Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 22, July 1998 


Uganda's book industry: flourishing without roots

James Tumusiime

James Tumusiime is Vice-Chairperson of APNET and Managing Director, Fountain Publishers Ltd, PO Box 488, Kampala, Uganda. Fax +256 41 251160, e-mail:

Go into one of the few bookshops scattered around Kampala city and get to the shelves with primary school textbooks. You will quickly conclude that Uganda's publishing industry is one of the most well developed in Africa: Glossy and colourful covers for textbooks of all levels in primary education, full colour pictures on high quality paper in all books, and a nice attractive finish for all the books. And that is not all: For each of the four subjects that are examined in the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE); mathematics, English, social studies and science, a minimum of three titles per subject is offered by the more than ten private publishers who supply books to the Ministry of Education and Sports. Some of the subjects attract as many as six recommended course books, with an equal number of supplementary textbooks.

To the casual observer, this is a tremendous achievement for an industry that was in total ruins less than five years ago. This is in stark contrast with the situation in many African countries where the book industry is in total disarray. A glance in the bookshops of many neighbouring countries reveals very few books available per subject, with the quality of production of those books being far below that of the Ugandan ones.

The apparent good news of Uganda's book industry is very much in line with those of many other sectors in Uganda's economy. Its decision to liberalise its economy in the early 1990s has seen many outsiders coming to invest in various economic activities in the economy. In the education sector, suppliers of books have grown from two publishers who used to supply most of the education books, to over ten companies doing it now.

Most of these are British-based publishing houses including well-known ones like Macmillan, Longman, Heinemann, Oxford University Press, Thomas Nelson and, to a lesser but growing extent, Cambridge University Press and Evans. Some Kenyan-based publishers have also increased their activity in the Ugandan market and, for the first time in many years, some three indigenous publishers are also supplying up to 10 per cent of the officially procured books.

Many of these publishers have concentrated on publishing primary school textbooks, thanks to an ongoing donor-supported SUPER (Support to Uganda Primary Education Reform) programme whose main funder is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Between 1993 and 1997, about $20 million had been spent under the programme in three procurement cycles. More procurement cycles are expected in the future as more donors including the World Bank are expected to come in to support the well publicised Universal Primary Education (UPE).

With all that money going to the book industry, publishers have responded with matching vigour. Marketing vehicles bearing publishers names in bold letters continue to comb the countryside, visiting individual schools and addressing teachers' meetings, to popularise their books. This is no mean task if one has to visit more than 8000 government-aided primary schools in remote areas of the country, where roads are not that good. Yet the publishers have no choice but to visit the schools, or their books would not be selected through the book selection forms which are sent by the Ministry of Education to all schools.

Thanks to the book procurement policy, which was hammered out between USAID officials, the government and the publishers' association, a list of books vetted by the ministry is presented to schools with their prices. Each school will have its allocation of funds indicated and the total cost of books it selects ought to match its allocation. This policy was adopted to break the monopoly of two publishers who previously dominated the textbook market. It was hoped the policy would enhance the quality of books and bring down prices through competition.

Five years after the policy was instituted, some of its achievements have been spectacular. The quality of books has improved tremendously because of competition due to more publishers being allowed to present their books for selection. Another achievement of the industry is that it has brought publishers closer to the end users of their products. Through promotional visits, publishers' representatives discuss the contents of their books with teachers and offer guidance on how to use them.

On the face of it, therefore, the National Book Policy and the SUPER project have put high-quality books on the desks of Uganda's school children. The book:student ratio, which in some schools was as low as 1:20, is slowly being raised and hopefully will reach as high as 1:2 or, if all projections are realised and donor enthusiasm is maintained, even reach the ideal 1:1. When that target is realised, the donors will have realised their objective, but Uganda's book industry will not.

Come the end of the project, and questions will be asked: where is the vigorous book industry that churned out all the primary schoolbooks we see around? Where are Ugandan literature books? Ugandan children's books and political books? And the answer will be a disappointing; There is little evidence of it here! Why? Because the publishing industry that benefited from the project funds had no roots in Uganda.

The truth is that over 90 per cent of all the books distributed in Uganda schools are published by British-based multinational houses whose presence in the country is merely symbolic. Although each of the multinational companies has a local counterpart the partnership is lopsided. The whole editorial process and the printing take place abroad. The local companies are only used for marketing. As a result, hardly any book editors, illustrators, or graphic artists exist in the country. Most local printers rarely get the opportunity to handle the lucrative textbook tenders. Even the few local publishers who are involved in the tenders print most of their books in Kenya or South Africa. A chicken-egg situation has inevitably developed where printers cannot invest in modern book printing machinery because publishers do not use their services; and where publishers cannot use local printers because they are not adequately equipped to handle large print-runs. Ultimately, the local printing industry will have benefited nothing by the time the donor projects wind up.

But it is not just the printing aspect of Uganda's book chain that has had a raw deal in the country's honeymoon with the donors. One would have expected the huge turnover in book procurement to be reflected in the fortunes of bookshops. This happens not to be the case. Instead, the bookshops lament whenever a book procurement cycle is around the corner, because their would-be customers get free books and, as a result, stop buying from the bookshops. This is due to the government policy of providing free books to primary schools. Under this policy, the Ministry of Education buys books from publishers, consolidates them and delivers them free to schools. That way, the national bookshop network has been strangled.

Uganda's is a stereotype model of donor-supported book industries in third world countries, which model is now discredited because it does not ensure sustainability of book supplies to schools when donor programmes are over. It is inconceivable how a country without a local publishing industry, where publishing skills are not developed; with no viable book printing industry; and no bookshop network can hope to provide books to its schools without perpetually depending on donors. Such mentality creates a sense of dependency in an industry that is strategic to the country's development.

For as long as the donor projects are around, foreign suppliers of books will be around too. But when these projects end, as they often do, those publishers - local or multinational - with genuine roots in the country may be the only ones to stick around. But even these may not survive since the key pillars that support a viable publishing industry are missing in Uganda. [end]  [BPN, no 22, 1998, p 12.]

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