Spotlighting Africa's potential at Bologna Children's Book Fair 2022
Africa has the makings of a true publishing powerhouse: a young, tech-savvy population, bullish economies, an exploding internet development rate. The product of millennia of storytelling, Africa’s innumerable cultures and languages have defied colonialism’s strictures to survive and evolve.
So, what’s the hold-up? Why does the trope ‘Africans don’t read’ still have currency in 2022? What can be done to level up African book culture and get it to where it should be?
These questions and others were explored during the first ever Spotlight on Africa programme at the 59th Bologna Children’s Book Fair (BCBF), from 21-24 March 2022.
The International Publishers Association (IPA) – which manages the APIF – partnered with BCBF, the Italian Trade Agency, and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, to bring publishers from Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe.
It was a chance for African children’s publishers to network and hustle, exhibit their literary wares, and build knowledge. Among them were APIF winners Book Aid International, Book Bunk, Cassava Republic Press, Chirikure Chirikure, eKitabu, Learners Girls Foundation, and Save the Children, plus a gamut of other African publishing figures, including authors, illustrators, and innovators.
We staged three public talks on 22 March to explore African publishing innovation, storytelling as a lifeline for vanishing languages, and developing a recreational reading culture that carries into the home.
Even as they listed the challenges, the panelists exuded optimism about African publishing’s future, bolstered by knowing that their invitation to Bologna betokened strong international interest in their success.
Technologist Ama Dadson, who's CEO of Ghanaian audiobook pioneer AkooBooks, said one hurdle was the sheer vastness of a continent whose landmass is greater than the USA, China and India combined.
‘If I publish a book in Nigeria and want to know what’s being published in South Africa or Kenya, it’s very difficult. However, we have a big untapped potential in the use of mobile phones as a channel to distribute books to more people,’ she told the audience.
Dadson said she hoped to emulate the winning formula of Netflix and Spotify with books, despite knowing the difficulties of making a profitable subscription-based book service.
There are more than 2,000 languages spoken in Africa, some of them perilously close to extinction. Part of the problem is that languages with negligible markets don’t make it to print beyond dictionaries and bibles, the irony of which didn't escape Tanzanian publisher Mkuki Bgoya, of Mkuki na Nyota.
‘There are 120 tribes in Tanzania and Swahili is the official language,’ he said. ‘It’s widely spoken, but not widely written. It is in many ways, a minority language in term of publication. Because Tanzania has 120 tribes the official policy was to unify the country under one language. Now, many of the other languages in the country have never been written. But what is interesting is almost all those languages have bible translations. So the irony of colonialism is that there’s at least one document from which to construct the basics of preservation for those languages. I publish primarily in Swahili as well as a large dictionary and a small dictionary of two indigenous languages.’
Sandra Tamele, a Mozambican literary translator who founded the independent press Editora Trinta Zero Nove, said preservation of non-written languages required the creation of an oral canon.
‘Once you verbalize your books, you can reach the 37% of the population that’s illiterate. You can make books available as audiobooks for the smaller languages. Many children like me grew up in households where stories were told and part of those stories were songs … I may not always remember a story but I remember the song. There’s an oral record with the written one.’
So complex a set of challenges can only be tackled with consistent effort over time, and keeping African publishing on international agendas at events like Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Encouragingly, the Italian government has pledged a multiyear package of financial support for Africa-focused initiatives at BCBF, and the IPA will continue to play its part wherever it can.