African publishing is gaining a higher global profile early in 2019. Numerous African writers are getting the star treatment from top publishers abroad for their latest works. In the U.S., these include Ghanaian writer Ayesha Harruna Attah, author of The Hundred Wells of Salaga (Other Press); Nigeria’s Chigozie Obioma, author of An Orchestra of Minorities (Little, Brown); and Zimbabwean writer Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, author of House of Stone (Norton)—and that’s just since the start of January. In addition, several publishers have started to develop lists dedicated to publishing works from Africa in the U.S., including Nigeria-based Cassava Republic Press and the U.S.’s Catalyst Press and the Mantle.
The publishing industry is also becoming more of an economic driver in Africa, contributing as much as $1 billion annually to GDP on the continent, according to Nigerian Publishers Association president Gbadega Adedapo. Speaking in advance of a seminar on sustainable development for African publishers run by the International Publishers Association in Lagos last May, Adedapo went so far as to claim that the industry is growing at a cumulative rate of 6% per year across the continent’s 54 countries.
Alexander Nderitu, PEN Kenya Centre’s deputy secretary general, makes no such bold statements. In compiling “Changing the Literary Map of Africa,” a report surveying African publishing released earlier this month (and downloadable from the author’s website), he aggregated a wide variety of perspectives on key topics related to the industry, such as the legacy of colonialism in publishing, the growing tension between diaspora African writers and those who stay at home, and the need for more African book prizes.
Among the challenges that face African publishing, according to Nderitu, is the size of the continent, which is home to 1.3 billion people representing some 3,000 ethnic groups with distinct languages—many of which have no extensive written record, published literature, or libraries. Radio has long been helpful disseminating information and education in Africa, and, Nderitu notes, story hours, in which radio hosts read directly from books, have been popular. As a result, the podcasting and audiobook boom that has swept the U.S. is also taking off in Africa. Several startup companies on the continent are making a play for listeners. These include AkooBooks Audio in Ghana, eKitabu in Kenya, and OkadaBooks in Nigeria.
E-books, on the other hand, have yet to gain much traction on the continent. Though Africa as a whole has an internet penetration rate of 35%, or approximately 450 million people, the large international e-book distributors have yet to establish much of presence there outside of Egypt and South Africa; even more rarely are e-book stores customized to a particular country or region’s content or currency. Piracy, in digital and print, is a persistent problem.
One nonprofit that has had some success addressing the lack of access to e-books is Worldreader, which brings digital libraries to underserved communities in Africa, Asia, India, Latin America, and the Middle East. Since 2010, it has created a library of 35,000 titles through partnerships with 425 publishers around the world, including 162 in Africa. Worldreader has paid more than $2 million to publishers in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Jordan for their content.
In Africa, Worldreader’s work has been focused on Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria; in Nigeria, the app has attracted 335,000 monthly users. A recent survey by the nonprofit released at the end of January, entitled “The State of Digital Publishing: Facts and Figures from Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria,” noted that African publishers are keen to publish more books digitally: “Publishers perceive the biggest benefits of digital publishing as access to international markets, access to a wider audience, revenue generation, and the creation of accessible content.” Despite the perceived benefits, which also include marginally faster production times and lower production costs, the biggest obstacles remain a lack of know-how and resources.
To address the range of challenges African publishers are facing, the IPA has taken an interest in fostering publishing on the continent. After the success of its first event in Lagos last year, the association is hosting a follow-up seminar, “Sustainable Development for African Publishers,” in Nairobi, June 14–15.