How to unlock the potential of Kenya's publishing industry

Technology is a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways, rendering some institutions obsolete while watering the sapling of innovation and disruptive transformation.

Sometimes new technology oversells itself and we end up with, well, a bubble. Remember the millennium bug and the tales of Armageddon that had global business chiefs quaking in their traditional boots ahead of the year 2000? And why, you ask yourself, is Silicon Valley coming down like a tonne of bricks, the astronomical IQs of its drivers notwithstanding?

Anyway, this is not about Silicon Valley, but rather about the publishing industry in Kenya. The industry has to reinvent itself, as emerging technologies could either provide opportunities for immense growth or be the Waterloo for those that are unable to adapt.

From 2003, when the free primary education programme kicked in, the book industry in Kenya underwent some kind of revolution, up until the turn of that fruitful decade. You just needed to put together a panel of well-chosen authors and editors who could competently interpret the new curriculum. Then the writing workshops would follow, and, with the content developed, the books had to be produced in line with the guidelines provided by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), the technical arm of the Ministry of Education.

The KICD would then evaluate the scripts and list the approved ones in the so-called Orange Book, which guides teachers and booksellers on titles that have been approved for use in public schools.

The boom that followed the introduction of free schooling can be attributed to the fact that the forces of demand and supply were let to run the market, with KICD mediating on quality and pricing through the Orange Book.

The publishers would  go to schools and convince the teachers that theirs was the best book for the respective subject. The teachers would then compare the books on offer and advise the management on the ones that met the requirements of their learners. The publishers were not allowed to sell directly to schools, an ingenious policy that expanded the value chain and tax base and created thousands of jobs for booksellers and school-book suppliers.

Sadly, this business arrangement was messed up by a few rotten eggs in the industry who colluded with crooked school managers, leading to a multimillion-shilling air supply underworld that deprived learners of good books to use. The government intervened and started supplying books directly to schools. Henceforth, teachers no longer had a say, at the school level, on the learning materials they would use in class.

While the government intervention tightened control on pricing, saved billions of shillings, and ensured a healthy pupil-book ratio, it killed the book-selling value chain and denied teachers the opportunity to innovate and pick reading materials that suit their charges.

The way forward, I think, is to reinstate some of the features that made the industry flourish. For instance, so long as a publisher has good, approved products that the teachers like, give them a fighting chance in the market! Let the schools decide which supplementary reading materials, especially fiction, suit the needs of their learners, of course with prior screening by KICD to ensure the books are free of some of the highly corrupting things children nowadays see on the internet.

The law enforcement agencies should be up-skilled to counter copyright theft, where shadowy figures create a fake imitation of your best-selling book and sell it at a price that mocks the investment you put into publishing it. They should then work with Education ministry directors and State auditors to ensure no school head colludes with a seller to supply air.

This will translate into a conducive environment for publishers to square it out with their competitors in the trenches, improve the quality of learning and create jobs in the book-selling sub-sector. The industry players will then be able to leverage new technologies for business transformation. Assuming, of course, we are not faced with another technology-puffed bubble that will snuff itself out like the Nairobi quail business boom of yore.

Mr Munene is an editorial and publishing consultant. [email protected]