Tuesday, May 30, 2017


By Alex Nderitu  

'Even though Kenya has East Africa's strongest economy and a population of 44 million, the country enjoys just 61 public libraries. Run the math, (David) Risher says, and it turns out Kenya has about one public library for each 700,000 people. That's less than one-twentieth the library density of the U.S., even though Kenya's literacy rate isn't that much lower than American norms.' 

Worldreader CEO David Risher addresses the 2017 Summit

The Digital Reading Summit is an annual gathering that takes place in Accra, Ghana, and Nairobi, Kenya. The purpose of this year’s gathering was ‘to learn how the strength of communities and the power of digital are helping to promote a culture of reading in and beyond the classroom’. The theme of the event:  ‘THE POWER OF DIGITAL IN LEARNING’. I actually learnt quite a bit during the two-day event (at Weston Hotel in Nairobi) but the following 10 insights are the ones that impacted me the most.


According the new Chair of the Kenya Publishers Association, Lawrence Njagi, there are 38 million Kenyans with mobile phones. Thanks to new technology, such as the free Worldreader app, those devices can now also double-up as digital libraries. There are many advantages of converting mobile phones into libraries. One is cost-effectiveness: even commercial e-books cost much less than their paper equivalents. And another is the sheer convenience – you always have your phone with you! ‘Thanks to technology,’ says Worldreader’s EA Director, Joan Mwachi, ‘reading is an activity that can now take place anywhere.’

Joan Mwachi (left) and Carol Williams, Worldreader’s East and West Africa Directors respectively

‘I will be so happy if we can have digital reading in the village,’ Lawrence Njagi said at the opening of the Summit. ‘The villagers of today are not the villagers of five years ago. They are using mobile phones to market their produce. How can we enter that space?... How do we entice the general public to take their phones and read – even if it is a page a day?’

KPA Chair Lawrence Njagi addresses the delegates

To convert your Android phone into a digital library with access to over 40,000 titles, follow these simple instructions:

Step 1: Open the Google Play Store
Step 2: Search for: 


Step 3: Tap ‘Install’
Step 4: Enjoy reading thousands of books for free!

In the Worldreader digital library, the most popular genres in Africa are Religion, Fantasy and Romance. The story-books that have been accessed the most by African children include The Girl With the Magic Hands, a fantasy YA novel by Nigeria’s Nnedi Okorafor (A winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature); Broken Promises, a YA romance by Ros Haden; Sugar Daddy also YA romance by Ros Haden; and The Sex Lives of African Girls by TaiyeSelasi. The Bible and other religious materials are also quite popular. You might say there is a connection between African reading habits and their movie-watching habits as evidenced by the continentally popular Nollywood flicks (West Africa-based low-budget movies usually centering on romance, crime and superstition). 

Some super-popular e-book titles 

Incidentally, a couple members of Worldreader’s own staff collaborated on an experimental project some time ago, writing up their own fantasy novella and placing it on the ‘open library’ (no promotion, or strategic visibility). The experimental e-book, entitled Beauty and the Billionaire Vampire Prince, has so far been read over 60,000 times!

‘A worthy leader has foresight and insight. He sees the writing on the wall, reads the signs of the times and senses the trends and tendencies at work in his surroundings.’ – George Kaitholil, Make Leadership Your Target

David Risher

David Risher, the co-founder and CEO of Worldreader, is a former Amazon.com executive with a calm demeanor and ready smile. You would be hard-pressed to identify him as the ‘Big Kahuna’ of the now world-famous Worldreader organization (You know you’re world-famous when you are being covered by Forbes and Publishers Weekly magazines!) Seeing him tamely attend Worldreader sessions and casually interact with publishers and authors, you might mistake him for a New York literary agent looking to negotiate some international rights! ‘Reading is our only vaccine against hopelessness,’ he often says as he travels internationally, promoting a reading culture that is in tune with the times. He himself grew up and avid reader. His mother was an encyclopedia salesperson so he has been around books all his life. ‘Books are like life-instruction manuals,’ he said. ‘Books and reading are absolutely critical.’

