Feeding the African Imagination: Nigeria’s Cassava Republic

In English Language by Belinda Otas

By Belinda Otas and Tolu Ogunlesi

ABUJA: Nigeria may not be the ideal place to start a publishing company, but Bibi Bakare-Yusuf and Jeremy Weate were crazy enough to take a chance. In 2006 the husband-and-wife team founded Cassava Republic, a publishing house with the goal of “feeding the African imagination” through stories taken from contemporary African life. When they first, they had no financial backing, no distribution network and access to a poor printing industry and much remains the same today; nevertheless, Cassava Republic has become home to some of Nigeria’s most promising writing talent, including Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, whose début novel, I Do Not Come to You By Chance was named by The Washington Post as one of its best books of 2009 and recently won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for first book.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (Photo Credit: The African Writer)

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (Photo Credit: The African Writer)

Weate recalls an incident in 2000, when he visited the Lagos State University bookshop and there were barely any books on the shelves — the perfect metaphor for the decaying state of Nigeria’s publishing industry. At the time, the few major publishers in the country survived by publishing textbooks for schools. One company, Kachifo, published fiction, though the majority of fiction available was self published and read by only a small number of people.

At the time, Weate and Bakare-Yusuf noticed that books by Nigerian writers in the diaspora were not being sold locally. When they started their publishing company, their initial objective was to think about, “How we could make some of the books that were available in the diaspora available locally. It was also about looking at what was happening at home on the writing scene and see if we could work with the writers and publish them,” says Bakare-Yusuf.

The company’s first two books, Kemi’s Journal and Zack’s Story, novels by the London-based Nigerian writer Abidemi Sansui, were published in 2006. Since then Cassava Repubilc has gone on to publish books by 2001 Caine Prize winner Helon Habila, two-time Caine prize shortlisted Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana, the late South African novelist K. Sello Duiker, Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Toni Kan (whose Songs of Absence and Despair is at present the only poetry collection published by Cassava), and the Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin, published this month in the UK by Serpent’s Tail and in the US in June by William Morrow.

What’s more, the company has been able to discover new talent via the Internet: One of Cassava Republic’s best-known books, Teju Cole’s debut novel, Every Day is for the Thief, had its first incarnation as a series of posts by the author on his personal blog.

Often for books first published abroad, Bakare-Yusuf explains that Cassava Republic negotiates for Nigerian, West African or African rights. With Diana Evans’ debut novel, 26a, what the publishing house got was “distribution rights” for West Africa.

Weate and Bakare-Yusuf say one of their foremost aims is to tell stories that engage the audience with the African experience and change the current perceptions of African fiction. Weate explains there was a gap between the first and second waves of writers from the continent, with the likes of Chinua Achebe, whose work was deeply rooted and focused on rural Africa. “But now, we have the contemporary experience of going in-between borders of the diasporic communities. What’s happening now is that African experiences are urban and it’s normal everyday life. There’s a huge yearning for the normalization of the experiences that Africans have.”

Bakare-Yusuf adds that the publishing mission is about understanding the complexities of African experiences: “A lot of the books published in the West tend to apologize, in my view, for the African experiences and reality, and overemphasize the more negative aspects. We’re focused on stories about Africa, which show daily life, and we need to constantly be reflective of the diversities of our experiences.”

She continues, “A lot of the problems Africa is facing have to do with issues of representation, and we need to confront it through what journalists call semiotic warfare. Part of the way Africa gets figured and re-figured in the western media has to do with the sign system, and one of the ways to tackle that sign system is through text and literature. Hence, when we pick books to publish, we are critically aware of the kind of images we want to present because our audience are not necessarily a western audience, but an African audience. What we want to do is show Africa to Africans through text,” says Bakare-Yusuf.

Towards a publishing renaissance

They are part of a revolution in African publishing that is centered on works of fiction and picture books for children, which Bakare-Yusuf says was an under-represented area.

She believes the new growth of publishing on the continent, as seen through the growth of companies such as Kwani and Storymoja Publishers in Kenya and Sub Saharan press in Ghana, will inspire other publishers to focus on works of fiction. “Publishing is a risky business and cash intensive, and the rewards are very small. The publishing industry in Africa has re-nourished and is dominated by artists and intellectuals. But we are moving towards a stage where the business people will take over and when the business people take over, the leadership will be more market-driven. As much as we are intellectuals and artists, it’s still a business because publishing is where commerce and art come together and we are going to see more people using our example and Storymoja’s success to do things.”

They are also excited about the new body of work coming out of Nigeria and Africa, including crime writing, such as Mukoma Ngugi’s debut novel, Nairobi Heat.

