African Stories, No African Roots

Africans are rooted in the tradition of storytelling. In the globally acclaimed book Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe, children would congregate around their elders to listen to tales told through voice and gestures. Stories were the palm-oil with which morals, norms and values were eaten and passed to younger generations.

Today, in a world where storytelling has evolved into printed words and the realm of books, the role of the publisher has become increasingly important. In Africa, indigenous publishing not only serves to preserve culture by bequeathing history, experience and belief systems to the next generation but is also integral to economic development, creating a breeding ground for jobs on the continent. Aspirations for autonomy, however, fall apart in light of dominance by foreign publishers, fragile infrastructure and a sophisticated piracy culture.

The publishing industry offers assured economic benefits to Africa. It takes a village to publish a book, as evidenced by the large requisite investments in content creation, editorial work, and marketing. Even given these high costs, Africa’s large population of 1.3 billion people should be able to sustain the writing, editing, and manufacturing processes of a publishing industry in Africa. The World Bank announced that youths account for 60 percent of Africa’s joblessness. This is worrisome considering that Africa has the largest population of young people in the world. This tragic story of youth unemployment is often told close in hand with the success story of the continent’s speedy and steady economic growth. Jobless growth, however, has not been the solution to unemployment. Africa has been looking to its entrepreneurs to create jobs, but part of the solution might be its own publishing industry.

African writers are, however, exporting their human capital to the West, instead of achieving success back home and contributing to its economy. In her awardwinning book Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie, writes that Africans are “conditioned from birth to look somewhere else.”This is evident in African writers’ choices of metropolitan publishing houses over their own indigenous ones, seeking for global reach and their own economic rewards.

According to Brittle Paper, Americanah, when shifted to an American publishing firm, was able to sell over 500,000 copies sold in only two years. Other African writers have gone to win the Nobel Prize and other prestigious literary awards – Western seals of approval. Although this is a literary success for Africa, it is also an economic loss for it as many jobs back home depend on just a single story. According to Statista, the net revenue of the U.S. book publishing industry is 26 billion dollars. Africa, however, isn’t cashing on the increased global interest in its own stories.  The self-interest of African authors is understandable, as they seek for publishing houses abroad that have the financial capitals and marketing webs to promote their work, but one must consider if authors have an obligation to national development or themselves first.

Furthermore, Africa needs to fix its infrastructure deficit in order to contain its stories. Most households and places of work across Africa experience epileptic power outages. Across Africa, the reliability of electricity is more of an exception than the rule contributing to its reputation of being one of the riskiest places to do business. According to Former United Nations (U.N.)Secretary-General Kofi Anna, Sub-Sahara Africa “has a power generation capacity of 90 gigawatts and half of it is located in one country, South Africa.” This is less than the volume in South Korea where the population is only five percent of sub-Sahara Africa’s. Thus, people have been compelled to seek alternative power sources such as generators which increases electrical bills for businesses and the cost of their outputs making them only accessible to the elite populace. Unreliable power in Africa threatens the growth prospects of the publishing industry and it undermines job creation opportunities.

An infrastructure of bookstores also needs to be built up, and in some parts of Africa, from scratch, for publishing to become a thriving economic activity. When Adichie was asked by a French journalist at a press conference whether there were any bookstores in Nigeria, Pan-African uproar was generated across the continent. Although the question was considered ignorant, it was an opportunity for honest reflection – for Africa’s population size, the number of bookstores is abysmal. Based on 2015 estimates, while there are only 33 bookshops across Lagos, Nigeria (population 21 million), New York has 840 bookstores (population 8.4 million) and London has 360 (population 8.7 million). In Lagos’ case, why so much scarcity admits abundance? Furthermore, most of the bookstores that exist can only be found in highbrow areas isolated from the masses. E-commerce is still picking up on the continent and therefore, publishing houses still heavily rely on bookstores for distribution. Until the infrastructure is put in place to ease the transactions of the book into the hands of customers, publishing in Africa will not reach its full potential.

One cannot, however, solely point fingers at poor infrastructure for the lack of bookstores in Africa. Africa’s reading culture can carry part of the blame. First, while the world’s literary rate is 85 percent, according to the World Bank, the number plunges to 65 percent in Sub-Sahara Africa. That is, one third of people aged 15 above are unable to read. Thus, although Africa claims a lion share of the world population, the community of readers is only a handful compared to the rest of the world. Furthermore, from this community of readers, only a few read for leisure while the rest read subject books. A survey conducted by the Association for Development of education in Africa and the African Publishers estimated that up to 95 percent of books published in Africa were education compared to the more diverse ratio in the West of 60:40 textbooks to non-textbooks. Perhaps, a mushrooming of bookstores across the continent and increasing the reach of literary books to all communities might influence a reading culture improvement, rewriting not only Africa’s economic but social story.

Moreover, the scale and sophistication of book piracy in Africa should have the publishing industry worried. There are cases of the fakes being even better quality than the genuine publications and rarely can buyers spot a difference. Storymoja, a publishing company in Kenya, was shocked to learn that one of their plays was on sale, four weeks prior to its official release. Muthoni Garland, co-founder of Storymjoja explained his ordeal: “the book was stolen from the printer, scanned and was on the streets within a week of approval.” According to the New Publishing Standard, “Kenyan publishers lose $200,000 annually to piracy.Kenya’s challenges do not exist in isolation. Instead, the whip of piracy strikes across the continent and shakes the ground atop which publishing houses stand on. The printing of unauthorized literary work has become a profitable business menacing the economic gains of the publishing industry and costing it credibility issues as writers’ interest to publish their books at home wanes due to fear of being denied royalties from their intellectual property.

Some African publishing companies, however, have success stories to share. Despite obstacles, Cassava Republic, a Nigerian publisher, has outputted more than 50 titles, ranging from a spectrum of genres. Furthermore, it had a handful of titles being exported to the West in 2017. This was a milestone for African literature for rarely does a story travel from Africa to the West unfiltered by the taste palettes of Europeans and American publishers. Cassava Republic represents Africa’s ability to see value in its own stories and crown its own people. Success stories such as Cassava Republic’s, however, should not be limited to the number of fingers on a single hand.

In another award-winning book, Purple Hibiscus, Adichie writes, “that was the problem with our people, papa told us, our priorities were wrong.” In the past, governments across Africa have been too preoccupied with seeking economic development from archetypical lucrative activities that it has given little support to cultural industries. The time is ripe, however, to look at the art of storytelling through contemporary lenses. Nollywood alone, Nigeria’s movie industry, surpassed Hollywood as the word’s second-largest movie industry by volume, according to Fortune, becoming a $3.3 billion sector. Support needs to be afforded to the publishing industry as well, taking a careful look at the opportunities it can afford and investing in infrastructure to exercise its economic muscle. Furthermore, they should shift the problem of book piracy up in their agendas, setting stricter laws on copyright infringement in an effort to curtail the activities of book pirates. Only then might African writers return home and unleash their human capital. Right now, the elders must be bowing their heads, that stories stained with their own cultures have become imported goods from the West. But they know better than anyone, that things that fall apart can always build back up.