His demeanor reminds one of the famous Robin Sharma title, The Leader Who Had No Title. The famous book contains such pearls of wisdom as: ‘Victims recite problems, leaders provide solutions.’ The book also highlights an important point: some of the best-loved or best-known leaders had no official title. Think of Mahatma Gandhi (India), Wangari Maathai (Kenya), Nelson Mandela (South Africa) or Martin Luther King Jr (US). Mandela, for example, was world-renowned long before he became president of a united (post-apartheid) South Africa and he only served one term in office. By contrast, he spent 27 years in prison for opposing an oppressive, racist regime. When he died, over 100 heads of state converged in South Africa to pay tribute, sealing Mandela’s status as the most respected leader of his time. In 2016, David Risher and Colin McElwee appeared in a Business Insider list of 12 Entrepreneurs Who are Changing the World. Even as a tech man, David achieved quite a lot, as evidenced by this piece of biography from Worldreader.org:

‘In 1997, he left Microsoft to join Amazon.com as its first Vice President of Product and Store development. Under his leadership, Amazon’s revenue grew from $16 million to over $4 billion. He later served as the company’s Senior Vice President, US Retail, overseeing the marketing and general management of Amazon’s retail operations.

David left Amazon in 2002. At the very bottom of Amazon.com’s store directory, a perpetual easter egg link leads to a tribute to David written by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.’

David Risher began his address at the 2107 Digital Reading Summit by saying, ‘I wonna talk about how everyone here is changing the world,’ deflecting attention (and glory) away from himself.   The last time he was in Kenya, two years ago, David visited Kibera School for Girls where he launched an e-reading programme which turned out to be a great success.  As Joan Mwachi asserted, ‘It takes courage and conviction to try and convince people who have been doing the same thing to try something different.’

More about the David Risher can be found here: https://www.worldreader.org/david-risher/

And a video can be seen here: https://mobile.twitter.com/worldreaders/status/854728841562116096/video/1


We have all heard the phrase, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.’ Partnerships are like booster rockets – they help you go to places you would never have reached by yourself or achieve things that make you look superhuman. Worldreader has achieved incredible milestones (eg. reaching 6.1 million digital readers in just 7 years of existence) because they ‘go with others’ as opposed to trying to be a lone hero. The current goal is to reach 1 billion readers over the next 10 years.

Carol Williams, a Worldreader official in West Africa: 

‘We want people reading in the bus, in the library, in the classroom. It’s a daunting task because  we are targeting 1 billion people. But we are not afraid because we have partners.’

There are over 515 schools and libraries working with Worldreader. ‘Be a friend to the community, not a stranger,’ Mary Kinyanjui, a Kenya National Library Services librarian advised delegates. ‘Transformation calls for community support.’ Debborah Odenyi, the headmistress at The Kibera School for Girls, said that her strategy hinges on four 4 C’s: ‘Collaboration, Communication, Creativity and Critical Thinking.’ In Kenya alone, Worldreader has partnered with 146 schools, 64 libraries and 17 publishers. Ms.Williams said that she had noted ‘a wonderful cross-pollination of work’ between East and West Africa and hoped that the ‘digital ecosystem would continue to grow.’

