The 24th Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF), which took place from September 27 to October 1 at the Sarit Expo Center in Nairobi, Kenya, held the first international rights fair in East Africa. In partnership with the Kenya Publishers Association, eKitabu—a business that delivers accessible content, software, and programs—sponsored 12 publishing professionals from across Africa, Europe, and North America to meet with publishers, authors, and booksellers at the book fair. The flagship ambassadors came from Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda, the U.S., the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, the U.K., and France.
This first year has laid the foundation to open networks across the continent and internationally. By creating a serious rights fair on the continent, the NIBF hopes to lay a pathway for African writers to be published in other African countries and globally.
Along with the African Publishers Network (APNET) and the Kenya Publishers Association, “we want to grow to scale and sustain this initiative for 2024 and beyond,” says Mercy Kirui, senior manager, content at eKitabu. “We hope to build a community of people who will engage with us throughout the year to make this bigger and better.”
Participants characterized the rights fair as a success, regardless of how many deals result from the meetings. “Rights fairs always occur outside the continent,” says Goretti Kyomuhendo, publisher at Africa Writers Trust Ltd in Uganda. “Because African publishers experience major hurdles—both financial and visa-related—to attend rights fairs in Europe or North America, other rights fairs always seem exclusionary to us.”
If geographic location is the first positive aspect to this fair, the second is simply the opportunity to sell rights. “Because there is no enabling infrastructure for books to travel physically, the only way that books are going to travel on the continent, let alone to Europe and America, is through rights,” Kyomuhendo says. Trade barriers, national borders, lack of infrastructure, and language differences all create enormous challenges for Africans to buy books written by African writers. “Rwanda is just 15 minutes from Uganda,” she says, “yet I buy Rwandan writers in Europe. I am reading a book by a writer from Botswana. I bought it in London.”
Valeria Paolini, co-founder of Italian literary agency Passaparola and lead editor of Horizons Project with Incipit23, described her experience as eye-opening: “There is a very stark difference between what I saw and what they have you believe is ‘Africa’ in the west.” This year’s initiative, she says, is “an ambitious step to make this a fair to attend, and I hope it becomes a hot spot for agents, publishers, and writers to get things done.”
Ultimately, the fair’s success will depend on the ability of the ambassadors to maintain the connections, relationships, and energy forged at this initial book fair. A few rights deals will go a long way to create excitement to support this initiative for 2024 and beyond.
Mutesi Gasana, founder of Ubuntu Publishers in Rwanda, is currently negotiating rights to one of her titles with a publisher in Ghana as a result of the rights fair. “It is a milestone,” she says.
These kinds of intracontinental rights deals are exactly what Raphaël Thierry of the Ægitna Literary Agency in France is looking to explore with the new relationships he created at the fair. “The market is not just global north to global south circulation,” he explains. “Local initiatives are arising here. We can switch to a new picture of the book trade that is globalized so it’s not just [conceptualized as] Frankfurt or London, but it’s Nairobi, Lagos, Sharjah…”
The challenge is exhilarating. “Frankfurt has been running for 75 years,” Kyomuhendo says. “And we are just beginning to do it on the continent—how exciting can that be?”
Jessica Powers is publisher at Catalyst Press, a North American and South African based publishing company that focuses on publishing African writers. She was a 2023 ambassador to the Nairobi International Book Fair.