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Improving access to technical publications in Africa

Books are an essential part of human development. They are one of the essential tools, not only of cultural development, but of development in general and they create the catalyst by which the technical needs in Africa will be met. This was the central theme of a seminar on alternative approaches to publishing and distributing technical publications in Africa, held recently in Arnhem and organised by CTA.

Overall, the literacy rate in Africa today is about 50% but this is likely to fall as most countries experience rapid population growth. Yet 21% of children are of primary school age which demonstrates a potential increase in demand for literacy teaching and reading materials. The escalating cash crisis faced by most countries with debt restructuring has, for the most part, resulted in cutbacks of as much as 50% in education expenditure. So, while there is an expanding population that needs and even wants to be encouraged in the reading habit, financial constraints mean less money is available publicly and privately for book purchase.

A statement by the newly formed African Publishers Network (APNET) summed up the mood of the seminar. 'The future of publishing in Africa, including technical publishing, lies with indigenous African publishing companies and institutions. We believe that support from donors for technical publishing in Africa must concentrate on using the capacity that already exists within Africa.'

In this way African expertise can be strengthened and the future of relevant technical books for Africa will be assured.

Obstacles to be overcome

However, book publishing in Africa faces many constraints. These can adversely affect one or more stages in the publishing process from the original concept by the author or commissioning agent, through the printing and publishing process until the finished work is distributed for sale. For example, it is not sufficient to pursue what is deemed by the author to be a 'good idea' for a book if that idea is inappropriate for the target readership. Furthermore, government fiscal policy in Africa can militate against a viable indigenous publishing industry: in many countries there are import taxes of up to 20% on most of the materials which are required in the printing process from inks to paper and printing plates, all of which may have to be obtained from overseas. In addition there is often a sales tax on books, including educational publications. Even computers, a vital component in desk-top publishing, are seen as a leisure component attracting up to 100% import tax and 18-20% sales tax. As a result it is a sad fact that books for Africa are often published at less cost outside Africa and there is an urgent need to redress this situation.

The Florence Agreement of 1950, under the auspices of UNESCO and the Nairobi Protocol of 1976 stipulate that there should be no taxes on books. Most African countries are signatories but indigenous publishing continues to suffer from anomalous taxation which treats publishing materials and books as no different from imported wheat or toothbrushes.

Fortunately, the adverse implications of these taxes have begun to be opposed with vigour in some countries and in at least two, Kenya and Zimbabwe, intense lobbying of government has resulted in some tax concessions. This has had an immediate impact on reducing costs and making books more affordable at the grass roots level.

Another area of contention between publishers and governments is where Ministries of Education are involved in the printing and distribution of school books. Educational books form by far the greatest market share of technical publications in Africa and if commercial publishers are denied access to this sector, there is little incentive for them to become involved in commissioning, printing and distributing in what remains as a very reduced market. Many educators and trainers believe that technical information is a development resource and that, just as roads and trucks are needed to deliver goods, and clinics, hospitals and medicines are needed to deliver health services, publishing and books are an essential pre-requisite for the dissemination of knowledge. Thereforo governments should consider giving books and their indigenous publishers the same consideration and priority as they do to infrastructure development in transport and health.

Appreciating the market

Even when the book has passed successfully and at reasonable cost through the production process and has been published, a final hurdle still has to be overcome: the lack of effective distribution to accessible points of sale. It has been observed that while regular supplies of soft drinks, beer, cigarettes and even highly perishable commodities such as fish are readily available for purchase in the remotest villages of Africa, there has been a failure to develop an effective distribution network for books. Obviously suppliers serviced a perceived demand and either there is not sufficient demand for reading materials beyond urban centres or the demand has not been recognised.

Price, design and format all influence potential book purchasers. In the past, Northern donors, publishers and NGOs have played an important role in meeting some of the shortfall in purchasing power by the free distribution of technical books. Undoubtedly the availability of free books has met a need and encouraged the reading habit, but indiscriminate 'dumping' of inappropriate books from the North has led to the undermining of local publishing industries, which are already in a fragile economic situation. Struggling publishers and distribution chains may also face competition from 'street bookstores' and 'book tinkers' which are a growing phenomenon in Africa. This informal trade in second hand books and donor books, which have somehow by-passed the normal channels, is a serious challenge to the viability of the formal sector.

Finally, books sales can be inhibited by there being too few bookshops and by staff being poorly trained and therefore unable or unwilling to help customers to select the books they need. Access to publications and the reading habit in general may also suffer from the dearth of public libraries and the formalities required to borrow books. This discourages those with little formal education. There is also a failure to promote books by bringing them to the attention of the book-buying public. Book fairs, which are an excellent means of displaying wares and promoting new titles, are relatively rare in Africa.

Realistic target

All these constraints make the realistic pricing of books hard to achieve. The cost must be affordable yet provide a reasonable margin to author, publisher and distributor. A survey conducted as a prelude to a conference on 'The promotion of technical books in Africa' suggested that an ideal was a book of 60 to 120 pages priced at between US$4US$8. However delegates at the recent Arnhem seminar concluded, after much debate, that while readers were naturally concerned with getting value for money, the appropriateness of the content was the over-riding factor influencing purchase. It was felt that many people in Africa would be prepared to pay the equivalent of US$15 or more for a well presented book that encompassed all the information they required of it.

The final recommendations of the seminar have yet to be published by CTA but in essence they include the need for:

* a much greater degree of cooperation and understanding between publishers and distributors North to South, South to North and South to South;
* a better understanding of the demand and the market for books;
* restructuring book donation programmes;
* lobby of governments, the World Bank, donors, NGOs and banks to overcome the fiscal, legal, and infrastructural obstacles to developing a viable indigenous publishing industry;
* training in all sectors of the book chain: the lack of trained professionals was seen as one of the major weaknesses of the publishing industry in Africa and was a recurrent theme throughout the discussions.

Looking forward to a more dynamic and useful era in the commissioning, publishing and distribution of technical books in Africa, a delegate from Senegal concluded, 'We have been given the opportunity to discuss all the issues concerned with the promotion of technical books. The ball is now in our court to resolve these issues. And, if we want a viable book industry in Africa, we have to be worthy of the challenge.'