 A screenshot on partnership from Worldreader's Instagram presence

‘(In parts of Somalia) it is cheaper to buy a gun than a novel. I want you to imagine that.’
– Nurrudin Farah, African novelist

‘Hate has created many problems but is yet to solve a single one.’ 
– Maya Angelou, famous poet

While vacationing in Ecuador with his family some years ago, David Risher came across an orphanage with a library that was permanently padlocked because the custodians felt that the books therein needed to be protected. David asked to see the library and when he was told how difficult it was to acquire new books there and how high the cost was, the idea of Worldreader began to form. Having worked with Amazon Kindles that could each hold a virtual library, David came up with a vision: to distribute free e-book readers loaded with e-books to all children who didn’t have access to libraries. In 2010, along with Colin McElwee (ESADE Business School’s Director of Marketing), David co-founded Worldreader in Barcelona, Spain.
An Instagram testimonial from a satisfied Worldreader user 

Kenyan publishers have been fighting the profit-gobbling monster called ‘piracy’ for many years now but their latest attempt to curb the rampant vice is distinctly technology-driven. Steps that they are now taking range from attaching holograms to electronic tags into their books.

According to Valentina Morroti, Worldreader’s Digital Assets Specialist, ‘Digital books are more vulnerable (to piracy) than physical ones. The solution in the publishing industry is Digital Rights Management. DRM is used in the digital ecosystem to protect content. It’s a lock that prevents other people from using the content.’ Different companies such as Apple, Barnes & Noble and Amazon create their own DRM but the overall concept is the same: locking on the content such that it won’t work unless one has the right key. For example, a purchased e-book might work on your device but if you share it with others, it fails to open on their devices. (There are even digital libraries where one can ‘borrow’ an e-book for a limited time. When the expiry date reaches, the e-book no longer works on the e-reading device anymore!) On the question of whether publishers should release the e-book or the print version first, one participant opined that, ‘Digital distribution is a great way to test interest beyond first market.’

‘Emotions are running high because the publishing industry is being radically reshaped by the same disruptive forces that have transformed all sorts of industries from travel and insurance to newspapers and music. Change is scary, and the publishing industry is changing at light-speed. If you want a parallel with music, I think it’s akin to going from vinyl straight to MP3.’ - JJ Marsh, 'The Industry View - Amazon vs Hachette' (article)

‘The ship has sailed – the entire world has gone digital.’ - Joan Mwachi, Worldreader (East Africa)

According to David Waweru, CEO of Word Alive publishers, ‘We need to accept that technology is very disruptive and only those businesses that adapt will survive…We need to have digital DNA.’ David went on to say: ‘Internet penetration in Africa is at around 60% but growing by 9% per year. There is also convergence between mobile and Internet penetration. The businesses that succeed will be the ones that know their customers and respond to their needs…Those (publishers) who are too cautious will find themselves with no content (when mobile reading expands).’ After all, Mr. Waweru observed, ‘Millennials were born in the age of technology.’

 David Waweru (in grey suit) participates in a panel discussion. On the far left is Worldreaders' Bhanu Potta

‘This (affordability) is one of the advantages that mobile has,’ Bhanu Potta, a Worldreader executive based in India, said. ‘It is harder for print publishers to slash costs…E-books can be affordable, and micro-payments can be made, making piracy unnecessary.’ Other advantages that digital books have over paper books is that a lot of feedback/data on their use can be collected, in real time, and later used for decision-making purposes.

On digital book formats, Valentina Morroti - Worldreader’s Digital Assets Specialist - said that E-PUB 3.0  was the new industry standard and can support media such as movies, audio and hyperlinks (unlike previous versions of E-PUB that resembled a slightly more advanced form of Microsoft Notepad). 

You can use the links below to download e-book conversion (E-PUB 3.0) software for free:


‘Social media can be overwhelming,’ Nancy Brown, a Senior Manager of Publisher and Author Relations at Worldreader, said. ‘It’s better to use one or two (platforms) and make that your home.’ More tips:

  • Select a home for your community eg. Facebook, Twitter, blog
  • Develop a weekly schedule of topics, to stay consistent, and post frequently
  • Use free software apps such as Hootsuite and Buffer to schedule and automate posts, as well as track engagement data

Before creating a digital strategy, Ms. Brown said, you need to have your metadata and other details in place as key building blocks for success.

