who are already well-known, the failure to be literate becomes a cycle of poor life outcomes.

Ideally, texts can be found in libraries, but in developing countries learners are lucky if they find the local library open, the study noted, They also have to contend with dated books if they can locate them at all. In richer countries, libraries thrive, with full time staff making for a rich learning experience, indicating a correlation between wealth and access to books.

The study said that while in Japan, where 99% of people can read and write, there is 1 library for every 47,000 people, in Nigeria the ratio falls steeply to 1: 1,350,000. UNESCO estimates that nearly 800 million people cannot read, a sixth of them aged between 15-24 years.

The advent of the internet is thus seen as a great hope in reversing this state for developing countries, researchers said. In addition to accelerating the spread of information, it has also helped democratise access. “Today, a robust internet connection gives a person access to more text than in all of the physical libraries ever built,” the study noted.

But despite regional ICT transformations, just 20% of Africans are online according to the ITU, itself a doubling from four years ago. But due to such gaps, the mobile phone is identified as the best way of currently delivering access.

According to the United Nations, more people have access to a mobile phone than they have to a toilet, translating to six billion phones  compared to the 4.5 billion who have access to at least a latrine. (Read: The mobile phone comes first in Africa; before electricity, water, toilets or even food)

The report’s significant findings include that people read more when they are on mobile devices, that they enjoy reading more, and are increasingly reading books out to children from their mobile phones.

There were also other fascinating findings from the data collated over 2013 from the platforms’s back-end, and which ware complemented with questionnaires.

On average, male mobile readers outnumbered female readers by 3:1, with the gap falling to 2:1 in Nigeria and Zimbabwe. In Ethiopia, the ratio was 9 males to 1 female, reflecting other studies conclusions that in developing countries, a woman is five times less likely than a man to own a mobile phone.

But women more than made up for it by reading more frequently, and longer—by as much as four times when the most active readers were sampled. On average, the survey said, women spent 207 minutes a month on their mobile phones reading; men spent 33 minutes, reflecting trends in developed countries that women read more.

Women were also consistently more enthusiastic about reading than men—a general reason offered by the study was that in some communities where female education is lagging, reading on mobiles was seen as more socially acceptable.

Once hooked, more women also kept reading than men—71% to 60%-though both groups read more after taking up mobile reading.

Users of the mobile platform were also much younger—over 90% were aged under 35 years. Polls globally consistently show younger people are more likely to own a mobile phone.

Convenience was offered as the leading reason why most respondents preferred to read on their mobile phones—they always had their devices near them. Preference and surprisingly, affordability, ranked lower.

The biggest obstacles to mobile reading were found to be limited content, connectivity issues and third, cost. Women were however more concerned about their airtime, reflecting their lower access to disposable income for airtime and budgetary priorities, researchers said.

Certain demographic groups were also more likely to read on their mobile phones: females, higher educated, and teachers.

The study, while noting increasing access to books did not translate to deriving relevant knowledge from them, urges governments and policy makers  to help diversify mobile content, start awareness campaigns about the benefits, and help reduce the cost of broadband and other technological barriers if the continent is to reap the benefits of higher literacy.

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