Akoss Ofori-Mensah

Sub-Saharan Publishers, Ghana

Akoss Ofori-Mensah is a Ghanian publisher and the founder of Sub Saharan Publishers, Accra. Akoss has served on the Ghana Book Publishers Association as the Honorary Secretary and Vice President. She was elected President of the Association from 2003-2005. She has been a member of the African Publishers Network (APNET), the IBBY Executive Committee, and sits on African Books Collective's Council of Management.

African book production has often been criticized as poor quality, what are some of the developments in the area now?

The days of African published books being of poor quality are over. Henry Chakava of East African Educational Publishers once wrote that ”Books published in Africa do not travel beyond their national borders. A cursory look at most of these will reveal glaring spelling errors and bad grammar even in the preliminary pages and blurb.”(1997). At the Bologna Book Fair in 2004, Tainie Mundondo of the African Publishers Network (APNET) put up a beautiful display of African children’s books. We went out for lunch and on our return we found that the stand had been stripped bare! Everything was gone, including the APNET banner! We almost fainted! Formerly, nobody would have touched the stand; African children’s books in the 1980s were not worth stealing.

The first Sub-Saharan books were printed in the UK and Belgium; but when I met Book Printing Press from Mauritius in Harare, I changed to them. Their prices were far lower than what I used to get from the UK. A few years later the company broke up, so I found new printers in Eastern Europe. The Far East and Eastern Europe have excelled as the places for cheap and high quality printing. Many African publishers print in India, Turkey, Dubai, China, Malaysia etc. The only problem with the Far East is that the shipment takes too long to arrive in Africa. In fact even the big time publishers of Europe and America print in the Far East.

Books are difficult commodities to sell and if the production quality is not up to international standards they become impossible to sell: even if the content is top-class material. People do not look at this if it is shoddily produced.

The Ghanaian government has put some measures in place to protect local industry hasn’t it?

Several factors make it cheaper to print outside Ghana than internally. First of all Ghana does not produce paper and other printing inputs, such as ink, films and plates. Secondly, there are import duties on paper and print materials, whereas the printed book comes into the country without any duty because Ghana is a signatory to the Bern Convention/Florence Agreement.

When the Ministry of Education in Ghana divested itself of textbook publishing and invited local publishers to develop the books in 2004, one of the conditions stipulated in the contracts was that 20% of the work must be printed in Ghana. Only the Teachers’ Guides were printed locally: the successful publishers printed their books outside. In 2007, all textbooks were still printed outside. The printers in Ghana were extremely bitter. To boost the local printing industry in Ghana, the government passed a law in 2015 making the printing of Ghanaian school textbooks outside Ghana a criminal offence. To make it easier and cheaper for the printers, the government has removed the VAT on paper and printing materials meant for textbooks.

There have been a myriad of donor and government supported literary and educational initatives in West Africa. Who do you think have been the key players in the area?

The measures put in place by local governments, such as that of Ghana's Education Service, in collaboration with outside agencies over the last ten years provide an example of how inside and outside players can interact to bring about beneficial change.

Education in Africa has been supported by donors for quite some time and in the 1980s The World Bank insisted that governments/Ministries of Education should divest themselves of book publishing and allow private publishers to take over. Immediately all foreign publishers nationalized as local publishers. Other new players came on the scene and book publishing started to develop.

There has been a concern to improve literacy among children in Ghana over the last two decades. Between 2000-2017 there has been some major projects in Ghana supported by USAID and UNICEF to promote early literacy among children .. The first, called EQUALL (Education Quality for All) and the second, NALAP (National Literacy Acceleration Programme). These projects were based on the belief that if a child learns to read and write in his/her mother tongue he/she can learn other languages much more easily. Ghanaian published books were translated into local languages for use in the projects for the primary schools. The officers in charge talked to the publishers whose books were selected and negotiated a flat fee for all. The project paid about US$100) per title. The publishers involved did not make a fuss because it was a national project (a kind of corporate social responsibility). These local language readers were distributed to the primary schools.

Earlier, in 2006-2010, a similar project was undertaken to produce early learning Teaching & Learning Materials (TLMS),again supported by the USAID-Barbara Bush Project. The materials were developed by the Ghana Education Service and staff from Chicago University. The materials developed were based on the Ghana Education Service curriculum.

In late 2015, USAID, through an organization called Fhi360 and the Ghana Education Service again purchased early reading materials in both local languages and English for distribution to kindergartens and lower primary schools in the country. Over 3,500,000 books in English were purchased for kindergarten and lower primary schools together with over 750,000 books in local languages.

Currently, UNICEF has ordered more copies of the same books to supplement what USAID bought. All these books were written and published in Ghana by Ghanaians. Publishers had to distribute the books to their assigned schools and produce evidence of delivery before they were paid.

Some NGOs also produce such readers to support their programmes: for example Biblionef has produced the CAT AND DOG series and Kathy Knowles, of the Osu Library Fund, often produces readers for her libraries.

