Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 24, December 1998 


African Books Collective, the British Council and African book fairs

Mary Jay
Mary Jay is Consultant to African Books Collective, The Jam Factory, 27 Park End Street, Oxford OX1 1HU, England. Tel +44 1865 726686, fax +44 1865 793298, e-mail:,

The British Council, in a new departure, sponsored African Books Collective (ABC) exhibits at the Kampala National Bookweek Festival in November 1997, at The Africa Centre in London in December 1997, and at the first Nairobi International Book Fair in September 1998. This co-operation followed discussions between the British Council and ABC about the role of the organisations in the publishing and book industries in Africa.

ABC's work aims to strengthen autonomous and indigenous African publishing - and of course ABC is founded, owned and governed by autonomous, indigenous African publishers. A persistently weakening factor for African publishers is the traditional dominance of multinational - notably British - publishers in the backbone textbook market.

The British Council's publishing and information sector strategy aims to work in partnership with UK organisations in order to `increase Britain's role in the global information society by promoting the best of British publishing and information services and products, and to help close the north-south information gap'. At the same time, one of the objectives in helping to close the gap is `supporting the development of information and publishing infrastructures in overseas countries'.

Discussions between ABC and the British Council in 1997 centred on how the British Council could in reality support indigenous publishing infrastructures if at the same time it has a remit to create greater market share for UK publishing in overseas markets. In the same year the British Council carried out a major evaluation of its `Information Services Management' work, and was keen to promote better understanding and partnerships. ABC's view was that we should co-operate to ensure that at least British Council programmes in Africa should not work against the interests and needs of indigenous African publishers; and that, if possible, they should work in support of local capacity building. In this spirit the British Council sponsored its first ever books exhibit in Africa of exclusively African-published (ABC) books - not a British book in sight!

Using materials and information on ABC member publishers, ABC itself, APNET, African booksellers, ZIBF and the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, British Council designers made attractive display panels for the Kampala stand. The exhibit had the merit of showcasing books from many other African countries, always a practical difficulty within Africa.

This exhibit was subsequently mounted at a special event at the Africa Centre in London, hosted by the British Council, and the whole exercise was remounted - showcasing more new African-published books - at the first Nairobi International Book Fair, organised by the Kenya Publishers' Association.

The Kampala event was a national book week which also attracted regional representation, and its focuses were clear: on the national efforts to enhance literacy, availability of books and reading materials, and strengthening the local publishing industry. Nairobi, by contrast, was called an `international' book fair. The nomenclature was more a statement of the aims of the organisers than the reality of representation. With the comparative development of Kenya's publishing industry within Africa it makes clear sense for there to be a Nairobi book fair, and it will easily attract regional representation, as indeed it did. Given that trading as such is not difficult, Nairobi could well be a viable trading place which in time could attract wider than regional interest.

In addition to the pre-eminent place of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair as the African marketplace, there is room for book weeks and fairs to flourish nationally and regionally throughout Africa - the Ghana and Dakar fairs, for example. But ZIBF suffers the disadvantage of Zimbabwe's continuing taxes on imported books, and the difficulties for international publishers of collecting in hard currencies. So there is a vacancy for a venue where actual international trading, concrete sales and business could take place. Organisers of `international' books fairs, as in Ghana and Nairobi, will however need to be clear precisely what their objectives are in using this word.

Aspects of the apparent dichotomy in British Council policy were later discussed at the Bellagio Publishing Network meeting in Copenhagen in December 1998, and one point then made was that the British Council should evaluate its promotion work in Africa against the question `Will this have a negative effect on African publishing?' It was recommended too that the British Council's work with African publishers should concentrate on what the publishers themselves define.

Meantime, let a thousand book events flower!

[BPN, No. 24, 1998, p. 4]

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