Henry Chakava

East African Publishers, Kenya

After graduating from the University of Nairobi in 1972, Henry Chakava was looking at postgraduate scholarship offers from local and international universities. While thinking through his options, his lecturer at the Department of Literature, Professor Andrew Gurr, arranged a temporary job at the Nairobi office of Heinemann Educational Books Limited (HEB). This temporary job instead became a life dedicated to books as he fell in love with publishing.

Beginning as an apprentice in 1972, Henry Chakava rapidly rose through the HEB ranks to become Managing Director in 1976. He retired in 2000 and was appointed Chairman of the Board of Directors of East African Educational Publishers Limited, Heinemann’s successor.

After initially starting as a net importer of books from the United Kingdom (UK), HEB began local production, growing a list which incorporated variety, including indigenous language books. Books by Africans, from Africa, about Africa, and with a primary African market were increasingly gaining demand. Along with former HEB Managing Director, Bob Markham, Chakava set up Tinga Tinga, which focused on African books. The model involved reviewing the Kenyan catalogue, selecting books that would be of interest to a global audience, and then shipping and stocking them in the UK for global distribution. Despite the slow uptake, it was hailed by those who benefited, especially scholars. So, when the idea to set up the African Books Collective was mooted in 1985, he embraced it wholeheartedly. As part of our research into ABC's foundation, to mark our 30th anniversary, last year we asked those present at the beginning of this hugely important initiative a few questions. Here is what we learnt from Henry Chakava... 

How did you come to know the individuals/organisations that came to make up ABC at the start?

The 1980s was a period that saw a rising interest in African book publishing, both in Africa and abroad. Book-related events such as conferences and exhibitions would be organised in Africa, the UK and Europe, and these efforts culminated in the formation of ABC.

One of the key founders of ABC, Hans Zell, who was the first manager, has meticulously documented the events leading to the establishment of ABC. But what I can say is that two ‘Bookweek Africa’ events and exhibitions held at the Africa Centre in London, in 1982 and in 1985, played a significant role in the eventual establishment of ABC.

There were also other events at the time which were a product of these collective efforts: the first Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1983 and the Development of Autonomous African Publishing Capacity seminar organized by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, in Arusha, Tanzania, in April 1984. Among other issues, there were discussions about the need for more effective marketing of African published books in the UK, Europe, and North America, and the need for collective action. I was a participant at that Arusha seminar, which effectively articulated issues relating to African books and African publishers venturing further afield.

With the support of Swedish SIDA and some other donor organizations, an ‘African Publishers Working Group Meeting on Collective Export Marketing and Promotion’ was convened at the Grafton Hotel, London from 13 – 16 October 1985. It had representatives from 11 African publishers, including from Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal. This was the gathering that led to the formation of African Books Collective Limited, formally registered as a UK company limited by guarantee in January 1990, with actual trading activities starting in May.

What interested you about the initiative, what opportunities did you see, and how quickly did you agree to join up?

My tenure as MD of Heinemann saw the company drastically change its trading and operational models, especially with regard to diversified publishing. I strongly believed that an Africa-based publishing firm had the moral and philosophical obligation to publish locally generated content, which would serve the continent better. At the same time, although I was working in a multinational, Heinemann supported free thought, thanks to the progressive mindset of the Chairman, Alan Hill. I was therefore able to articulate my ideas during the various book events in Africa and Europe and warmed up to the 1985 discussions in London.

To me, this was a great opportunity for African publishers to explore the uncharted world, so to speak. It was a good chance to enable African-published authors to showcase their talent far and wide. Through this initiative, the world would get to know that, indeed, great writing was coming out of Africa. And certainly, it would provide a new revenue stream for the struggling publishers and, by extension, authors. In particular, it would bring in the much needed foreign exchange. So I could only imagine how vibrant ABC would grow, surmount the challenges of having to plead with Western booksellers to have African-published books stocked in their stores, among other distribution challenges.

Each of the founding members contributed £1,000, a considerable sum for independent publishers in 1990. Did this investment give you pause as the ABC model was untested?

