Nigerian born, Chinua Achebe, voice of the African people, died last week, aged 82. Hailed as the father of African literature, Achebe's most famous book,' Things Fall Apart' sold over 12 million copies since publication in 1958. Achebe paved the way for new generations of African writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Tayi Selasi, and his enduring appeal has sealed the need for local stories, which speak to unique local communities.
Now technology is finally facilitating a truly local experience. This February, Culture Shift ran for the first time in Zimbabwe, and selected Openbook as the top creative team at its two day hackathon event. Produced in conjunction with the British Council, Culture Shift aims to nurture local innovators, whilst Openbook, the winner of the event, aims to help writers publish stories. Facilitated via biNu, an Australian app platform, with offices in Zimbabwe, which "turns a phone into a smartphone", Openbook's main selling point is that it allows local authors to bypass largely inaccessible international eCommerce sites like Amazon. As the publicity material states, "We are working on a new exciting way readers can invest in the beautiful stories and livelihoods of our writers."
Everyone craves local stories that chime with their unique experiences. And the fact that a whole continent has claimed such affinity with Nigerian author Achebe has proved a clear African need. Ellah Allfrey, the deputy editor of the literary magazine Granta, who was born in Zimbabwe, the breadth and almost length of the continent away, wrote, "[Things Fall Apart] is the book that allowed me to read in the first person - a perspective and a story that offered me a landscape and characters who (even though they were across the continent from my home) I could identify as my own - or, at last, were closer to me than any I had read before."
It is probably little wonder then, that initiatives like Openbook are proving so successful. Firstly, they help foster a sense of local pride and identity in communities that are rarely catered for. Secondly, they make reading more accessible - which can never be a bad thing. Local Zimbabwean author, Monica Cheru Mpambawashe who's collection of stories ‘Chivi Sunsets (not for scientists)' focused on a local region of Zimbabwe (Chivi), rather than the usual large urban centres, Harare and Bulawayo explained: "I think we need more writers who are not "literary" but just writing for entertainment value. I think the focus on international recognition is spoiling us for local consumption as we aim to please critics rather than readers." This is an interesting point, because pride in a region comes from within not without, and readers being able to identify with material is probably more significant than glittering awards presented from afar.
More fundamentally though, promoting reading and education in any region helps facilitate growth and regeneration. In February Cape Town-based print print-on-demand service, Paperight, won the ‘Most Entrepreneurial' award in O'Reilly Tools of Change (TOC) Start-Up Showcase in New York. Significantly, it was the only finalist from outside North America or Europe and the only winner to have ever come out of South Africa. Arthur Attwell CEO and founder said, "African countries have very few bookstores and eBooks are spreading very slowly."
This reading trend seems particularly important in Zimbabwe, which finally appears to be on the up. Despite the violence surrounding the 2008 elections and uncertainty surrounding the date of this next one, the sheer volume of people who turned out on March 16th to endorse the new constitution has left the world amazed. On top of this, the main stock market has already risen more than 20% this year. And small incremental tech changes are slowly beginning to trickle through. For example, Sage launched its first cloud-computing accounting programme in Zimbabwe earlier this month, allowing small businesses to store their accounts information ‘in the cloud' at last.
Maybe as Zimbabwe starts to be included in more events like Culture Shift - previously only run in Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria - more local ideas, like Openbook, will help drive local identity... and ultimately progress?
By Kathryn Cave Editor at IDG Connect
Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond