Books in Africa. How this French company competes with Amazon

YouScribe is a digital reading platform with more than one million French-language books, newspapers and audiobooks, which users can access on their mobile phones or other digital devices. For a daily fee, subscribers have access to all the books on the platform, similar to Netflix or Spotify. Over the past few years, the French company has amassed hundreds of thousands of subscribers in Africa. Jaco Maritz spoke to Anne-Sophie Steinlein, chief operating officer of YouScribe, to discover how the company is able to compete against the likes of Amazon in Africa through an innovative business model focused on affordable pricing and a viable payment method.

Shifting focus to Africa

When YouScribe started in 2011, its focus was predominantly on France. However, after attending a book fair in Conakry, Guinea in 2018, they soon realised there was a much bigger demand for its service in French-speaking Africa, where books are often pricey and hard to get. “[In France] we have so many libraries and books aren’t so expensive compared to the buying power of the people. [But] if you take a country like Côte d’Ivoire, there are less than 20 book stores in the entire country,” says Steinlein.

The number of French speakers worldwide is expected to increase from 300 million today to 750 million by 2050. It is anticipated some 85% of French speakers in 2050 will be in Africa, mainly because of its population growth.

French-speaking Africa currently accounts for 90% of YouScribe’s more than 700,000 subscribers. The service is available in 11 African countries, and Morocco and Côte d’Ivoire are its first and second biggest markets. The company recently launched in South Africa with English-language content.

Overcoming the payments challenge

One of the biggest reasons for YouScribe’s success in Africa is the way it collects payments. Because of the low penetration of credit cards on the continent, it is not a viable payment method for a mass-market service. To overcome this, the company partnered with mobile network operators, such as Orange and MTN, to deduct payments directly from users’ mobile phone credit. In South Africa, the service costs R3 (US$0.19) per day for users on the MTN network. This works out to around R90 per month; significantly cheaper than the price of a physical book that retails for about R250 at major bookstores. To overcome high data costs, YouScribe also offers offline reading options.

Negotiating with the mobile network providers was a long process. It took YouScribe two years to seal its first contract with Orange. YouScribe works with a company called Digital Virgo to manage the technical aspects involved in mobile billing.

In addition, YouScribe partnered with French satellite TV provider Canal+, with its significant presence in Africa, to bundle a YouScribe subscription with its TV packages. “They are paying for their subscribers to have access to YouScribe,” Steinlein explains.

Competing against the likes of Amazon

In answer to how YouScribe competes against a company like Amazon – which has a strong grip on the global e-reading market – Steinlein reveals the payment method as the big differentiator. “Amazon … is very powerful but they didn’t try to adapt to African realities … Credit cards are still not very developed in some African countries. So we compete against Amazon by offering the right payment method.”

YouScribe differentiates further by providing books from local African authors together with international bestsellers.

Persuading the publishers

Another challenge is convincing publishers to put their titles on the platform. “Publishers don’t always see digital with a good eye … The first difficulty was to explain the potential for them to reach out to new readers who cannot afford traditional books. And to see that it is not a danger but an opportunity,” adds Steinlein.

Sixty per percent of YouScribe’s revenue is disbursed to publishers and each publisher’s earnings are calculated on the number of pages read.