It is well-known that the many years of civil wars destroyed practically everything in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Once peace was restored, the country had to start again from scratch. When the Canadian Organization for Development through Education (CODE) started their reading programme in the region they were buying readers from Sub-Saharan Publishers (SSP). Then they had locals to write and illustrate stories. SSP organized the design and layout for them. Once the print files were ready we sent them to a printer of CODE’s choice in the Far East to print the books. We advised CODE to get them an Apple computer and the Indesign software: our designer then used to go to Monrovia for short, 10-day breaks to teach young people there book design.

Africa writers, illustrators and publishers are busily working to produce books which meet their respective national syllabus requirements. Textbooks need to be culturally relevant for the students. The Ghana Education Textbook Policy, for example, stipulates that at least 70% of the content of a textbook must be written by Ghanaians. Thus textbook curricula are mostly country specific.

You are well-known for your rights selling and buying, your children’s list these days is not even restricted to stories written in Ghana. What have been some of your recent successes?

I have personally published a reader written by an Ethiopian, and illustrated by a Ghanaian. The book was launched by the Ethiopian embassy in Accra. I just sold the rights for that book to Rwanda and it has been published in Kinyanrwanda. I have also bought the rights for books from South Africa and published them in Ghana. In fact I dare say that I have sold more copies of Niki Daly’s Jamela’s Dress in Ghana than Tafelberg has done in South Africa.

Gizi Gizo is an example of a reader written by an American intern working with the Zongo Community in Cape Coast. The story is based on the desire to use water as a means to improve the quality of life for the Zongo people. Zongo settlements are areas in West African towns and cities, inhabited predominantly by settlers from the northern sahel region formerly dominated by Hausas from Northern Nigeria. The language in these zongos is predominantly Hausa.

The Stories Spread across the World is another example from afar which has come back to Ghana. It is a typical Ghanaian folk tale taken to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. I first saw the book in Guadalajara, flipped through and guessed the tale. I have had it translated into English and published it. The story was originally written in Portuguese and illustrated by a Brazilian.

Sosu's Call has been published in Castillian and Catalan in Spain, in English in North America, South Africa and the UK, in Portuguese in Brazil, in German, Danish , Italian, in French, Czech, Kiswahili, in Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan and Simplified Chinese in Mainland China. In fact I sold six of the Meshack Asare titles to Rainbird Educational Publishers ten years ago at the first Cape Town Book Fair in 2006.

Irrespective of where a book is written or the language, once people know it and get interested in it, it will travel.

Donors are pushing for change in Africa, particularly around the provision of Teaching and Learning Materials (TLMs). What are some of your thoughts about some of the initatives proposed from where you sit as an African publisher publishing in Ghana?

Often there is a belief that those who fail to embrace the digital TLMS now will become obsolete or fall behind. Some content might interest learners and teachers; other content may not. Although digital books and TLMS may eventually replace printed books, it is likely to be a gradual process. In fact, from the experience of African Books Collective, the rush for ebooks has plateaued and the demand for the printed book has grown.

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) cannot behave like the proverbial ostrich so far as digital TLMs are concerned; the development in new technologies vis a vis teaching and learning materials in SSA cannot be overlooked. However, the choices are neither simple nor cost efficient, and there is perhaps no viable substitute for the traditional book, at least for the moment. Over the next decade or two, the most cost-effective approach may be a combination of printed materials and digital TLMS, especially for the teaching of science.

For NGO’s operating on donor funding this is quite feasible, but for commercial publishers it might be difficult. A meeting with commercial publishers to discuss the issue and find mutually acceptable ways is necessary.

The expense involved in the digital migration vis a vis the traditional book must also be considered. The cost of computers, tablets, phones, etc. In addition to the cost of set-up, should be compared with the cost of funding print runs and distribution to decide which is more cost effective.

It may be that the cost of computers, tablets, phones, etc., plus the cost of set-up, is the more expensive option. Besides, the issue of electric power is a real problem in Africa. Nigeria is the biggest producer of oil in Africa, but it might interest you to know that people are always queueing for petrol while practically everybody in Nigeria owns a generator. In some parts of Lagos it is difficult to sleep at night due to the cacophony of noise from generators. At the same time the cost of replacement of spoilt computers might be more costly that that of printed books.

There are large numbers of children in rural communities. In Ghana electricity is expensive, and the supply is so irregular that even industry cannot support it, while the domestic users cannot afford to pay for it. If a family cannot buy electricity for the home how is a child going to read on his /her computer, or tablet, or charge her phone.? How does he/she get the money for the internet café?

Then the cost of replacement of spoilt computers/tablets, phones, etc., must be taken into account as against reprints. Elementary school teachers will also have to be ICT literate to be able to teach digital TLMs. That is another huge investment required in teacher training.

I believe that the book as we know it will stay with us for many generations to come. You can go to bed with your book: when you fall asleep it falls down on the bed or on the floor. When you wake up it is still there, intact. You cannot do that with your computer.

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