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The 11th Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) Publishers Conference concluded with exciting debates and discussions on a new era of educational publishing being steered by the digital age, and the resulting opportunities and challenges emerging for industry stakeholders.

The discussions were attended by Bodour Al Qasimi, President, International Publishers Association (IPA); and publishing professionals representing the global industry.

Representatives of the five projects that were selected for the 2021cycle of the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund (APIF) – a joint $800,000 four-year grant programme funded by UAE-based Dubai Cares and administered by the International Publishers Association (IPA) – discussed how the funding is transforming lives of children and local communities and addressing key challenges in the African publishing ecosystem.

Moderated by Wanjiru Koinange, author and Co-Founder of Book Bunk in Kenya, the session titled ‘Surfacing African Publishing Innovations: The African Publishing Innovation Fund’, explored how the fund is helping provide critical literacy, livelihood, and life skills to poor and rural communities across the continent.

Alison Tweed, Chief Executive, Book Aid International, UK, described how APIF helped transform three shipping containers into fully equipped libraries in Dunga, a rural community of 76,000 in the Zanzibar region of Tanzania. “It has been extraordinary to see the changes it is bringing to children and families, many of whom are experiencing a library for the first time. With different players contributing to different aspects of the project, it is having a broader impact in library development.”

By providing funding for 8 community libraries in Rwanda, APIF has boosted access to digital learning solutions and strengthened critical literacy skills in children unable to attend schools, said Catherine Uwimana, Book Development Expert, Save the Children International. “Our libraries have become safe spaces for learning, and the fund has supported the training of librarians who encourage both girls and boys to use technology to strengthen the culture of reading. More than a million children also receive educational content via the radio.”

Zimbabwean poet Chirikure Chirikure, who is building a modern community library in Nemashakwe, said: “Apart from providing 800 young learners access to books, computers and life skills programmes, the APIF grant has also enabled us to set up water supply systems and install a solar energy system which has generated greater interest in the centre in this remote community with very limited resources.”

Describing the significant urban-rural digital divide across Ghana, Kumuriwor Alira Bushiratu, a young student and co-founder of Learners Girls Foundation, said: “APIF gave wings for our startup non-profit to grow and make a powerful impact in the lives of at-risk young girls whose conditions have been exacerbated by the pandemic. By bringing stakeholders together to support education and provide reading material through libraries, access to digital learning and mentorship programmes, young girls are being empowered to grow and give back to society.”

Will Clurman, CEO of Kenya’s eKitabu, said: “By digitising and adapting local educational materials to international standards, we are improving digital learning accessibility for all learners. In the process, the digital journey of publishers across Kenya is being scaled up. The beauty of publishing is the commitment to knowledge and engagement, and this is improving learning outcomes for children across Kenya.”

Pushing the boundaries of digital learning

Moderated by Jose Borghino, Secretary-General, IPA, the session, ‘Evolving Education Content: The Role of Publishers in the Age of Digital Learning’, highlighted the pivot to digital learning and lessons learnt during the pandemic, and discussed the way forward for different members of the educational value chain.

Nitasha Devasar, Managing Director of Taylor and Francis, and President of the Association of Publishers of India, said that the shift to digital represents “a shift from product perception to service perception.”

She explained: “The focus is now on the value that learning tools provide users. Placing customers at the forefront calls for increased investment in resources to curate a better experience for consumers.”

Dr. Neelam Parmar, Director of Digital Learning and Education at Harrow International Schools, UK, stated that the overwhelming choices in online resources have changed the landscape of learning. She said: “Taking the vast digital resources and integrating it within the curriculum in a blended approach has become the norm moving forward. However, younger children are still encouraged to hold, touch and feel a book.”

Bill Kennedy, Founder of UK-based Avicenna Partnership Ltd, said that the pandemic led to a “discernible migration from academic textbooks in print to e-versions of those books, and an increase in the use and quality of research content in open access journals, which are here to stay and grow.”

Julie Attrill, Manager of International Rights at Wiley, UK, revealed a much stronger uptake in digitalised learning both in universities and the corporate sector during the pandemic. She said: “People are now looking for hybrid models that also incorporate audio and podcasts, while corporate learning has seen a huge growth as more businesses are looking to upskill their staff.”