The story of Ketabook is the one of a historian father and his marketer son.
It started 17 years ago when Mohamed El Mansour, a history professor at Mohamed V University in Rabat noticed that it was difficult to easily obtain certain books.
"[My father] observed that most of his international colleagues and libraries of the great universities had difficulties in acquiring books which were published in North African countries. They had to frequently plan annual time consuming and expensive trips in order to stay up-to-date and have access to the latest books for their research, " Saf El Mansour told Wamda.
From this realization grew Ketabook in 2000, an online bookstore sourcing texts on humanities disciplines related to the Maghreb, for specialized researchers and universities from North America and Europe through the platform, and an office in San Francisco.
Customers include the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Cornell, Georgetown and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
"By using the emerging technologies [in the year 2000] of ecommerce, we wanted to solve this problem to meet the needs of the academic community who specializes in Maghreb studies", the younger El Mansour said.
The flagship service enables buyers to automate purchases according to an individual set of parameters and budget, as well as a service for specialized researchers and bookshops to help them build their Middle East and North Africa collections.
The office in Rabat stands as an anchor, enabling various Maghreb publishers, especially the smallest of them, to reach an international market that was beyond their means.
"Our ecommerce platform is cloud-based, our website is fully optimized for mobile exploration, and since recently we have also been accepting NFC payments via Apple Pay," the younger El Mansour said.
Focusing on a niche market which is mainly made up of foreign experts and professionals, Ketabook bypassed the hurdles of the book market in MENA. It’s an industry which must push against challenges to editorial freedom as well as illegal distribution, and low demand because of the weakness of readership.
In 2013 the Frankfurt Fellowship Programme found that, in the Middle East, low print runs of new books, low readership rates, and differing censorship rules curbed the regional book market.
The aim of the startup is to consolidate its position on a specialized market and to extend its auto-buying contracts to other universities.
"Our mission is to continue to democratize intellectual [literature[ from North Africa and show its growing quality, especially compared to [book markets] in the Middle East and Egypt. We also intend to expand our operations and sign partnerships with suppliers in Algeria and Tunisia to better cover academic publications in those two countries," Saf El Mansour said.
As for competition, which would largely come from the Middle East, the Ketabook cofounder did not seem to care.
"We are much more specialized and focused on the North African region - unlike the Middle East-based competition - where we are the first online bookstore, operating for more than 15 years. We are much faster and more flexible thanks to our close relationship with the publishing houses and suppliers, and above all we make very effective use of the latest information technologies and secure payment online," he said.
Feature image via Ketabook.