African Publishing: Challenges and Opportunities

By Ruth Makotsi, Executive Secretary, East African Book Development Association Introduction I would compare African publishing to a child learning to swim; has the love and motivation for the sport but limited skills with which to beat the currents. Unlike Europe and Asia’s publishing industries which continue to flourish almost entirely on their own markets, Africa’s book sector requires external aid to stay afloat. Book markets in Africa are small largely because of low reading habits among the people. And, although African publishing has registered significant progress over the last two decades, both in terms of output and quality, the industry is still largely underdeveloped. The continent’s book sector is the smallest in the world, contributing less than 2% to the World’s book market despite the fact that its citizenry accounts for 12%1 of the World’s population. The reasons for Africa’s underdeveloped book sector are known and are many. These can be explained at three macro-levels namely, historical, economic and socio-cultural limitations. History’s effect on African Publishing Historically, the influences of slavery and colonialism have been blamed for initiating the marginalisation of Africa and its people, for brain drain and suppression of creativity. It was not until towards the end of the 19th century that books and reading were introduced to the continent, mainly through imports from Europe. And while England‘s Daniel Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe was selling in 1719, it was not until the 1930s that a handful of African creative writers were published, mostly abroad2. Africa’s book sector thus began with two Century laps to catch up. Furthermore, when local publishing was introduced in earnest at independence it was through state publishing. This was part of newly formed African governments’ way of indigenising the provision of education. From the outset therefore, publishing in Africa did not nurture creative writing but instead centred on textbook production in tune with the education systems at the time. This trend, which persists to date, has rendered African publishing a textbook affair and contributed to the lack of a reading culture, stunted book markets, low turnovers and hence an undercapitalised, underdeveloped industry. The Effects of Weak African Economies on Publishing Weak governance, mismanagement of resources and general underdevelopment have rendered the continent poor. According to World Bank Development Indicators, the combined Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP in 2007 was only US $ 843 Billion compared to Sweden’s US $ 444 Billion. Of Africa’s 620 million people, 50% live below the


Early creative writers include Azikiwe of Nigeria Renascent Africa (1937), Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana Towards Colonial Freedom (1941), Jomo Kenyatta Facing Mount Kenya (1938), and much later, Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart 1958).


poverty line (on less than a $ a day).3 Ironically, Africa imports close to 70% of its book needs, mostly tertiary and vocational training books costing as high as US $ 25 a copy4. Although these are the areas in which books are most required, majority of the people can ill afford them. Locally published books are not much less expensive given the high taxation levied on book printing paper. Reading in Africa can therefore be said to be a privilege of the few well-to-do. The low returns from publishing businesses have thus scared-off would be investors, stunting the growth of this industry. So small is the book sector that governments seem to have considered it undeserving of sound legislation as can be evidenced in the absence of national book policies in most countries. Socio-cultural Limitations to Promotion of Reading in Africa Socially, high illiteracy levels in Africa are partially responsible for suppressing readership. Approaches to literacy development mostly undertaken by governments are under funded, inconsistent and inadequate. One of their shortcomings is the unavailability of appropriate reading and teaching material in local languages for adult learners and for the more than 200 million people who can only read in their local languages. Although publishers have convincingly argued that publishing in local languages is not economically viable (because only a few hundreds to thousands of people would read any one language), this problem is amplified by the lack of sound language policies to promote local languages. As a result, close to 80% of people who live in rural areas, where local languages are the mediums of literacy, are not catered for. This has limited book markets and restricted diversification of publishing programmes. Indigenous African Publishing: Rekindling the Cultural Identity The last two decades have witnessed some positive changes that have helped bolster African publishing amidst the myriad of problems stated above. The 1980s and 90s authoritarian regimes of the second-generation African governments banned any literature that attempted to criticize their style of leadership. A number of African writers fled the continent in fear of being arrested, detained or even assassinated. Books by African writers such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o were banned from use in schools and replaced by the more subtle imported classics by Northern writers like Bertolt Brecht and Roger Miller. This suppression and censorship led to protests by indigenous publishers supported by Northern agencies. One of the landmark forums that brought indigenous African publishers together to consolidate their struggle was the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation’s seminar on ‘Autonomous African Publishing’ in 1984. The directors of the seminar observed that, ‘It stands no reason that if books are supplied from the outside, particularly by the trans-national corporations, their power to effect the development of the countries of the South will be similarly
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Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators, Sub-Saharan Africa, 2007 Expanding the Book Trade Across Africa, Ruth Makotsi (ADEA/APNET, 2000) pp 2


