‘Women at the Forefront’: Three Interviews From PublisHer at Nairobi

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The second international event in the PublisHer series featured performance, discussion, and networking at the International Publishers Association’s ‘Africa Rising’ seminar in Nairobi.

The June 2019 PublisHer gathering preceded the IPA’s ‘Africa Rising’ seminar at Nairobi. Image: Nabs Ahmedi

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘To Get More Women Into Leadership’
As busy as the central agenda was at at the International Publishers Association‘s (IPA)  “Africa Rising” seminar in Nairobi, there was time for  a dinner program in the newly created PublisHer series of events meant to celebrate women in publishing and spearheaded by the Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, IPA’s vice-president.

Publishing Perspectives readers will recall that the initial gathering in this series of events was in March during the London Book Fair.  At the time, Bodour—who co-hosted that event with the Association of American Publishers’ CEO and president Maria A. Pallante—said, “The global publishing industry boasts a lot of brilliant, inspiring, and courageous women, but not enough of them are in the leadership level, a situation many stakeholders are working hard to redress.”

And the intent is for women in publishing to further develop an international network dedicated to exploring the successes and challenges women encounter in publishing today. On becoming the IPA’s vice-president, Bodour told Publishing Perspectives, “The publishing industry has a diversity problem, and it’s more important than ever that we take action. In many countries, our sector is not welcoming to outsiders, whether they’re female or from other disadvantaged groups.”

In the course of the event at Nairobi, the gathering featured a panel of speakers on overcoming publishing’s diversity problem in women’s leadership. The panel featured:

The evening also featured the Nairobi-based journalist and storyteller Maïmouna Jallow, who performed her stage adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives (Serpent’s Tail, 2010). And attendees included the Arab League’s Maha Bakheet; the Puku Foundation’s Elinor Sisulu; Anna Bertmar Khan, senior technical advisor with Dubai Cares; Emma House, deputy CEO with the UK’s Publishers Association; and Frankfurter Buchmesse’s vice-president for business development, Claudia Kaiser.

The PublisHer program now has a Twitter handle: @PublisHerEvents and we’ve had a chance to be in touch with Bakare-Yusef, Mahlape, and Jallow, finding a range of insights as a result. As Jallow puts it, “I think women are the ones who are going to transform the publishing industry in Africa.”

Bibi Bakare-Yusef: ‘Don’t Try To Do It Alone’

Bibi Bakare-Yusef of Cassava Republic Press, left, and Elinor Sisulu of South Africa’s Puku Foundation at the Nairobi PublisHer event. Image: Nabs Ahmedi

Probably the best known of our interviewees on the world stage is publisher Bibi Bakare-Yusef, who co-founded Cassava Republic Press with Jeremy Weate in 2006 in Abuja and now has offices in London, as well. In February 2017, it was announced that the company had signed with Ingram Publisher Services’ Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, and the company has pursued the UK and US markets to bring the work of its African authors to the West.

We begin our exchange with Bakare-Yusef by asking if she can sketch out for us the the general situation for women in publishing in African markets today.

Bibi Bakare-Yusef: For us to have a nuanced discussion about diversity, especially gender diversity, we need to begin by making a distinction between how general trade publishing and educational publishing in different African countries work. This difference matters because how gender relations are experienced, represented, and lived out varies depending on which sector of the publishing you’re in.

“The fact that men are not as well represented in the trade in Africa is only a matter of time. They’re waiting for women to pave the road and show them the financial potential. And watch them try to take over, with try as the watchword.”Bibi Bakare-Yusef, Cassava Republic Books

I think it’s fair to say that across the board, from east to west, north to south, textbook publishing dominates the publishing landscape in Africa. And this is very much the preserve of men across all levels, from executive to sales to logistics, leaving the old colonial publishing model unchanged. In 14 years of publishing, I think I’ve come across only a handful of women in the textbook market. This explains the gender bias and perpetuation of outmoded stereotypes found in so many Nigerian textbooks.

The male dominance of the sector is probably what’s inspiring women to create autonomous spaces of independence, creativity, and innovative publishing that are not dependent on largely inefficient and corrupt government procurement practices.

In terms of launching new African writing onto the world stage, women are at the forefront of it, owning or managing the publishing houses, making editorial decisions and shaping the kind of books that are available for general readership as well as for literature courses. Women are at the forefront of shaping the taste of what Africans and the world we read about Africans today and into the future.