Indeed, £1,000 was a substantial amount of money at the time. Thankfully, my own £1,000 was paid by the outfit I have just mentioned, Tinga Tinga. But most of the founding publishers were struggling with a myriad of financial challenges. Yet, the resolve was strong among all of us. No hurdle would stand in our way. We were determined to experiment with the idea and the outfit, work diligently to make it a success, and ensure its sustainability.

In the end, we were vindicated.

Do you recall the early challenges? And how did you tackle them?

No new initiative is short of challenges, and ABC faced some headwinds during its formative years.

One of the challenges was to develop and publish books that would meet international standards. Professional book editors and proof readers were very few, facilities for book production in Africa were not as advanced as in Europe, and printing high quality products locally was also not guaranteed. It was therefore rather difficult to have a competitive edge against other products published in the UK and other parts of Europe, America, and Australia.

Warehousing was also a challenge. In the first place, rental premises in London have always been prohibitively expensive. Yet, ABC was operating on a shoe-string budget, mainly supported by donors such as SIDA of Sweden, the Canadian CIDA, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. We could therefore not take up a big space, however much we wanted to have huge stocks from all the participating publishers.

Then there was the issue of creating a workable distribution model, with a base in London, but targeting Europe, Australia, and North America.

We also had to contend with the challenge of balancing between over-stocking and out-of-stock. On the one hand, we did not want to have huge stocks due to constraints of space, yet on the other, we were wary of disappointing our few and faithful customers by running out of stock, especially on key titles. It was a delicate balancing act.

Due to economies of scale, the ABC model did not lend itself to children’s books, which was sad because one of the strengths of EAEP was in children’s literature. At the same time, I strongly believed (and I still do) that the best way to showcase a people’s cultural products is through children’s literature.

Did ABC immediately open up opportunities for your respective publishing houses with the donor support, or was it a while before the benefits were evident? What hopes did you have?

Let me start by saying that Heinemann Kenya, and later EAEP, was already a fairly big publishing house by African standards. So as much as we were keen on ABC, we were not geared towards publishing for ABC per se. Our textbooks for primary and secondary schools in Kenya were performing well in the market, and ABC therefore served as the icing on the cake, so to speak.

We were however eager to expand the market for our scholarly and general trade publications, and ABC provided the perfect opportunity for this. Throughout the 1990s, EAEP’s books dominated the ABC list, and authors were particularly happy that their products were made available to the rest of the world. They were also able to earn some additional revenues in the form of royalties accruing from ABC sales.

In addition, the ABC sales provided the much-needed foreign exchange, especially during a time when there were foreign exchange restrictions in Kenya, and availability of the US dollar or UK pound was not only good for business but also quite prestigious. We were therefore able to run a fairly active dollar account.

The move to digitise was clearly exciting and a game-changer for the organisation. What did you think of it at the time and subsequently? What were the practical challenges?

This came at a time when we had started experiencing donor-fatigue. The support was waning, and we had to devise a self-sustaining model. Such a model required cost-containment measures to be implemented, which included reducing the rental space.

So when the idea of Print-on-Demand was mooted by the new manager, Mary Jay, we warmly embraced it because it meant saving on warehousing space.

In addition, I was cognisant of the fact that book publishing was headed the digital way, and this was just but the beginning of that gradual transition.

However, shipping physical stocks back to Kenya was rather expensive, and we had to wrack our brains on the best route to take: donate to charity in London, pulp the books, or ship them at a cost, then price them well to recoup the shipment cost. In the end, the three models were adopted, based on the advice from my sales and marketing team.

Digitising of the books was also not easy. It involved scanning of the physical books to create soft copies, since they had been developed using the old book production methods. Such scanning would introduce typographical errors, hence the need for thorough proofreading to weed them out, and this came at an additional cost.

How have you seen the African cultural landscape alter during the years of ABC’s existence? Particularly in terms of African cultural autonomy as an aspect of the liberation agenda?

African cultural landscape has undergone significant changes since the birth of ABC, 30 years ago. First, in terms of education. There is an increasingly rising number of educated elites, most embracing the science-oriented courses and taking up globally recognised roles. Others have gone into academia and published widely, both locally and internationally.

