African Books and Knowledge Production

African Books and Knowledge Production

African Books and Knowledge Production

Three lively sessions at the 2016 biennial African Studies Association (UK) conference explored the challenges of publishing in Africa, and in relation to African studies in the North.

The focus of the presentations and discussions ranged from embedded structural issues of hierarchies and university ranking systems, through autocratic forms of government, which curtail academic freedom and research, to the more nitty-gritty issues of the dissemination of print and electronic books between African countries – the lack of library budgets, printing infrastructure, postage costs and import taxes were all highlighted. And there was much in between.

The sessions included presentations from leadings scholars and publishers on Africa, including Henning Melber (Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation), Veronica Klipp (Wits Press), Wale Adebanwi (UC Davis), Walter Bgoya (Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, Dar es Salaam), Francois van Schalkwyk (African Minds, South Africa), Miriam Conteh-Morgan (University of Sierra Leone) and Farouk Topan and Stefanie Kobusa (SOAS/Aga Khan Foundation).

Opening the first session, Wale Adebanwi, supported by other scholars of Nigeria including Insa Nolte and Amidu Sanni, made a case for the need for ‘fundamental change’ arguing that it is ‘largely impossible to do knowledge production in Nigeria’ given the autocratic form of the state. There are serious material constraints on researchers who struggle to access essential data and statistics (which are largely not collected), and there are cases of archives being manipulated. Political constraints have largely silenced Nigerians in theoretical debates. This has meant Nigeria’s intellectual power has principally moved to the West, notwithstanding the few scholars who have remained and token efforts by individual researchers to return regularly.

From the other end of the continent, Veronica Klipp painted a more resilient picture of things in South Africa, where there is capacity and resources. One per cent of GDP in invested in higher education and there are recognised research-intensive universities e.g. University of the Witwatersrand has 34 per cent postgraduates. North of the Limpopo there are fewer research universities and ‘African states have really disinvested’. Adebanwi gave Zimbabwe as an example of ‘the worst case’ where you may literally be ‘risking your life to do research’. Walter Bgoya reminded us that higher education had flourished in the 1960s and 1970s in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi but structural adjustment policies had more or less determined that ‘higher education investment is a waste of time’, destroying post-independence African education from its foundation. Now African universities were beginning to reconstruct themselves and ‘Africans do care very much about education’. Other members of the audience further added that African universities are rebuilding themselves as private universities (‘not Ibadan, Dar es Salaam…’) and that many universities (back in Nigeria) are deeply religious.

Klipp and others stressed that the situation in South Africa is however a ‘delicate’ one. The economy is weak, there is a funding crisis in higher education, and a legitimacy crisis when the professoriate is still largely ‘white’. The consultancy culture is rife. Collaborations with the North and dealing with the international market is difficult, although essential, as publishers and authors seek to distribute and circulate their books in Northern markets. Book sales might be strong in South Africa, but authors still tend to care more about circulation and citations in the Northern academic industry. The funding system for research rewards publication in Northern journals more highly than those edited from South Africa, even when such journals are of proven comparable quality (e.g. publishing in Journal of Southern African Studies can ‘count’ for more than publishing in Social Dynamics or African Studies).

Members of the audience mentioned more positive collaborations, e.g. between universities in Addis Ababa and Cairo, and Ghanaian scholars and publishers jointly collaborating with the University of Ghana (might they in future publish in South Africa?). Beth Le Roux, a lecturer and researcher in the history of publishing at Pretoria, brought things back to structural barriers discussing how she struggled to collaborate on her research in book history within the African continent. This was rooted in how her work was funded from South Africa – e.g. she is able to attend a conference in Cambridge, but not in Nairobi.

The second session was organised in association with African Books Collective. Francois van Schalkwyk presented his research, funded by a Carnegie Corporation of New York grant, on African university presses. Overall, Africa is demonstrating increases in knowledge production, measured for example by the number of articles from the continent included in Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science. There are around 52 established university presses in the African continent, however many are not publishing new work. Only seven presses published in 2015 and four in 2014. Twenty-seven have websites, and 21 email addresses. Four out of 52 have some form of Open Access publishing (but all in journals, there is nothing in books). Van Schalkwyk discussed some of the challenges of Open Access publishing in Africa, in which he is involved via his imprint African Minds: the need for core funding, including for marketing and distribution, how to correct the perception that Open Access is synonymous with poor academic quality, and the question of how to do co-publishing when geographical boundaries no longer make sense. Distribution challenges for printed books include ‘how to move books in Africa’ (‘it’s easy to move books internationally’) – authors want to get into African markets, and there are some bookshops in Africa, but publishers can’t get books to them. Even distributing author copies is expensive and unreliable. Meanwhile ‘distributed POD [print on demand] is a pipe dream’ with no on-demand digital printer existing even in South Africa (there was one, which closed down in August).