It’s women like Thabiso Mahlape of BlackBird Books and Colleen Higgs of Modjaji in South Africa; Louise Umutoni of Huza Press in Rwanda; Deborah Ahenkorah of African Bureau Stories and Akoss Ofori of Sub-Saharan Publishers, both in Ghana; to name a few.  They’re changing the configuration across the continent.  In the trade sector of the publishing industry, you’ll find women’s presence across the entire value chain, imagining, learning, innovating, laughing, and crying along the way.

Because this sector, the trade, is not yet as financially lucrative as educational publishing, events like PublisHer provide a good opportunity for women to come together to share skills, experience, and opportunities that will allow us to grow our business and build formidable companies. The fact that men are not as well represented in the trade is only a matter of time.  They’re waiting for women to pave the road and show them the financial potential before they wean themselves off the very lucrative government contracts. And watch them try to take over, with try as the watchword.

Despite the demarcation along gender lines, it’s important that we think about other forms of differences that are still under-presented in publishing such as religious, regional, ethnic, sexual, and physical differences in African countries.  We have to remember that we’re not only gendered beings. Our gender is always experienced through the prism of the other social factors I’ve mentioned.  In Nigeria, certain regions and ethnicities still dominate publishing and this dominance also impacts the type of books we publish and the authors who enter of our consciousness and become celebrated.

So, any changes we want to see happen must occur alongside all the different components of who we are—of which gender is but one.

Bibi Bakare-Yusef with Ama Dadson, left, founder of Ghana’s AkooBooks Audio, during the Nairobi PublisHer evening’s panel on women in publishing. Image: Nabs Ahmedi

Publishing Perspectives: With offices now in London, do you see parallels in the UK market to the context of the African markets?

BB-Y: Yes, I do see parallels. While there’s a large number of women in publishing in the UK, especially in lower and middle management, the top executives are still men. Where we see a larger portion of women leading publishing companies in the UK, it’s because they’ve started their own companies, following the same pattern we see in Nigeria and across Africa.

“The general book trade is the future of publishing in Africa. Women have the early-mover advantage.”Bibi Bakare-Yusef, Cassava Republic Books

While the challenge is to get more women into leadership positions in the UK, the fact of the matter is that the face of UK publishing is still very white, both male and female, concentrated in one region of the country, and from one class and educational background. Seeing the seemingly immovable monolith of publishing being so white, so female–in the middle and bottom of the pyramid–so upper-middle class, so London-centric, so seemingly heteronormative and of a certain physicality, makes me realize that in the nascent publishing industry developing on the African continent, we must not make the same mistake. We can’t allow the monolithic representation of publishing in the UK to become entrenched in Nigeria.

We can do things differently, we must do things differently, learning from others.

For publishers in Africa, we have a unique advantage. We don’t have a more-than 300-year legacy of cigarette smoking, whiskey-drinking white Oxbridge men and women to unseat. We can fashion something different, a publishing ecosystem that embraces all the groups in various African societies at all levels of the value chain.  And we have already begun that project.

At the Nairobi PublisHer event. Image: Nabs Ahmedi

PP: Had you not founded Cassava Republic with Jeremy Weate as you did, could you have done as much as you have? It seems that creating the company as its head from the start has meant a lot to your ability to gain traction as quickly as you have.

“The most pressing hurdle for women, as I see it, is capital. Everything else will fall into place once we have capital.”Bibi Bakare-Yusef, Cassava Republic Books

BB-Y: While Cassava was founded by myself and Jeremy, the engine room behind Cassava Republic is an army of women who continue to work tirelessly to make sure that it’s a home for writers and to bring those writers’ work to market.  It’s these women who have provided the impetus and the sustaining power for the business.

I may have initiated the idea and provided the intellectual and ideological framing for Cassava Republic, with initial support and companionship from Jeremy, but the credit for the traction we have gained so quickly would have to go to the other invisible women who are shareholders of the company and who have doubled up to provide legal, operational, and sales and marketing input into the business.

PP: What advice does your experience lead you to offer to other women?

BB-Y: I would say find a mentor or two, and one of them preferably should be outside of your own embodied or social position or experience.

I am Yoruba, and we value the voice of difference and the insight such a voice can potentially bring us. So, having a mentor distant from your own experience is very important.

