Kenya’s dominance over the African publishing scene manifested itself when a Kenyan publisher was elected to the board of African Publishers Network (Apnet), towards the end of last month.
Lawrence Njagi, the chief executive of Mountain Top Publishers, was elected chairman of the board while Kiarie Kamau, the managing director of East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), is the new East African regional representative of Apnet. Kiarie is also the chairman of Kenya Publishers Association (KPA), taking over from Njagi in April this year.
Apnet is the umbrella body of publishers in Africa, made up of 55 nations. Membership to Apnet is through national publisher’s bodies like KPA in Kenya. Apnet is in turn a member of the International Publishers Association (IPA).
Apart from taking care of the welfare of African publishers, Apnet promotes the book and book related issues in the continent. “Apnet also promotes cultural and linguistic exchanges in Africa,” explains Njagi. “We also ensure that African publishing gets spotlight at international forums, like the Frankfurt Book Fair, which was held in October.”
On his part, Kiarie considers his election to Apnet’s board “a double blessing," having also been elected chairman of the Kenya Publishers Association this year. “Two major posts of leadership in Publishing in Kenya and in Africa is no mean achievement, more so happening within the same year,” he says.
Before being elected chairman of Apnet, Njagi had been the treasurer, a position he had occupied for 12 years. He explains that before 2010, Apnet had been moribund, being operated by one person without the involvement of other members. “The first thing we did upon taking back control of Apnet was to put up structures and to ensure the body was running professionally,” explains Njagi.
One of the early things they did then was to ensure that Apnet’s secretariat was reverted back to Ghana, where the Western African country had accorded the body a diplomatic status. “We also devolved leadership of the body to the different regions of the continent, each with a secretariat,” adds Njagi.
The devolved regions are Eastern Africa, Western Africa, Central Africa, Northern Africa and Francophone Africa.
Due to the influential role he played within the organisation, it was thus not too difficult to see why members chose Njagi to head the body when the first real elections were held. “Right now, I am chairman-elect,” he explains. “I will take full charge of the office in January.”
Now that he will heading the continent-wide body for an initial period of two years, Njagi habours lofty dreams for Apnet. “First of all, we need to have a strong voice when it comes to policy decisions on books in Africa,” says Njagi, who is also a member of the Executive Committee of the International Publishers Association (IPA). “We shall be working very closely with the African Union secretariat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to ensure that matters relating to culture, where books fall, are taken with the seriousness they deserve.”
The issue of publishing in African languages, though controversial at times, is quite close to Njagi’s heart and therefore Apnet. “As much as we have languages like English and French, which unite us, we need to strengthen our indigenous languages; and we can only do that through publishing them. We have a lot that unites Africans through our cultures which are carried through language,” he explains.
He gives the example of the Sharjah Book Fair, in the United Arab Emirates, which heavily publishes books in the Arabic language. This, he says allows for cultural exchange as a lot of books are translations. “The Sharjah Book Fair has grown into one of the biggest fairs in the world and they have the good fortune of being supported by their government, with the ruler of Sharjah being its patron,” adds Njagi.
“Through Apnet, we will seek to strengthen intra-African book trade,” says Njagi. “This can be done through the selling of rights as well as translations. For example, a children’s book from Nigeria can be republished in Kenya, under rights. That way Kenyan children will appreciate the Nigerian way of life. The same can be done with Kenyan books in Nigeria. That way, we bring about cohesion and understanding among Africans.”
Perhaps the most ambitious and more urgent task for Njagi as the chair of Apnet, is to ensure that every year, each of the six regions holds a book festival, where all members participate. “For example Kenya, through KPA, would host the Eastern Africa Regional Book Fair, where Apnet members exhibit their books for free,” he explains. “The following year would be the turn of another region until all the regions have held their fairs and the cycle starts all ever again, this time in a different country.”
For Kenya to be elected to the helm of Africa’s Apex publishing body is not by fluke. Njagi attributes this to the fact that Kenya is respected in Africa and is ‘trusted to lead other African countries’. “From the time of Henry Chakava, Kenya has played a leading role in African publishing,” says Njagi. “Many Kenyan publishers have branches in most Eastern and Central African countries. This speaks to our superiority in terms of publishing.”
Kiarie concurs: “This is a strong statement that Kenya is at the apex of Publishing in Africa… Having attended several regional book fairs and interacted with publishers from other parts of Africa, I can confidently say that we are miles ahead of the rest,” he says. “Other countries are still under the control of foreign multinationals. Here in Kenya, indigenous publishing firms call the shots, so to speak. In terms of quality, our locally produced books compete favourably with those from other parts of the world - Europe, USA, Asia, and Australia.”
As the Eastern African point man, Kiarie wishes to see more collaborations and partnerships between publishers from different countries in the region. “I would also work to promote buying and selling of Rights, a business line that is largely unexplored in this part of the world. I would want to see more publishing of Kiswahili creative works, especially in Uganda and Rwanda.”
Kiarie also hopes to reintroduce training of publishing staff – in all aspects of publishing – ‘in order to prepare them for 21st century opportunities and challenges.’
Books, Kiarie explains, have a huge role to play in enhancing regional cooperation. “When we were growing up, we learnt a lot about Uganda from books like Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. We learned about Tanzania from the works of Said Ahmed Mohamed. Most East Africans have appreciated Kenya’s fight for independence through Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s works,” he explains.
This kind of interaction, he adds, creates interest from an early age, and promotes mutual understanding and cooperation later in life. “Today, learners in the different East African countries still study set books from neighbouring countries. This is a good way of promoting cooperation.”
Other appointments to the Apnet board include Asare Konadu Yamoah, from Ghana, as the vice chairman, Lukman Dauda, from Nigeria, who replaces Njagi as treasurer and Maureen Lynda Masamba, from Malawi as secretary.
The regional representatives are Kwabena Agyempong, from Ghana, representing Western Africa, John Paul Yohane, from Malawi, representing Central Africa, Mpuka Radinku (South Africa), representing Southern Africa, Mohamed Radi (Egypt) representing Northern Africa and Anges Felix N’dakpri (Cote D’Ivoire) representing Francophone Africa.