influenced by external interest, both political and economic. At their worst, these publications promote seriously distorted and dangerous messages about history, culture and the value of Third World societies.5’ By the early 90s, the campaign for indigenous publishing in Africa had swept across the continent. Northern donors to culture, such as Sida, Danida, Hivos, etc, coordinated by the Bellagio Publishing Network from UK, became sufficiently convinced of the necessity to develop indigenous knowledge and consequently supported the establishment the African Publishers Network (APNET). APNET was established in 1992 with its secretariat in Harare, Zimbabwe, actively lobbied for the formulation of more favourable textbook provision policies in the World Bank funded government book schemes. It also opened doors for African publishers to travel to international book fairs from where they gathered ideas and marketed their books. It facilitated the establishment of national publishers associations and launched training programmes for members in editorial, production and management skills. More indigenous publishing houses have been set up, the output in general books, especially academic and children’s literature continues to expand, and to a little extent the quality of books is improving. Creative Literature as a Catalyst to Publishing in Africa Despite the cited developments, the level of book publishing is still insufficient in meeting the Africa’s 60% literate population. A survey published by APNET in 20006 revealed that the top 5 Sub-Saharan African publishing countries (South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia) produce less than 4 500 new titles annually, of which about 75% are textbooks. That means, only about 1 125 general titles are published by the approximately 550 publishers in these countries. Kenya‘s 60 publishers, for example, issue less than 50 new titles annually (excluding children‘s readers), which constitutes one quarter of Britain’s Faber and Faber Publishers’ output. Yet, the scenario has not always been grey. African creative writing has produced several world famous international award winners such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, Dennis Brutus, Nadine Gordimer, Naquib Mafouz, Nurudin Farah and recently, Chenjerai Howe, Shimmer Chinodya, Yvonne Vera, Nelson Habila or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others. Their writings are acclaimed for reflecting Africa’s cultural identity, highlighting her plight and ‘capturing the people’s optimism and apprehensions of the time’7. Unfortunately, most of these writers are published outside the continent. Therefore, for African publishing to expand significantly and to become internationally recognised, African publishers will need to find ways of retaining such celebrated writers while also taking time to develop others at home who could have the creativity to capture the issues affecting the continent today. The number of

Development Dialogue 1997:1-2

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Expanding the Book Trade Across Africa, Ruth Makotsi (ADEA/APNET, 2000) p Essays on African Writing 2: Contemporary Literature, Ed. Abdulrazak Gurnah, HEB, 1995, pp. v 3

possible topics that are in dire need of international discourse is unlimited. Books on issues surrounding the wanton clan and ethnic wars in Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo; the oil tussles in Sudan; the dictatorship government of Zimbabwe, etc would appeal both to the local markets as well as to those abroad. One of the ways the publication of such creative works could be facilitated is through literary awards. Awards are useful in promoting writers and their works and, in this respect, bringing to the attention of readers Africa’s literary potential. Regrettably, most distinguished literary awards that cover Africa such as the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker Prize for Fiction, Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and Caine Prize for African Writing are all externally sponsored. There’s therefore need for similar awards to be launched on the continent as a way of stimulating more interest in creative writing, motivating young and upcoming authors and increasing the output in general literature. These should recognise areas such as cultural and African language books in which there are fewer creative works. The Place of Language in African Publishing and Development Local language publishing in Africa has not had as much success on the continent as would be expected. Apart from South Africa, where major local languages have been developed as mediums of instruction in schools and as languages of study, the only other country which can be said to publish in African languages is Tanzania. Unfortunately, most of Tanzanian books are textbooks. With Kenya being the only other country in which a sizable number of people speak Kiswahili, markets for Tanzania’s books are too inadequate to support general publishing. It should also be emphasized that language is an important vessel for communicating development-al messages. Therefore, if literacy in Africa is to play a more effective role in the transfer of knowledge and skills, then the language of communication should be predominantly African. As the respected African scholar, Professor Ali Mazrui asks, “Can any country approximate first rank economic development if it relies overwhelmingly on foreign languages for its discourse on development and retransformation? Will Africa ever effectively ‘take off’ when it is so tightly held hostage to the languages of the former imperial powers?8” Availability of books in local languages would ensure access to information on how to address the pertinent challenge of poverty reduction dogging almost all African countries. Consequently, it will enable local publishers the opportunity of expanding markets to the vast rural communities who make up 80% of the literate population. However, African publishers themselves must step up their campaign for formulation of appropriate policies towards the promotion of African language books. Indeed, they have adequate justification for such an advocacy programme. As Walter Bgoya, a Tanzanian publisher, explains,