Also, make sure you don’t try to do it alone. The path has already been trodden by others. Find those others and join them and ask them questions.  This is how a group like PublisHer is hugely important—a forum to learn, to share experience and insights about how to make your progress better, easier, and always with more joy and laughter.

PP: Lastly, can you put your finger on one or more of the most central challenges you feel do and will face women in publishing today and in the near term, especially in leadership positions?

BB-Y: In Africa, as more and more men sees the economic potential of general trade publishing, they’ll move into the space to push women out because they’ll be able to access capital in a way that has been more difficult for women.

The general book trade is the future of publishing in Africa. Women have the early-mover advantage, and that’s why we need to actively look for ways to access and raise capital.

The most pressing hurdle for women, as I see it, is capital. Everything else will fall into place once we have capital.  Access to capital brings the confidence that you can do what you’re doing and what you’re doing is likely to survive or at least have a relative chance of surviving.

Thabiso Mahlape: ‘Our Own Publishing Association’

IPA vice-president Bodour Al Qasimi welcomes attendees to the PublisHer dinner program at the Nairobi ‘Africa Rising’ seminar. Image: Nabs Ahmedi

In our exchange with South Africa’s founder of BlackBird Books, we begin by asking, as we did Bakare-Yusef, for a general high-level comment on the state of publishing for women in Africa’s book markets. She, too, looks to the educational basis for much of the traditional marketplaces on the continent as a key—and points to the pervasive male domination of the government-based structure in many African markets.

BlackBird Books’ Thabiso Mahlape, a speaker at the Nairobi PublisHer event. Image: Nabs Ahmedi

Thabiso Mahlape: I can speak to four markets: South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and Botswana. And just as Nielsen’s Andre Breedt highlighted in his presentation at the Nairobi IPA seminar, a big part of book publishing is in textbooks. And the minute you deal with textbooks, you’re dealing with government. Government becomes your biggest supplier, and you’re dealing with the big boys, then.

And when you’re a woman in Africa, especially when you’re a black woman, negotiating with the big boys becomes a thing. It’s not very easy. When the powers that be hire people, they’re going to hire boys.  Because boys can talk to boys, boys can negotiate with boys, and it’s hugely, hugely unfair to women.

In South Africa, it’s a bit different. The boards are largely male, and the biggest publishers in the country are a big-boys’ club, but in general, there are a lot of women. Jacana Media [in Johannesburg and Cape Town], which incubated my imprint, BlackBird Books, is run by women.

But overall, in terms of [gender] diversity, women are seldom allowed into the boardroom. Women have to fight to sit in places where they can negotiate. Basically put, the men love power, they love position.

PP: So is it the case that women who want to be in publishing’s leadership in your region simply have to start their own companies? In  your case, of course, you had the assist of having BlackBird Books incubated by Jacana Media.

TM:  Starting a thing is definitely the surest way [to attain] a managerial position, to call the shots, to decide the direction of your work and not be stifled editorially. But there are important advantages to having your company incubated, as BlackBird Books was by Jacana Media.

PP: What do you see as the biggest challenges for your company and its goals in South Africa?

“You have to care about creating a readership, a reading culture, you have to care about creating a book-buying culture, you have to worry about creating talent to write those books. And then you have to worry about making the money work to put up that talent.”Thabiso Mahlape, BlackBird Books

TM: I publish not only undiscovered talent but black voices as well, so the biggest problem for me has been distribution … in an area where, as in Soweto, one retailer has a monopoly on the situation. And the other challenge has been how the black race has come late to the party in this country, you know, these socio-economic injustices that have resulted in a lack of confidence.

[Books aren’t] something that black people consume as a day-to-day thing. So there isn’t a lot of confidence in that area, as readers, as writers, and sometimes for me as a publisher. So you do have the responsibility of not only finding talent, but also nurturing talent as well, talent that is probably going to shine its best three books from now, you know, because people need that kind of platform, that kind of courage and love and nurturing.

And then there’s also the literacy issue in the country.

You have to stretch yourself even more because you’re publishing but you have to care about creating a readership, a reading culture, you have to care about creating a book-buying culture, you have to worry about creating talent to write those books. And then you have to worry about making the money work to put up that talent.

So personally, those are the challenges that I face. And I think the industry as a whole is going through difficulties that the global markets are going through.

