Brian Wafawarowa

Speaking Time: 2006-9-21 08:30--09:00 Hall 2

Speaker: Mr Brian Wafawarowa (South Africa)

Publishing and Distributing Children’s Books in Africa: Opportunities and Challenges

In a continent where the production and distribution of local books is relatively low due to a number of reasons, the children’s book sector has done far better than the rest of the book sector in Africa. The overdependence of the book sector on the education system, the emphasis of primary education and the continent’s rich tradition of folklore and story-telling are some of the reasons behind this success. However, the sector has not reached its potential and faces significant challenges. These challenges include the small size of the general book sector, outside the education sector; the problems in the library sector, the relatively lower availability of books originated in African and home languages; distribution challenges and relatively low production and publishing skills. This article will give a brief overview of the African children’s book sector, highlight the opportunities and challenges of this sector and explore some of the possible solutions to the challenges.

The State of Children’s Book Publishing in Africa

Up to 95% of books published on the African continent are education books (APNET/ADEA Research 2000). Most of these education books are textbooks. This means that overall very little is published in the continent outside textbooks. Due to the lack of disposable income and institutional support for general books, publishers have found it unattractive to venture into general books. Where publishers have tried to publish general books they have found the undertaking very expensive due to low numbers and very low margins. Most of the general books are therefore produced outside the continent.

However, the situation in children’s books is not as dire. The continent’s rich tradition in folklore has provided abundant content for the development of children’s books. The continent’s disproportionately huge youth population also means that the market is significant. This segment of the population is also the target of development funds and significant institutional support. Donor projects and government spending have also concentrated on this segment in the provisioning of books. Supplementary reading materials for the education sector have also concentrated on children’s books. It is therefore not surprising that outside textbooks, children’s books, especially those aimed at the 5-12 years age group are the most successful book segment on the continent. While in general adult books, very few African countries have viable industries, in children’s books, every African country has something to offer.

The Opportunities in Children’s Book Publishing

The African continent is rich in traditional folklore, a very good source of content for children’s books. This traditional folklore is suitable for the short story, which is the most popular form for children’s books. Outside the traditional folklore, the various socio-economic issues that the continent grapples with have also proved to be very good sources of content. These include environmental issues, HIV and AIDS, war and displacement, governance and democratization, poverty, economic development, sport, etc. The supplementary use of children’s books in learning through reading projects, libraries and additional home and parent assisted learning has also brought children’s books closer to the relatively better supported education book sector where significant government and donor funding is enjoyed. In terms of institutional support, books come immediately after food, medicine and shelter. Due to the association between children’s learning and socio-economic development, there is also a very good network of organizations that champion children’s books and reading. This has in turn aided distribution in a context where distribution is a crippling challenge for books.

The growing interesting traditional folklore and the genuine interest about the African continent in overseas markets has also created a significant market for good children’s books that are published on the continent. However, despite these opportunities, the children’s general book sector has not reached its full potential and faces significant challenges.

Challenges for Children’s Book Publishing and Distribution on the Continent

African publishers’ have failed to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by a rich content environment, a huge youth population and the world’s interest in African content for a variety of reasons. One of the major challenges is production resources. Well resourced companies in first world countries like EDICEF in France have been able to do a better job of utilizing African content to develop children’s books. Despite the rich content, many African children’s books leave a lot to be desired when one considers various attributes. Children’s books are very demanding from a content, editorial, illustration and production point of view. These books have to be developed carefully to ensure content suitability; level of engagement that is suitable for learners; content that can aid learning and the social development of the child; generous, appropriate, sensitive and appealing illustrations; suitable physical quality attributes and cost effective production techniques. Many African publishers lack the necessary editorial and production skills that are needed for children’s books. Yet the market is understandably unforgiving on poorly produced children’s books. It is for this reason that internationally produced books have done significantly better that locally produced books. Huge print runs that are done by international publishers for the world market have allowed them to produce superior quality books at lower prices than local publishers. However it is important to emphasise at this point that there are African publishers who produce world class children’s books in every regard. However, they produce them at a much higher unit cost than their international counterparts. For these reason children’s books on the continent tend to be those that are produced in the international languages of French, English and to a lesser extent Portuguese. In some cases these have been translated into local languages. However, there are very few books that are originated in African languages.

The themes in children’s books, especially before the specificity requirements of national curricula are introduced through formal learning, are common among many African countries. This presents and opportunity to curb the problem of small markets by supplying books across a number of countries. However, distribution presents a major challenge. Sometimes, distribution is the most influential factor when considering publishing a book for a specific market. Even at national level, a huge part of the continent is rural hinterland. Sometimes the cost of distribution can be as high as 200% of production costs. Between countries there are significant barriers to trade that make it very difficult to move books from one country to another. These include the disproportionate and volatile national currencies, tariffs and customs duty. Postal services are also unreliable and take long to deliver. The recent African Union/ADEA minister’s of Education meeting where the African Publishers’ Network (APNET) had to display books for the conference is a typical example of the difficulties experienced in distributing children’s books in Africa. Despite the long term planning for the conference most of the books had not arrived by the time the conference started.

