Studying for a degree can be expensive in Africa, so free e-textbooks are welcome. But they can't, on their own, make up for the deficiencies in the African education system.
Two years ago Abdul Karimu had a problem. "I was looking for textbooks on IT and computer programming," said the 22-year-old graduate of the Ghana Institute of Journalism. Simply going to the next bookstore wasn't an option. "Many of the stores didn't have the books we need, or they were just too expensive," he said.
"I then hunted around the internet for free e-textbooks," Karimu said. The search ended at Bookboon, a Copenhagen-based website founded in 2005. Five million African students download e-textbooks from this site every year. In many parts of Africa, e-textbooks are now the preferred form of course material. A recent survey in Kenya revealed that 73 percent of fourth year students in higher education now use e-textbooks for their studies.
Bookboon founder and Chief Operating Officer Thomas Buus Madsen said they have brand new textbooks in their online catalogue. "They are written exclusively by professors committed to the ideal of supporting free education on a global scale, " he told DW.
Madsen insists that his company is not a charity; it is in business to make a profit. The books are financed through advertising. But who is interested in advertising in Africa? Many African countries lack a prosperous middle class with a high disposable income.
"Advertisers who are in our books are companies who do it with the intention of attracting the right candidates to come and work for them. Universities also sponsor books. So all the adverts are career or education-related. But they are not product advertisements," Madsen said.
Bookboon may have made university life easier for many students, but the company doesn't pretend to offer a solution to Africa's chronic education crisis. The only free books available from Bookboon are those that have been specifically written for the company. Bookboon doesn't supply the standard textbooks from other publishing houses which are required reading for many courses.
Some students also believe the choice of books is rather limited. "Most of the books they have are textbooks or schoolbooks. But there are not many books about the arts. I minored in journalism, but I did not get many books on that subject;" Karimu said.
Bookboon's textbooks cover the natural sciences, mathematics, economics, informatics, careers and business.
To download e-books, you need internet access. "One reason for the popularity of e-books is because they are easily available through internet connections at universities, which are mostly Wi-Fi," the Kenyan student survey said. Mobile internet access generally is also relatively cheap in Kenya. By 2013, telecoms operator Safaricom had as many as 13 million subscribers registered for mobile internet use. There are, however, many countries in Africa in which these services aren't available.
In Copenhagen, Bookboon is aware of the problem. "Internet access is not stable in all regions. Users can download the e-books and can store them locally and read them locally. You don't need constant internet access," Madsen said.