PP: And on the whole, then, what’s going to be necessary for women to gain more traction, as you see it?

TM: In terms of being a woman and facing the patriarchal challenges in a country like South Africa, we need to start afresh. And people like me and like Terry Morris, the managing director at Pan Macmillan South Africa, and Leigh-Ann Harris, managing director at Jacana Media, and many others, are trying our best. But we’re doing it on the periphery because we’re running as running as very tiny imprints or publishing boutiques, unable to penetrate the distribution and distribution channels.

As women, we probably are going to have to establish our own publishing association of some sort, where we can take charge, where we can hold each other.

Maïmouna Jallow: ‘Truly a One-Woman Show’

Maïmouna Jallow in her performance of her adaptation of ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ at the Nairobi PublisHer event. Image: Nabs Ahmedi

Having worked as a media consultant for the Ford Foundation and the African Women’s Development Fund, Jallow is the co-founding director of Positively African, an organization that brings together a Pan-African network of activists, artists and academics working on art and social justice. In 2015, Positively African launched the Nairobi Storytelling Festival, and Jallow’s own performances have been seen in markets as far-flung from Kenya as Singapore, Scotland, and Sweden.

We’ll embed below a promotional video produced about Jallow’s performance of her piece based on Shoneyin’s book. And we start by asking her to tell us something about her selection of the Lola Shoneyin novel for her performance at the PublisHer dinner in Nairobi.

Maïmouna JallowThe Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives chronicles the life of Baba Segi, the ultimate patriarch, as he tries to unravel the mystery behind his fourth wife’s infertility. Through his quest, we explore the burdens that society places on women and on their bodies, and the cunning ways in which these women escape from the confines of poverty, violence and patriarchy.

“Last year, I edited an anthology of African folktales called Story Story, Story Come. I approached several publishers but it was the women publishers who backed the project.”Maïmouna Jallow, Positively African

It’s an endearing and powerful tale of deception, betrayal, love, and friendship set within the complex world of polygamous marriages. In this adaptation, which is a mix of theater and traditional storytelling, I play the four wives and also the narrator.

I chose to perform this piece at the PublisHer dinner because the novel is hugely popular and loved, and it was a chance to showcase how performance can support the publishing industry and draw in new audiences by presenting books in a different way.

Publishing Perspectives: And you created the adaptation you perform?

MJ: Baba Segi’s Wives was the first novel I ever adapted for performance. I have no background in theater, so at the time it didn’t occur to me that productions like these are usually done with a team. And I didn’t have the budget to do that, anyway. So I am the actor, but also the director, producer, set designer, costume designer, and music and lighting designer. It truly is a one-woman show.

PP: What do you think of the PublisHer effort, and how do you see the experience that women in African publishing are having, especially in leadership roles?

MJ: I think women are the ones who are going to transform the publishing industry in Africa.

Last year I edited an anthology of African folktales called Story Story, Story Come. I approached several publishers but it was the women publishers who backed the project. The East and Southern Africa edition was published by Zukiswa Wanner’s Pavaipo, and the West Africa edition by Lola Shoneyin’s Tanja, a children’s imprint of Ouida Books.

They saw the project not just in terms of potential sales, but rather supported it because they could see the social impact it could have by giving children access to African stories. Wanner at Pavaipo has now had the stories translated into four African languages. I think that with more platforms like PublisHer and more African women leading publishing houses, we’re going to see a wider variety of books being published.

PP: And what’s next for you in your work?

MJ: Next, I want to work on adapting novels into audiobooks. But forget dry narrative reads in accents that are not our own. I’ll be working with musicians, sound designers, and voice artists, who can give the audiobooks the same richness and depth I hear in my mind when I read them.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the PublisHer series of events is here. More from us on the International Publishers Association is here, more on its ‘Africa Rising’ Nairobi seminar is here, and more on African publishing markets and issues is here

We hope you’ll download a free copy here in PDF and join us in welcoming the second annual IPA Africa Seminars event, an important new series in world publishing for which Publishing Perspectives is media partner.

In this magazine, you’ll find commentary from the IPA leadership, from key stakeholders in the 2018 seminar at Lagos produced with the Nigerian Publishers Association, and from our hosts at this year’s event produced in cooperation with the Kenya Publishers Association.

There also are insights from speakers in the program and background coverage on publishing in Africa from Publishing Perspectives.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.