Linguistic ties among African countries present the opportunity to exploit a bigger market with children’s books. However, children’s books depend as indicated earlier on institutional support and the education system. Sometimes, the preoccupation with dialect and idiosyncrasies of national curricula render most books unsuitable from country to country. Sometimes books are found to be unsuitable even among different parts of the same country.

Competition with International Titles


Children’s horizons are expanded by reading material from other parts of the world. However, the situation a few decades ago, where almost all the books that African children were forein in origin and content is not desirable. There needs to be a healthy balance between local and international content in children’s literature. The local sector needs to develop to a point where it can compete favourably against the international sector. Quality of content and get-up are very important attributes to children’s books. This quality is very expensive and needs to be borne by the reader through pricing. Price in a market with scarce disposable resources is extremely important. In addition to content and get-up, price is also driven up the small size of print runs, which in turn drive up the unit cost. Most African publishers publish for their local markets, as they do not have the means or access to international markets. On the other hand international publishers have access to international markets and do huge print runs for the world market. Due to the huge numbers they produce and distribute they can afford to exceed the quality requirements and expectations at much lower prices than their African counterparts. While local publishers can contribute a lot to children’s literacy and reading due to their proximity to and knowledge of the market they serve, their products remain more expensive and less attractive. In the end and in the proper general market, international books do much better than local books and tend to dominate the market.

Competition with Electronic and Other Entertainment

While the early childhood book sector is relatively better than the book sector in general, the same cannot be said about the teenage book sector. In the teenage book sector, buying decisions are made by the teenage children themselves as opposed to the lower age groups where decisions are taken by the parents who consciously prefer their children to read. Since the days of the Pacesetter Series from Nigeria in the 80’s, there has not been a really successful teenage series from the continent. In addition to all the other problems listed above, this sector faces stiff competition from electronic entertainment which is preferred by teenagers.

Possible Solutions

Locally produced books have a lot to offer to the local population and contribute to development, given their proximity to the population. There is also need to develop vibrant local children’s book publishing and reading capability. In order to do this the local sector has to harness the economies of scope by taping into a broader reading sector across the continent and indeed the world. The rich content environment, common social issues, linguistic and cultural ties and the world’s growing interest on the continent are all opportunities that need to be exploited. In order to do this, African publishers and reading professionals have a number of obstacles to overcome. The following are some of the suggestions:

1. Increasing Economies of Scope

There is need to produce and distribute cheaper books for a bigger children’s book sector. The linguistic and cultural ties and common ties mentioned above provide good opportunities. At this stage education authorities must be more flexible with issues of dialect and allow more books to be available to children across national boundaries. There needs to be a conscious effort at a political level to enable people to share information and books. The AU/ACALAB/PRAESA Little Books Across Africa project where PRAESA is coordinating the publication of a set of children’s books across the Union’s languages may be a very good example of how this can be done. The benefits of such a broader approach far outweigh the anticipated and imagined problems.

2. Circumventing Distribution Problems

African publishers and other book practitioners need to think more creatively and reduce the movement of finished books across difficult borders. Compared to their monetary value, books are dense cargo and are costly to move. African publishers and booksellers should learn to co-publish, share production costs and utilize technology to exchange files and electronic content. Sharing the colour films and changing only the text film for language can also reduce costs significantly. However, care must be taken in the conceptualization to ensure that the content and the illustrations are broad enough to accommodate all intended readers. This can be complemented by sharing editorial, illustration and production expertise, printing together at convenient venues and sharing stock through bulk delivery. The New African Stories collaboration is a good example of this.

3. Exploiting Institutional Capacity and Collaboration

The children’s book market as pointed out above relies on institutional support in the form of donor and government supported initiatives. Publishers need to work closely with these institutions on book and reading programmes. The private, state and non-governmental sectors can work together closely to ensure that books are produced and distributed more cheaply. Some of the NGO’s and academic communities have the expertise to develop appropriate content, while others have the network of communities to distribute these books and the private sector has the capital, the technology and the production know-how to produce these books. The three groups can come together and collaborate to produce appropriate and cheap books. The collaboration between PRAESA, ELRU, Biblionef and the Centre for the Book in South Africa with commercial publishers are examples that have enable books to be produced cheaply and in languages that they would otherwise not have been available in, including minority languages.

4. Making African Children’s Books Available to the Rest of the World

There is a growing global interest in African children’s books. When the quality of African children’s books meet expected standards and are marketed abroad, there will be a significant readership outside the continent. The steps listed above can help improve the quality of African books. On the other hand African publishers need to showcase their books on the international scene through book fairs, appropriate conferences like this one and using the internet and websites. Realising the limited ability of African publishers to showcase their books, the African Publishers’ Network for years has been organizing and managing collective book displays at international book fairs. It has also been developing and distributing collective children’s book catalogues quite successfully. Other initiatives like Frankfurt Book Fair which hosts and registers publications free on its site can also be utilized by African publishers better.



Although the children’s book sector is more successful than other sectors,’ its full potential has not been realized. The sector still faces significant challenges. The African book sector is an important but difficult sector. Book practitioners need to work together and come up with innovative solutions to produce books that are appropriate and affordable. As I have attempted to illustrate in this presentation, it will require innovation and collaboration.


Brian Wafawarowa

Cape Town, South Africa

September 2006