“ Language carries with it visions of the society that speaks it; Language is a corpus of knowledge, of sensibilities and identities, all of which will be lost if the language is not retained.9” With increased urbanisation and migration, many African children born in towns and cities, where the official and spoken language is either English or French, have no way of learning their ‘mother-tongue’ because no books have been published in them. This scenario has been blamed for the ‘culture-clash’ in African cities and for increased loss of moral values present among the youth. Increased publishing of local language books would additionally ensure the preservation Africa’s heritage and traditions and safeguard against moral degradation. Book Sector Development and Reading Promotion In most African languages, the term ‘to read’ also means ‘to go to school’. This situation is historical in that when the early missionaries first introduced education on the continent, the methodology they adopted was formal instruction. Further, the education content they offered was limited to foreign concepts such as Christianity, Arithmetic and the study of English or French languages and literature. This approach led to the notion that learning can only take place within a school environment and that books are a source of foreign concepts that are superior to indigenous knowledge. As a result, locally published books were shunned by African learners. This misconception persists to date and is responsible for the existing textbookcentred curricula, the lack of libraries, preference for imported books and the poor reading habits, all of which mitigate the growth of local publishing. Efforts on expanding local publishing should therefore be concentrated on changing the thinking of curriculum developers for them to understand that education can only be fully relevant to the learners if its content reflects the local environment. Further, in order to make literacy functional the inclusion of local knowledge in textbooks is necessary. Thus, the concept of life-long learning can only be realised if a reading culture is nurtured as part and parcel of the literacy programmes. To this end, reading promotion efforts need to be taken beyond the classroom to the home, work and leisure environments. Libraries as Tool for Developing the Reading Culture The biggest obstacle to library development in Africa is poverty. The adoption of Universal Basic Education has meant that funds allocated to book purchases give priority to textbooks. Due to the prevalent high levels of poverty, coupled with high book prices, parents cannot afford to buy general reading material. Therefore learners, especially children, have no access to general reading material either in school or at home.


Bgoya, W, ‘Publishing in Africa: Culture and Development,’ in The African Writers Handbook, ABC, 1999,


Whereas a supportive library network would give the poorer learners access to free reading material, majority of schools and communities in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have libraries. Where some semblance of a library exists, it is often no more than a few shelves of outdated and worn out material10. For the book industry to expand, deliberate and increased efforts need to be put into the development of libraries in schools and communities. Availability of libraries would ensure access to books by the majority public and nurture in them a love for reading that would influence book buying habits beyond textbook materials. In turn, the expansion of markets for general books will necessitate the writing and publication of more books, hence the growth of the sector. The Need for a Legal Framework on Book Sector Development African published books are fairly expensive and yet the quality, in terms of production, is evidently low. The problem of high book prices is as a direct result of high book production costs. This has contributed to the market’s preference of imported books and rampant piracy. Good quality paper is not easily available in Africa, except South Africa, although import duty inflates its price thus minimising exports to other African countries. Additionally, printing technology in most countries, except South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, is still dated. In order to produce durable, affordably priced books, most publishers from Africa are opting to print in Mauritius, India and Hong Kong where the quality is better but less costly. As a result, local printing industries are underdeveloped. Additionally, because of lack of recognition of the book sector by governments, educational institutions have not been giving priority to publishing training. Publishing at university level is taught in only three countries; Kenya, South Africa and Ghana. The lack of skills in book production and book selling are also contributors to the low quality of locally produced books. A remedy to high prices and to poor production quality would be reduction or removal of taxes and import duty on book production inputs, especially paper and ink. This would result into growth of local printing industries, lowered production costs and reduced prices. Additionally, there is need for enactment of comprehensive book policies to facilitate book development across the chain; from authorship to publishing and distribution. Such policies would ensure access to training by industry personnel, application of favourable book supply systems within the ministries of education, expansion and regulation of book trade within countries and across the continent and control of piracy. Conclusion


Education for All 2000 Assessment, Thematic Studies: Textbooks and Learning Materials 1990-99, Ian Montages (UNESCO, ADEA, 2001) p27


The responsibility of developing African publishing requires joint effort of all stakeholders including the private book practitioners themselves, government and development partners. It is unfortunate to note that most development partners that were active in facilitating the development of African publishing in the 80s and 90s, as part of their support to development of cultural industries, have recently changed their policies. Most are now according priority to political sectors such as democracy and gender, to humanitarian sectors such as health and to emergency cases as a result of wars that seem to have broken up in all regions on the continent. This has resulted in the reduction of budgets to culture or the closing these departments altogether. Secondly, development partners seem to have once again shifted their funding policies from channelling support through non-governmental organisations to working with governments. This decision, it would seem, has been taken prematurely considering that the newly launched NEPAD concept of Private Public Partnerships is yet to fully take root in most countries. The publishing sector in Africa is already suffering from the effects of these policy changes among the development partners. Because the sector is largely private and the problems affecting it, as outlined above are largely being addressed by nongovernmental organisations which depend entirely on external donor funding, most project in book sector development have wound up. There’s therefore need for development partners to rethink their position if efforts in developing African publishing are to continue. Additionally, stakeholders within the book sector in Africa should begin to nurture and strengthen their co-operation with governments so that ongoing projects are sufficiently expanded to fully address the highlighted impediments to the growth of African Publishing. Partnerships at the local level, being home grown, are bound to be more lasting and sustainable.


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