A display concerning social media’s new 'live event' features


There is no one-size-fits-all approach to publishing content for the world. There is a famous saying in media that, ‘All news is local.’ That means that unless you can show a local connection, even to international events, your audience won’t care. One way to connect with an audience – in any form of mass communication - is to use local languages. For example, Worldreader’s content for India contains books in Hindi as well as English. Carol Williams spoke of Worldreader being interested in material that is ‘culturally relevant’. Worldreader’s digital library currently contains books in 12 Kenyan languages. ‘Understand your target reader before publishing your digital content,’ one speaker said during the plenary session. ‘Content is king but context is queen.’

Video of an Indian lady reading on her mobile phone

In addition to that, different age groups usually have different information needs and different levels of access to information. While adults are allowed unfettered access to reading material in most countries, Pre-Readers and Early Readers (pre-school and school-going children) usually have restricted access to various types of content, especially educational material meant for schools. The current trend among publishers is to align their digital content meant for schools with the curriculum/authorized syllabus. One publisher revealed that they had adapted their materials to conform to the Rwandan school curriculum in order to sell textbooks there.

Nivi Sharma from eLimu-BRCK (pronounced ‘brick’) emphasized the need for customized solutions as opposed to a broad-based approach: ‘If something works in Manchester (England), that doesn’t mean it will work in Machakos (Kenya)…Let’s see what works best and where.’ eLimu-BRCK (which is not an NGO) has portfolio of educational digital content that includes an Revision app that is aligned with Kenya’s current KCPE education system.

‘We always view the author as the brand...The publisher’s name does help ...If you wonna get on major media, if you want to get reviewed in the newspaper, who's publishing it (the book) really does matter...But for now, we put the author out as the brand.’ - Brian Murray, President and CEO of HarperCollins Publishers, on 'Content Creators as the Brand'

‘Everybody has a favourite book,’ said a speaker at the Summit before reading some passages from a popular book titled Growing Up, about going through puberty. David Waweru – himself an author besides being a veteran publisher – put things into even sharper perspective when he said: ‘Many people don’t read books, they read authors.’ As an example, he talked about the queues avid fans will form to get their copies signed by their favourite authors. ‘It is fascinating to go somewhere where there is a long line of people with an author at the end. Some people will even buy the book just to get the author’s autograph. How can we recreate this in the digital world?’

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page addresses fans in an Indigo Books store (Toronto, Canada) during a book signing for his autobiography.

Incidentally, digital literature has been a boon for authors. Not only do they have many more options of getting their work out than previously in history (eg. Free E-book and Print-On-Demand platforms) but they now have more rights to sell (digital rights, territory rights etc) and they stand to earn higher royalties due to the reduced cost of manufacture. ‘We give authors more for their digital content,’ Evans Rotich from Longhorn Publishers revealed. ‘We also expose them to digital tools (to help create their materials).’


‘Before search engines can find your book, robots have to find it,’ said Nancy Brown, Senior Manager of Publisher and Author Relations at Worldreader. She stressed the importance of metadata - information about your content, including ISBN number, book title, description, key words, and rights territory (eg. worldwide). This additional data about your content may be tiring and boring to submit but it is absolutely critical because:

  • Search engines, like Google, crawl over data using ‘spiders’ and store the information
  • When a potential customer makes a query, the search engine returns a list of results, ranked according to the ‘keywords’ entered
  • Complete metadata signals to search engines that your content is worth discovering

‘You know your book better than anyone else so it is important that you give this information,’ Valentina Morroti said. ‘The digital ecosystem is very crowded. If I have a gadget, I have everything there. Metadata is important in order for your book to be found. Otherwise (to search engines), it’s like a physical book with no, author, no title and no content (just blank pages).

 A section of the audience at the Digital Reading Summit in Nairobi city

The writer is the Deputy Secretary-General of PEN Kenya Centre; a Poet, Playwright and Novelist. For more information: www.AlexanderNderitu.com

#DigitalReading #Wordreader #ebooks