Raphael Thierry (a literary scholar based at Mannheim) gave a perspective from the francophone sphere – where he argued there has been too much focus on ‘African literature published in France’ rather than on African literary production. France is considered the centre of francophone African publishing, and the metropolitan centre has obscured African literary production whilst exoticising African literature. Meantime sales to the North of books published in francophone Africa represent only a fraction of French books sold and/or donated to the former colonies.

Walter Bgoya and Justin Cox set out some of the possibilities and strategic initiatives that can be taken to redress the publishing imbalances between Africa and the North. First, Bgoya felt that conversations are needed between African publishers, who should to see themselves not only as competitors in a zero-sum game. In scholarly publishing, there is increased collaboration – in Tanzania, there is a consortia of scholarly publishers, and training in digital publishing. There are examples of collaborative local academic production, in Ghana for example. Internationally though, things are more complicated. Northern books are still expensive and discounts not high enough to make books affordable in Africa. Even with high discounts being offered by Northern publishers to African booksellers, the prices at the end might still not be affordable. Bgoya called upon the Associations of African Studies in UK and US to convince their members to reserve their rights for offer to African publishers when negotiating contracts with their Northern publishers. In that way the scholars would be making it relatively easier for African publishers to acquire the rights.

In addition, it would address the danger otherwise that Northern researchers are simply extracting ‘raw materials’ from the continent for production and consumption in African Studies in the North.

Digital rights are global, affecting licensing opportunities. Book donations/’dumping’ was mentioned as a major impediment, as indeed is piracy (including digital piracy), which Kenya-publisher Henry Chakava felt was the main issue for book publishing in his country.  

African Books Collective (ABC), directed by Justin Cox, distributes over 2,000 books from Africa, including 900 ebooks. Only two university presses (Nairobi and Namibia) regularly publish new work and so independent and commercial publishers fill some of the gap. Writers’ organisations, small literary publishers and NGOs make up the rest of the list. ABC adds 200-300 new titles a year, so ‘a lot is happening’ and international sales of African books are increasing, particularly in the US. Sales are much lower in the UK/Europe however, with only two libraries (the British Library and Cambridge) engaging on a comparable level to university libraries in North America. Library ebook collections are driving sales of African published books, and are having a positive effect on print sales. Print books are generally not sold outside of the library markets.

Overall, ABC sees itself as being successful outside Africa, but less so within Africa. Some ebook collections are sold in the continent, notably in Kenya, Rwanda and Egypt, but usage is lower in Africa as compared with the US. He agreed that there is a need for digital training for librarians. Libraries also suffer from lack of budgets, and donations (including latterly from China) ‘are killing the market’. More generally Cox felt there needs to be more interaction between lecturers in Africa and their publishers – about materials suitable for teaching, commissioning textbooks etc. – as is common at the (US) African Studies Association conference, for example. There could be more energy in African universities in this respect and publishers in Africa need to promote their work. ‘This is not that hard, with commitment.’

The final session, chaired by Jonathan Harle from INASP (, considered digital resources and repositories in and for Africa. Joed Elich from Brill in the Netherlands opened the session with an overview of recent developments and the possibilities and examples of partnerships between public universities and private-sector publishers (such as Brill) where there is need for long-term investment in digital resources.

Miriam Conteh-Morgan presented the case of setting-up an institutional repository at the University of Sierra Leone which came from an initiative to develop open educational resources in the country. This has gained support from historians, staff at the National Archives and senior staff in the university administration. The repository was not yet live, but there was much enthusiasm and support for her work. Farouk Topan and Stefania Kolbusa presented their work to digitise Swahili manuscripts (including in Arabic script) and texts for a new Kiswahili Centre, which is part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, The Aga Khan University being established in Arusha, Tanzania. Rachel King (University of Cambridge) presented her work on curating historical archives in Lesotho supported by the British Library Endangered Archives programme.

The concluding discussion highlighted that the African higher education landscape is changing: there are more private universities, and more private/foundation initiatives for large-scale digitisation projects. Investments in infrastructure and electronic resources are promising, as the Sierra Leone example demonstrates. Education is gaining priority in the continent again though universities, research and publications systems will probably develop differently from how they were in the 1960/70s. Much remains to be discussed, and to be done.