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CTA and the promotion of rural development through book distribution

One of CTA's tasks is to provide information on request to researchers, extension workers, planners, farmers' organisations, trainers and information specialists involved in agricultural development in ACP states. In addition to requested publications, CTA also distributes publications on its own initiative to its target groups. These publications, some 550 titles, are also supplied free of charge and consist of books published by CTA, co-published, or purchased specially because of their relevance. In 1995, almost 65 000 books were posted to ACP countries.

The people who receive the publications to some extent select themselves, because they write to CTA with requests for information. They find out about its existence through attending CTA seminars held in ACP countries or in Europe, or through seeing copies of Spore (CTA's bi-monthly bulletin in English, French and Portuguese which goes to around 50 000 addresses and is seen by many more), or by word of mouth. Over the years, CTA has built up a mailing list of 42 500 addresses of people and organisations active in some way in agriculture and rural development. Of the total, 37 800 are in ACP countries.

But there are questions. Are our books getting to those who need them and is the targeting accurate enough? And, most importantly, is this the best way of doing things? For CTA does not - and cannot - satisfy the total demand for books on agriculture and rural development.

What is the best way?

Despite the number of addresses on the mailing list, many more people could in theory still be added. Should CTA even try to satisfy this demand? The publications are free and, if CTA increased its coverage of the demand, it might in some countries hold back the development of local bookselling with a consequent detrimental effect on local publishing.

The majority of those now on the mailing list are 'individuals' rather than institutions, libraries, documentation centres, associations, organisations, etc. On the face of it, more people could be reached by sending CTA publications to groups rather than to individuals, but it's not always clear who is an individual in the sense of information not being shared with others. Some individuals are teachers, some are extension agents, some receive publications on behalf of a cooperative, for example.

Because of the importance of information - the driving force behind development - CTA has been investigating and giving support to technical publishing and book distribution in Africa over the last few years and is currently examining its own policy on book distribution over the ACP countries as a whole. Part of the context for this policy re-appraisal is the state of bookselling.

Difficulty of book distribution

Everyone involved in the books business in and for the ACP countries knows that getting books where you want them to go, book distribution, is not straightforward. The reasons for the difficulty are not straightforward either. One development officer remarked of Papua New Guinea that the lack of books outside the capital, Port Moresby, couldn't simply be explained by lack of roads, because in the most out of the way places you could be sure of finding Coca Cola. Is it, then, that the Coca Cola company has superior marketing and distribution arrangements? Probably so, but it is the nature of the two products which also determines how far they get. Traders will more readily take goods which they know they will be able to sell easily and the immediate satisfaction given by cigarettes or Coca Cola tends to put them before books in the list of priorities for purchase.

Among the ACP countries where CTA sends books and information, many have under-developed road and rail networks while the postal facilities provide a reliable service only to a relatively small part of the country. The local book publishing and bookselling industries are often themselves developing. Potential readers often cannot afford to buy the books and consequently book distribution is the weak link in the chain from writing and publishing a book to selling it. If books can't be sold, new ones can't be published, for the investment finance for a new publishing project has to come from somewhere.

In Africa, the lack of a strong local book sector was attributed in part to the traditional oral culture of the continent which left little need for reading. The majority of students would read in order to pass their exams, after which they hardly sought books again to buy or to read.

The main books distributed were therefore textbooks for schools, colleges and for higher education. As long as these were distributed through booksellers, a forum still existed for displaying and raising interest in other books.

Booksellers could also function as sources and conduits of information about the variety of books in print and of their interest to particular groups.

This development was stunted because of the low purchasing power of many people, lack of foreign exchange (except in the CFA franc states), high cost of importing (either books or the raw materials, print machinery and spare parts to manufacture books) and, consequentially, shortage and lack of variety of locally-published books.

In addition, in some countries the state intervened in school book publishing and supply (for example in Tanzania), so that the bread and butter of the bookselling business disappeared.

Booksellers then either diversified their stock so that they became bookseller-stationers or worse - books came after groceries, footballs, hats, etc., or the booksellers ceased trading in books or closed down.

The publishing-distribution chain in Africa

Book distribution is part of a chain of activities in the book sector which depend on each other and support each other. The chain starts with an idea for a book which may come from an author or from potential readers who make known their needs and it ends with the published books being bought. The lack of a good book distribution infrastructure in Africa is linked to the lack of a wide variety of books from a good number of publishers and the lack of a market for the books.

At least until South Africa became a democracy, Nigeria probably had the most active publishing industry in Africa with a high level of publishing professionalism. In such a huge country this may not be surprising: there is a large market, state administrations with urban headquarters, and a variety of arrangements for publishing and distributing books. But publishers suffer from a scarcity of investment funds, with high costs of borrowing, which affects their ability to keep books in print and to start new publishing projects. Relatively few technical books are published locally because of the risks when compared with, for example, publishing school textbooks.

