Akoss Ofori-Mensah: The Pandemic’s Impact on African Publishers

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The Ghanaian founder of Sub-Saharan Publishers outlines the importance of the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund’s program to assist the continent’s book business.

Akoss Ofori-Mensah. Sub-Saharan Publishers

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

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‘Impact on Education, Where It’s Needed’
When the International Publishers Association (IPA) put out a call for proposals to address some of Africa’s remote-education challenges—greatly exacerbated, of course, by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic—the response was enormous.

A total 311 pitches were received from 26 nations on the African continent. The applicants “range from development and education NGOs,” or non-governmental organizations, “to universities and tech companies,” the IPA says.

At stake is US$200,000 in funding for 2021-2022 projects. The funding body behind this major effort is the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund, familiar to Publishing Perspectives readers from its formation in 2018 as a US$800,000 partnership between the IPA and Dubai Cares.

As we announced at the end of April, the upcoming grants are meant to help “African publishing entrepreneurs overcome the staggering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education in 2020 and beyond.” These 2020 grants are to be directed toward locally-owned, digital learning innovations which help African students continue their education.

At issue, the IPA has said, is “the overnight predominance of homeschooling”—the effect of the contagion, of course—which prompted the IPA to become a charter partner in UNESCO’s new #LearningNeverStops initiative along with private-sector support from Microsoft, GSMA, Weidong, Google, Facebook, Zoom, KPMG, and Coursera. And one of the philanthropic organizations signing onto that program is Dubai Cares (along with Sesame Street, Profuturo, and the Khan Academy).

And so with more than 300 applications made for this new round of grants, who chooses where the money will go?

Bodour Al Qasimi

That task falls to the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund committee, a group of publishing executives from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tunisia, and South Africa. Here are familiar faces: Brian Wafawarowa, Gbadega Adedapo, Lawrence Njagi, and Mohamed Saleh Maalej. And leading the team is Bodour Al Qasimi, the UAE-based publisher and vice-president of the IPA.

“The response this year,” Bodour says, “has been far beyond anyone’s expectations, thanks partly to a streamlined online application process and communications push. But the level of interest and the range of ideas coming in is further proof that Africa is bursting with entrepreneurial spirit and innovative ideas.

“With the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund’s support, some of these ideas will become reality and have a lasting positive impact on education where it is needed.”

A shortlist of potential grant winners is anticipated around the end of October, Publishing Perspectives is told.

Ofori-Mensah: ‘A Disastrous Blow to the Book Industry’

And as the group works over these hundreds of proposals for funding, we’ve had an opportunity to have an exchange with a committee member who’s less well known to our readership. Akoss Ofori-Mensah is managing director of Sub-Saharan Publishers, established in Accra in 1992 to specialized in children’s books on environmental issues. The press is now a member of the African Books Collective based in Oxford, and Ofori-Mensah is on the collective’s management council. Her company’s list has expanded now to embrace scholarly books, research, history books on the transatlantic slave trade, and African literature.

In an achievement any publisher would love, Ofori-Mensah’s first picture book from Sub-Saharan Publishers won UNESCO’s 1999 first prize for Children’s Literature in the Service of Tolerance. The book, Sosu’s Call by the prolific Meshack Asare, was also listed in 2001 by IBBY, the International Board on Books for Young People, among its Outstanding Books for Young People With Disabilities. International rights for the book have sold into Spain (both Castilian and Catalan), Portuguese in Brazil, Italian, Czech, German, and Kiswahili in Tanzania, with publication also in North America, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Kenya, and in French for francophone readers in West Africa.

With such an auspicious start, Ofori-Mensah and her publishing house have gone on to prominence, and she has a keen eye for the impact of this year’s extraordinary pandemic on her market and the complex industry in Africa’s nations.

We’ve asked Ofori-Mensah what she sees as the most immediate effects of the pandemic on her market.

“The virus has dealt a disastrous blow to the book industry in Ghana,” she says. “First, because lockdowns have meant schools have been closed since March. And in Ghana, schools won’t reopen until January. So there’s a sharp decrease in sales. Neither students nor government are buying any books.

“That means orders for textbooks will be long in coming,” Ofori-Mensah says. “Publishers have invested lots of funds in developing textbooks for the schools. The books have been evaluated and approved by the ministry—but no orders are in view. Hence publishers are hurting.”

‘Practically All Publishers in Africa Are Hurting’

Artwork from Sub-Saharan Publishers and Worldreader’s ‘Gizo-Gizo! A Tale From the Zongo Lagoon’ by Emily Williamson and students of the Hassaniyya Quranic School. The book is the 2017 best-book winner of the Children’s Africana Book Awards. Image: Sub-Saharan Publishers

Ofori-Mensah says that digital formats are not the helpful alternative for consumers and publishers that they’ve been in many markets.

“Maybe the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund,could organize some training for African publishers, to help them learn how to do ebooks.”Akoss Ofori-Mensah, Sub-Saharan Publishers

“Publishers who do ebooks are few in Ghana,” she says, “and few people have the necessary reading devices. The Ghana Library Authority has set up e-reading facilities in their libraries but these are available only in the regional capitals.

“Reading and learning online are possible for young people who have the necessary devices—tablets, phones, etc. But in some rural areas in Ghana, there’s no electricity, so the question of e-learning doesn’t even arise.”

One bright spot is the San Francisco-based Worldreader program, which Ofori-Mensah says “is doing well with e-reading on tablets.” The nonprofit partners with her press, Sub-Saharan Publishers, for content.

“But even Worldreader is hurting,” she says. “We sent them some new materials and the following is their response: ‘We were making arrangements to do another batch of acquisitions but with the COVID situation, a lot has been put on hold and we have halted acquisitions.’”

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“I believe practically all publishers in Africa are hurting,” Ofori-Mensah says, “because of the pandemic and, more importantly, because ebooks and e-reading are not well developed on the continent.”

And thus the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund’s intervention, she says, “is most welcome.” And from the number of applications received, it’s clear, she says, that these grants will arrive at an opportune time.

The only snag she’s seeing in some of the proposals, she says, is that some are from companies “already in the ebook and audiobook trade,” and they’re not fully aware of how limited the infrastructure to support their proposals may be.

Nevertheless, she says, she like the “adventurous and open-minded” spirit she sees in many applications. And it’s leading her to an idea.

“Maybe the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund,” Akoss Ofori-Mensah says, “could organize some training for African publishers, to help them learn how to do ebooks. That might help a lot of the publishers and encourage them to develop ebooks.”

It almost sounds like Ofori-Mensah needs to make a proposal to the fund, herself.

More from Publishing Perspectives on publishing in Africa is here, more on the International Publishers Association is here, and more from us the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

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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.