Experimental For-Profit Libraries in Africa
One billion people live in Africa today, and the overwhelming majority lack access to basic information resources, including libraries. Internet penetration remains at a stubbornly low 11 percent and access to broadband communications at less than 1 percent. This situation is improving rapidly, though, as the continent’s fiber-optic network is witnessing a recent and widespread burst of expansion.
Libraries Across Africa (LAA) is an initiative to ride that wave of fiber and dramatically increase public access to information in the process. This goal is achieved through developing and deploying the first franchise of digitally-enhanced, economically self-sustaining for-profit libraries across Africa. Led by a trained local librarian, each LAA library gives the community a place to both consume resources that would otherwise only be available through costly subscription and to produce new content. The result is a comprehensive, enabling environment that empowers library users to disseminate local knowledge and meet their own educational, informational, and economic challenges.
Perhaps the most novel element of LAA’s approach is a shift away from the free public library that dominates in the developed world. Included within this group are libraries associated with schools and universities, which are free to the primary communities they serve. The free library is predicated on having a central authority, such as the government, provide funds for capital and operations costs. Libraries in a context where such funding and management is not readily available, as in many African nations, tend to suffer in their ability to offer fresh content. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to equate the experience of walking into an African library to traveling back in time to the date it opened its doors.
The shift to a for-profit model allows the library to meet its own overhead needs, but at the same time it introduces the burden of convincing the patrons that its services are good enough to pay for. Two key offerings of any library are content and data. To be valuable, content needs to be of high quality, relevant, and continually updated. Data connections need to be fast, reliable, and affordable.
One peculiar scenario that emerges in the for-profit shift is that the library must identify target groups within the population that it predicts will provide adequate revenue to keep the system viable. The primary group LAA focuses on engaging is called Young Aspirationals. These are individuals in their late teens or early twenties who are transitioning out of secondary school either into tertiary education or straight into the workforce. For these people, LAA offers advanced study material to supplement and support education, training, and certification. A related target market is referred to as Mature Aspirationals. This group encompasses working adults who lead very busy lives and are interested in continuing education but tend to lack the time to take university courses or enroll in distant programs. Mature Aspirationals need a fast and cost-effective way to access materials and resources, which LAA provides. A third and rapidly growing market is that of the Distance Learners. As the large population of African youth matures, it is becoming increasingly clear that the university infrastructure that exists in many countries is not equipped to deal with the sheer volume of qualified applicants. LAA is well positioned to absorb some overflow capacity, namely in its ability to provide distant learners with key resources that allow them to engage in their studies from remote locations.
The bottom line is that LAA is turning to a more aggressive business model for libraries out of the necessity to operate on a financially sustainable basis in an extremely challenging context. Small financial contributions from users may be necessary in order to provide excellent resources to the community. The validity of this concept will be put to the test in 2012, when LAA enters the market with its pilot library in Accra, Ghana. It will be exciting to see if the McDonald’s approach can thrive where the Carnegie approach has not succeeded.