Bakare-Yusuf says she does want to be prescriptive as to the terms of what the new work should be like: “What I would want and like is a new body of work that is strong and confident, and can stand on its own and addresses an African audience. I think it’s important that we have a diverse array of genres coming out of Africa.”

To this end, Cassava Republic has plans to publish historical fiction. Bakare-Yusuf says there is a lack of historicity in Nigeria, while Weate explains that in Western fiction, people use a lot of historical characters and events in their stories, but this is not reflected in Nigerian writing. “We are not getting good use of historical imagination or events, and it is through reading that people will find out.”

The company is also branching into non-fiction. Among the company’s first non-fiction titles will be a reprint of a 1982 biography of the musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. “We’re publishing it twenty-eight years after. It was republished in America last year (2009), so we’re doing an African edition…We’ve got a new introduction, new preface, new epilogue, and new cover design,” says Bakare-Yusuf.

A business-cum-management series is also planned, and Cassava Republic hopes they can replicate the success of Kenyan publishing house, Storymoja, whose business book, Crown Your Customer, is a Kenyan bestseller. Cassava Republic’s plan is to have a book wholly based on Nigerian scenarios, a departure from the current situation where the most popular business books in Nigeria have little relevance locally because they are imported from Europe and America.

Bakare-Yusuf argues there is also need for children’s books that show African children in normal situations. “It’s important to show children in Nigeria and other parts of Africa the different aspects of children’s lives in Africa because that will also shape how they see things as they grow.”

In April the company is launching its first eight illustrated children’s titles, all of which are based on government-mandated Millennium Development Goals (MGD’s). Cassava Republic printed ten thousand copies of each and orders have been strong from both schools and the government, which aims to distribute the books to children across Nigeria. The hope, says Bakare-Yusuf, is that the series will generate significant revenue and profit in the long term.

E-books may be an answer to a lack of distribution

Taking into account that Nigeria is still a developing economy full of uncertainties, Weate and Bakare-Yusuf have had to learn ways of running a business in an environment where there is no defined publishing structure. They remain self-funded and their books are printed in India after having had a negative experience with a Nigerian printer. A typical print run is between 3,000 to 5,000 copies in order to keep cost and prices at a minimum.

Weate said, “Printing and distribution are two big challenges…after which the next challenge is distribution. There are no formal distribution companies in Nigeria. You have to work out how to get the books into people’s hands. There aren’t big bookshops either. So, there are enormous challenges with the logistics to get books printed, get them into the country and then to places where people can buy them. It’s a big headache.”

Still, says Bakare-Yusuf, there are vital lessons to be learned. One of the most significant is this: having realized that “Nigeria has its own rhythm” which is independent of planning (“things are going to flow whether I like it or not”), she’s found a certain freedom in “no longer [being] fixated on time.” And when a book, printed abroad, is held up at the notoriously inefficient Nigerian ports, “it changes how I act when another shipment is coming in.”

As a remedy for their printing and distribution woes, the company is looking into publishing e-books. “We are very interested in [e-books] because it allows you get over the big problem of printing books,” said Weate.

That said, the first step into the digital world has been for the company to launch a Web site and online store, a move which they expect will help them achieve accessibility and affordability.

“The challenge at present is the fact, that while Internet penetration is growing, it’s still small. Nigeria needs to get to that stage [where it will be better], which will definitely happen.” Until then, the market for their titles will likely remain in Nigeria and, to a lesser extent, Ghana. “There’s been a lot of demand for [our books] internationally, but because we only have Africa rights, we can’t do anything with that.” Bakare-Yusuf concedes that even in an Internet age, territorial boundaries still apply. “The Internet can only break the boundaries if you have world rights, then you can move across borders.”

Both Weate and Bakare-Yusuf say they would love to see more book stores in Nigeria, better printers and distribution in Nigeria and less stringent regulations imposed by the West. They believe it would be a good move for international literary prizes to be seek out more books published in Africa and for international publishers to play closer attention.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all for the publisher comes from Nigeria itself, “a nation of people [who want] to read but not buy books,” says Bakare-Yusuf, who adds,“These challenges are not insurmountable” and there are numerous ways of “[creating] opportunities for people to begin to imagine they can write, to imagine that there are books.”

VISIT: The Web site for Cassava Republic

About the Author

Belinda Otas

Belinda Otas is a versatile journalist, writer, cultural critic and an independent blogger. She has a passionate interest in Africa: politics, social development, arts and culture, gender issues and the African diaspora. Currently working as a freelance journalist with various publications aimed at the international community – she has contributed to: Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC News Online, The Africa Report, Selamta, New African, Wings, Divascribe, Zam and Under The Influence magazines, Think Africa Press and This Is Africa, among others.