There is a shift in terms of research and books that are being published. A focus on themes relating to colonialism, fight for independence, and so on, has increasingly been replaced by those touching on corruption in post-independent Africa, environmental issues, leadership, among other contemporary themes.

Published works have become diverse by the day, and virtually every theme is being explored. In terms of ownership of publishing firms, most of the multinational firms in Kenya have either been bought off by local outfits (like in the case of Heinemann which was acquired by EAEP in 1992), or they have exited the scene after being edged out by local players (like in the case of Evans Brothers and Nelson).

Indigenous publishing firms are increasing by the day. Some are set up by former staff of mainstream publishing companies, while others by independent entrepreneurs who do not have training or experience in publishing. Then there are those that have grown from self-publishing initiatives. Most of these are started by scholars, and they have contributed towards increasing the number of scholarly publications in Africa. Such publications have found space on the ABC list.

How healthy do you consider the African knowledge production landscape going into the future? Are there any particular trends you see coming with new technology?

The terrain is clearly set for a vibrant future, especially in Kenya. Most publishers are embracing new publishing technologies very fast, new players are getting onto the scene, and partnerships with international players are also becoming a reality.

The increasing number of young techno-savvy and innovative graduates is helping in the shift towards digital publishing and online sales. This has seen a rise in works that are available as e-books, digital revision materials, and even animated versions of textbooks.

African governments are also supporting this shift by coming up with policies at the curriculum development centres, as well as guidelines on how to develop interactive digital content. They have also set aside substantial funding for rollout of digital learning, including rolling out programmes to supply digital devices to school children.

The world is more closely connected than it was when ABC began. Will there be more collaborations with Northern publishers and universities? How do you see future relationships with the Northern knowledge industry?

Yes, indeed. Collaborations are bound to increase, especially through digital publishing and online sales. It is now easy to co-publish and have a book simultaneously launched in a number of countries, even continents.

The ease in acquiring rights, thanks to modern information and communication technologies, is also a boon to the concept of collaborations.

The only downside is that most publishing firms have concentrated on school books, so we are yet to have a proliferation of bold publishers ready to invest in trade and scholarly publishing, which lend themselves well for collaborations.

In addition, although technology has brought about endless opportunities, it has also eased in other negative aspects, like publishing and trading in counterfeit books. This is killing creativity, and unless concerted efforts are put in place, it is likely to demoralise authors, leading to less production of new titles.

How do you see ABC’s future and what hopes do you have for African publishing?

ABC can only get better. First, advancements in modern technology have tremendously eased the ABC model of operations. Even before the Covid-19 ‘new normal’, ABC had already adopted the concept of ‘working from home’, thanks to technology and a futuristic mind-set.

ABC has been able to contain operational costs and hence consistently increase profitability, due to this futuristic mind-set that looks at the laptop as an office in itself, as opposed to having a physical office. This will continue to define its operations.

Still on technology, digital books have continued to gain currency, especially the categories that sit well on the ABC catalogue. It is easier and faster to publish digitally, because the time-consuming and financially impacting physical printing is not there. This model will therefore be a major contributor to ABC’s growth.

The growth of African publishing firms, from self-publishers who endeavour to produce professionally done books, to big firms that have variety, means that ABC’s list keeps growing. I anticipate much more growth in this arena in terms of more titles, wider categories, and more revenues.

I also must mention that the founder council members have now exited the scene and ushered in new and younger blood, which is expected to bring in new, and shall I add, bold, ideas to ABC. With this change, I expect renewal and reinvigoration of ABC.

In terms of its engagements at book exhibitions such as the London and Frankfurt book fairs and at American university centres, I anticipate a bigger physical and virtual ABC stand, more involvement of authors during the fairs, more trading in rights, among others.

In a nutshell, just like I am proud to see the significant growth of ABC in the last 30 years, I am certain that the year 2050 will find ABC swirling in space, serving continents and countries with every imaginable form of reading material from Africa.

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