In such a vast country, the state of book distribution varies from place to place, with cities and large towns obviously having a greater variety of books available for sale than small towns and rural areas. Small traders carry books to the latter; they do not take orders and the books they carry are those that they can get hold of which they think will sell. Would-be readers are frustrated unless they or their friends visit a city. Mail order is not a possibility because the domestic postal service is not trusted.

In the urban areas, where there are booksellers, an indeterminate number of potential readers cannot afford to buy books, especially those that have been imported. Book piracy is a consequence of this. Booksellers' sales have declined, their turnover has been reduced as has their ability to stay in business. Some institutions in the country buy direct from publishers or from overseas suppliers rather than from booksellers, which further damages them. Booksellers buy books from publishers in small quantities for a fast turn-round which affects publishers' ability to build up investment funds for the next publishing project or for a large reprint with its possibility of reducing unit book costs.

This is not to say that technical books are totally unavailable from Nigerian booksellers, but it is clear that only specialised outlets which know their book-buying customers well can risk stocking some of them. Rural dwellers have no chance of buying them without making a big effort in time and money.

In contrast, Senegal has a less developed publishing and bookselling industry than Nigeria, with about a dozen professional publishers and a small network of booksellers, mostly in Dakar and the larger towns in the regions. The most important publishing opportunities in Senegal are in the field of primary school textbooks - where there is competition both within the country, with publishers from other developing states, and from the North. Senegal being a lot smaller than Nigeria, there is only room for one textbook, and primary school book production is not therefore the mainstay of local publishers. The publisher which used to supply all primary and secondary school textbooks for the Ministry of National Education is an exception and is still probably dependent upon educational publishing for its turnover. Few technical books are published; as with books for higher education, they are imported.

The network of booksellers has been decreasing and it is difficult to make a living just by selling books without the back-up of other products to sell. Thus there are bookseller-stationers, bookseller-grocers, kiosks and street sellers, especially of secondhand books. Booksellers tend to order titles in small quantities because they cannot risk being left with unsold stock which ties up their capital. They order little and often. Most school textbooks are distributed through the Ministry of National Education, but booksellers still sell a variety of textbooks, some official and approved and some not. Before the devaluation of the CFA franc, booksellers ordered more from abroad. These books have now doubled in price, making them unaffordable, with a consequent opportunity opened for local publishers to fill a gap.

Apart from the professional publishers, various sorts of publications are being produced and distributed by literacy and post-literacy organisations and a delegated literacy ministry. Some organisations promote literacy for its own sake, while others use the attainment of literacy as the means through which development can spread in rural areas. The publications concern rural development, agriculture, health and nutrition, and rural democracy, amongst others. There is a good variety of different titles and a good supply of cheap and affordable books. Some are sold through booksellers, but most people buy them when they take their literacy courses, while small traders carry them up-country to sell and buy more copies from the publishers with the proceeds.

Book aid schemes

A whole literature exists on book aid schemes. Briefly, book aid comes in two forms, one using the local book sector and the other not to any great extent. The British Government's Educational Low Prices Books Scheme (sadly scheduled to end, at least in its present form, in April 1997) and the French Government's Programme Plus both use the local bookselling industry to make available standard tertiary textbooks and others at subsidised rates. Not all students could afford to buy them, but the two schemes nonetheless promote bookselling and commercial life within ACP countries and beyond. To some extent they safeguard the continuation of fore where up-to-date books can be seen.

CTA's books aid scheme does not use the local book sector in terms of book distribution, although cooperation in co-publishing is beginning. The FAO, in distributing publications to ACP and other developing countries, is similar. Books supplied under multilateral and bilateral agencies' projects have tended to sidestep the local book sector, although this has been changing.

As with food aid, the question to be answered is whether continuing the aid prolongs the condition? Or does the analogy with food aid break down in certain circumstances because books are different?

Improving book distribution in Africa

Various efforts are being made to improve book markets for African publishers. For example, the African Books Collective, based in Oxford, UK, markets and sells both anglophone and francophone African publishers' selected books in the North and also to other African countries. It is often easier for publishers in the North to sell their books in Africa than it is for African publishers to sell their books across frontiers and in the continent.

Publishers Associations have been formed in about a dozen countries with APNET, the African Publishers' Network, celebrating its fourth year as a continental association. CTA supported APNET in the production of the first catalogue of agricultural books published by African publishers. Very recently, an Africa-wide booksellers association has been created.

CTA and future book distribution

Since CTA started distributing books on agriculture and rural development, publishing and bookselling activities in many ACP countries have multiplied and the context has changed somewhat. As noted at CTA's Montpellier conference in 1995, there is now much information and many documents going from North to South, suited to the planners, research workers and extension agents who process the information and pass it down to the small-scale farmers. Rather, a two-way information route would be more efficient, between farmers who have information to offer as well as information needs and information providers. The growth in requests to CTA for publications from co-operatives and farmer associations and from non-academic libraries and documentation units is evidence that the publications distribution service is fulfilling a need.