South African reading platform BookBeak has created an African reading platform with a news angle. It's both about crowd-sourced stories and writing from more experienced contributors. Russell Southwood spoke to co-founders Kamo Sesing and Cameroon Naidoo about creating a different kind of African reading platform.
Q: How did you get the idea for BookBeak?
A: We saw a growing desire from African parents to experience content that was more representative for African kids, where they could identify with the characters and the narrative.
Q: How does it work?
A: We put out a call for contributors. Our ethos is that anyone can be a storyteller. We're not like a traditional publisher. We put up stories on our platform and share them with our subscriber base.
It's been four years in the making and we launched it at the end of March 2019 with a PR and media campaign. Four thousand people have downloaded the app and we've started with 15 storytellers and 40 books.
We have BookBeak Originals that are content that has been curated by us. We have partnered with a few content creators and writers who've done stories based on popular African stories. We also give storytellers an idea of what we're looking for.
We have four different variations in terms of how things are published: e-books, PDFs, audio files (in MP3 or WAV formats), and storyteller made. The latter is a story that's read that can play sound effects (like a lion roaring) and music. We have a feature where you can create your own story for your child. You type in the name and gender and they are added into the story.
Q: Where are you users coming from so far?
A: At the moment, 98% of the users are from South Africa but at the end of March we opened up for the USA and UK. The demand coming from there shows we're on to something huge. The African diaspora has a desire to connect with this type of content. We're also getting 50 requests a day from places like Nigeria, Ghana and Zimbabwe. Once we understand the South African market and have a critical mass, we'll step and repeat so we'll probably start to roll-out elsewhere by the end of 2019.
Q: What's the business model?
A: We want to open up storytelling to people. BookBeak is now available for download from Apple and Google Play stores. When signing up, you become eligible for three free premium reads. After that, it costs R59 a month to subscribe and we share the revenues 50/50 with the content contributors. We will introduce a tiered system depending on the number of uses. We have 100 paid subscribers so far and a lot of people are using the free content.
Q: What's the pattern of use?
A: We've only got analytics for 5 days of use. The biggest device used is Android phones. There's a lot of reading of adult short stories during the day and kids' stories during the evening. There's also been a spike in PDF reading because they are illustrated and colorful and can be read offline during periods of bad load shedding. If it happens, people must be saying why not read a bedtime story?
Q: What languages is the content in?
A: The content is currently mostly in English but we're starting to engage with vernacular languages. Contributors from the rest of the continent will come in with a lot of different languages.
Q: Is there any competition out there for what you're doing?
A: It might sound presumptuous to say but there's none. We're the first of its kind in South Africa and there's certainly nothing out there like us in terms of content aggregation and value proposition. It's important because writers have to have freedom.
Q: Where would you like to be in three years time?
A: Our vision is to become the largest holder of uniquely African content globally and they'll be songs and poems, not just stories. We're focused on books but we'll not be leaving out other media content like cartoon series. There's a lot of African animators who want to get their shorts out. We'll have a 5-part series of 3 minute episodes.
The beauty of our model is scale. I can envisage a BookBeak in India with the same kinds of local stories. It's got so much scale to become a local favorite in every country.
Q: How are you financing it?
A: We're bootstrapping it. We own a tech company and it developed the BookBeak platform
Q: Will you be entering into partnerships with companies like mobile operators to get wider distribution?
A: The mobile operators are part of our road map, especially in the rest of the continent. Some have expressed interest in what we're doing
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