When it comes to identifying publishing opportunities in the emerging African markets one can do worse than watch the telcos.

Telcos potentially provide the ideal connection between consumers and publishers in countries and regions where traditional ink on paper publishing faces insurmountable challenges, and that the mainstream digital book operators have deemed not worthwhile.

Telcos are particularly favoured by ebook and audiobook subscription services, and Bookmate and Storytel are both old hands at the art of telco partnering.

Sweden’s Storytel partners with Poland’s T-Mobile to deliver audiobooks

Storytel Turkey partners with Vodafone in latest telco deal to boost audiobook reach

In Africa it is Paris-based YouScribe that has led the way, with a partnership with Orange Africa that has brought digital reading to millions across Francophone Africa.

Youscribe partners with Orange for Francophone Africa ebook distribution

The news this week is that that Airtel Africa is planning a $1 billion IPO in London to expand its operations across, currently, 14 African markets including D.R. Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Uganda and Zambia.

CEO Raghunath Mandava explained,

The 14 countries where we operate offer strong GDP growth potential and have young and fast-growing populations, low customer and data penetration and inadequate banking infrastructure.

These fast-growing markets provide us a great opportunity to grow both our telecom and payments businesses.

In other words, lots of room for growth.

But in a hugely competitive market where mere mobile phone infrastructure and text facilitating is so 2000s, the name of the game is VAS –  value added services – and no self-respecting telco would be seen dead without a portfolio of VAS offerings like video, music and, increasingly, books.

And that’s something Airtel Africa’s parent company, India-based Bharti Airtel, is no stranger to.

In 2017 Bharti Airtel took a stake in India’s premier digital books publisher Juggernaut –

Bharti Airtel acquires strategic stake in Juggernaut Books

and last year Airtel Bharti launched Airtel Books, going head to head with Amazon India’s Kindle store.

New competition in the India ebook space as telco Bharti Airtel launches ebook store for smartphones

The problem for most of Airtel Africa’s African markets is that so few African publishers have digitised content to put into an Airtel Africa Books service such as would make it worthwhile.

But that is changing fast, and with it comes the prospect that in the next decade we’re sure to see a lot more books being available across Africa via telco platforms.