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Why it would be wrong for State to go back to issuing textbooks

COMMENTARY
By Henry Munene | May 7th 2016

Before the 2003 curriculum review in Kenya, you could count the number of serious publishers in Kenya on the fingers of one hand. Back then, the publishers used to keep skeletal editorial staff whose work was to coordinate mainly outsourced services. They had no in-house proofreaders, artists, editorial assistants and other such employees. Their publications were few and far between. Writers were forever crying that it took inordinately long to hear from them after submitting a manuscript.

Then come 2003 up to 2005, when the syllabi for primary and secondary education were reviewed and the industry was abuzz with activity. In the rush to beat Kenya Institute of Education (now renamed Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development) new script submission deadlines, there was need to hire more staff. This created lots of jobs.

Indeed, when publishers started selling new books, the flow of cash saw the major ones spread their tendrils in the region. Today, most of the bigger ones have at least a branch or partner in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Malawi, Zambia or Botswana.

While the curriculum review of the year 2003 was essentially meant to update the content taught to learners to capture emerging pedagogical and socio-cultural issues, it also effectively boosted the economy. Today, book trade, despite invasion by pirates who profit from other people’s intellectual input, is a multi-billion shilling industry. Thanks to vibrancy in the textbooks trade in other countries in the region, including Rwanda’s major shift from French to English as the official language of the State, the publishing industry has been on a roll. At least there is business worth talking of relative to the pre-2003 days.

Of course there have been bottlenecks and challenges. In Tanzania, for instance, there is only one textbook approved for each subject for every level by the State, unlike in Kenya where teachers can choose from a variety of English books for Standard Four, or Science for Standard Seven.

Move over piracy and Tanzania’s one-book policy. The biggest impediment to the growth of the book industry in Kenya has been lack of funds. Even though the Government pays capitation for all public primary school learners, and secondary schools, billions of shillings have disappeared into the abyss of graft.

Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i says billions of cash later, the ratio of books to pupils is 12:1, far from the desired 1:1. He has even called in the anti-graft agency to find out how head teachers collude with booksellers to resell the same old books over and over again. Dr Matiang’i has even said beginning June, the State would centralise distribution of books. However, the anti-dote he has come up with might be a non-starter. For one, the reason the book trade and other sectors of the economy were liberalised was that the State needed to get out of business to allow market forces determine what sells and what doesn’t. The publishers argue the trouble with the State going back to book trade is we are likely to witness patronage and the same graft we are out to fight dictating which books sell more in the market; rather than quality.

Besides, the trend the world over, with the possible exception of India and some corruption-free Scandinavian countries, has been to get government out of business. This allows it the objective distance to act as a neutral arbiter and provider of a conducive environment to private sector players. The State would do well to get out of publishing and book distribution trade and tighten screws to ensure the loopholes through which cash is lost are sealed. I spent many years editing books and I know what happens when the State becomes the referee and player. It means when I am away in Embu or Meru on leave, I am always a mask of misery because my royalty paycheck is not forthcoming. That is bad for business.

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