The Internet is Africa’s “Gutenberg Moment”

In Growth Markets by Tolu Ogunlesi

By Tolu Ogunlesi

“There are lively publishing enterprises in different areas of Africa that are not formalized in the European sense. But they exist, they are not cataloged, [they] don’t have ISBN numbers… there’s no systemic way of tracking and engaging these enterprises…” said Muhtar Bakare, founder of Kachifo Limited, an independent literary publishing house in Lagos, Nigeria, during a panel discussion on the African publishing industry at this year’s African Literature Week (16 – 21 November) in Oslo, Norway.

Muhtar Bakar

Muhtar Bakar of Kachifo Limited

Included on the panel with him were three Norwegian publishers: Asbjørn Øverås (Aschehoug), Cathrine Bakke Bolin (Gyldendal) and Janicken von der Fehr (Pax), who spoke of their experiences in Norway publishing books by African writers.

Bakare listed examples of these off-the-radar enterprises, such as Onitsha Market Literature that flourished in the sixties and seventies, and in contemporary times, the flourishing publishing industry in Kano (a similar type of “market literature,” which is published in Arabic script for an Islamic readership). He traced the history of publishing in Nigeria, against the backdrop of destructive colonial intervention. According to Bakare, “Africans did write before the appearance of colonialists. This knowledge was kept by the priests and noblemen, as was the case before Gutenberg democratized knowledge.” He cited the Nsibidi and Adinkra symbols, of Nigeria and Ghana respectively, as evidence of the existence of a textual tradition in pre-colonial Africa.

But the democratization of this “indigenous knowledge and writing” was cut short by colonization, which compelled the local population to learn and master colonial languages in order to facilitate the spread of the gospel, and the creation of an indigenous class of teachers, administrators and clergy. The publishing industry that emerged in Africa had its control center abroad. “The very first publishing companies that came to Nigeria were British, and they came with the British government, with the colonial curriculum policy.”

Post independence, Bakare said, the publishing industry on the continent was destroyed by the “ascendancy of IMF and structural adjustments.” These questionable economic policies were adopted wholesale by African governments. The fallout was currency devaluations and significant economic failure. To adapt, foreign publishing companies (like Macmillan and Longman) began “focusing entirely on textbooks and totally neglecting literary fiction.” Even Heinemann’s African Writers’ Series, which had succeeded in “[introducing] some seeds of subversion” to the colonial domination of African publishing, did not survive the onslaught.

A keen capitalist

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie introduced Bakare for his talk, calling him a “keen capitalist eager to prove that publishing can be a viable business.” (He is also a smart one, for he is Adichie’s publisher in Nigeria.) It was no surprise then that Barake emphasized the importance of capital for the success of publishing on the African continent. He also spoke on the importance of support from governments, businesses and individuals, in the form of cultural development policies, grants and endowments. “Europe has a history of subsidizing [the] production of culture, that was not transferred to the new governments that emerged in Africa,” he said.

Bakare launched Kachifo in 2004, after a successful career in banking. The business started out publishing an online magazine, Farafina. In a paper he delivered in 2006 at the biennial conference of the African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK), Bakare commented on the decision to launch online:  “It proved to be a useful strategy… Start-up costs were low and we had an immediate global reach. Which would prove useful later on, in commissioning new articles or titles, and in contracting out editorial work.”

Five years later, Bakare is still a confident believer in the power of the internet to revolutionize the African publishing industry. “The internet is our own Gutenberg moment,” he told the Oslo audience. “The internet is going to democratize knowledge in Africa.”

Africa is not hot?

Janicken von der Fehr, editor at publishing house Pax, Norwegian publishers of Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass (in Norwegian translation, it is known as as Knust Glass), said Mabanckou was brought to their attention by an English scout at the 2005 Frankfurt Book Fair. The novel was published in September 2008, to disturbing and inexplicable silence from critics and reviewers. “No reviews, no press, nothing in the whole of October,” she said. After a series of reminders, a handful of reviews appeared in December, but “sales were very low.”

Asbjørn Øverås, publisher, Aschehoug (which publishes thirty titles a year from all over the world) lamented that “there is too little African literature translated into Norwegian.” The remedy for this, according to him, is to find “door-openers”—translated books that succeed (commercially) in previously uncharted (i.e. foreign) publishing territory, and therefore compel publishers to pay more attention to other books emerging from similar traditions.

Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, which publishes forty titles annually—“from the most commercial to the most literary”—in November 2009 published Norwegian translations of Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly (Klagesang for Easterly) and Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck (Kvelningsfornemmelser). It also published Adichie’s previous two books, Purple Hibiscus (Dyprød Hibiskus) and Half of a Yellow Sun (En halv gul sol) . Bolin said that when Purple Hibiscus was published in 2006, Norwegian book clubs were reluctant to take it on, arguing that “Africa is not hot!”

Active participation

That perception seems to have altered, albeit slightly. And there is increasing hope that Africa can become “hot” at least in Africa. In Nigeria, Adichie’s books “sell very well,” Bakare said. Kachifo now sells between 30,000 and 50,000 copies of Purple Hibiscus annually (the novel is now on the public high school curriculum).

Considering the population of Nigeria however (150 million), these numbers are disappointing. “From a business perspective, that should be a Mecca for a book publisher; we should be selling our books in millions, because we have the number of people, but the truth is that… the distribution network just does not exist…” Bakare said, adding that in the UK alone Half of a Yellow Sun has sold at least 700,000 copies.

This challenge (distribution), and others (infrastructure, piracy, literacy, low broadband penetration, etc) notwithstanding, Bakare remains determined to “make good quality Nigerian books at affordable prices.” He strongly believes that what Africa needs is investment, not donor aid, and remains keen to “be taken seriously” on the global stage. The key to this, he says, is “to own our own stories.” “The world is the way it is, but we have to be active participants in it.”

READ: A short profile of Muhtar Bakare written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

VISIT: The web site of Oslo’s Africa Literature Week

DISCUSS: Is Africa hot or not?

About the Author

Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi was born in 1982. He is the author of a collection of poetry, Listen to the geckos singing from a balcony (Bewrite Books, 2004) and a novella, Conquest & Conviviality (Hodder Murray, 2008). In 2007 he was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg poetry prize, in 2008 the Nordic Africa Institute Guest Writer Fellowship, and in 2009 a Cadbury Visiting Fellowship by the University of Birmingham. His fiction and poetry have been published in The London Magazine, Wasafiri, Farafina, PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing, Litro, Brand, Orbis, Nano2ales, Stimulus Respond, Sable, Magma, Stanford’s Black Arts Quarterly and World Literature Today, among others. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.