Raphaël Thierry

Translated from the French by Bhakti Shringarpure.

There is a peculiar situation in the Francophone world in which books only travel from the global North to the global South. On the one hand, French publishers are omnipresent in the bookstores, libraries and African scholarly programs, and on the other hand, a network of NGOs lug books across the continent with the aim of developing reading and literacy programs that promote the French language. 

In this imbalanced French publishing model, NGOs, African publishers and French publishers refuse to engage with one another. Here are some telling figures: France exports more than 70 million euros worth of books to African countries each year, and imports no more than 1.5 million euros worth of African literature. Of these 70 million euros, 40 million euros (57 percent) come from "traditional" publishing circuits. Doesn't this mean that the remaining 30 million euros (43 percent) worth of books represents the books published in the global North and then donated to Francophone African countries?

Image ©Veterinary Students Association Kenya 

The "correct" approach to charity has been well honed since the nineties. It has had an influence, among others, on the inclusion of African publishing in some donation policies. For example, Banque Rhône-Alpes du Livre (Rhone-Alps Bank Book Program), along with the cultural arm of the OIF (International Organization of the Francophonie), operates various projects through different NGOs that are integrated into their local or digital editions.

But how can we explain the simultaneous rise of the dissemination and promotion of African publishing, the existence of which is not quite evident to a mainstream public which, instead, prefers to donate books to Africa? A response to this prejudice about a book famine in Africa may have been formulated by African Books Collective, which was founded in 1989. The collective aims to distribute books published in Africa to stop the "other famine" that has come about due to the lack of African books sold in the global North. 

Everything thus depends on the degree of dialogue between African and French publishers, institutions and NGOs. A lot rests on the power of the African public, as well. This deficiency in communication is the reason that the media cannot do justice to the wealth of African publishing. As long as this situation continues, the World Book Capital City program established by UNESCO will not be able to give rise to a more egalitarian world republic of letters. 

Raphaël Thierry is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Research Studies Centre 'Dynamics of Change' at Mannheim University. He is also founder and editor of the blog EditAfrica This article is part of a study published on African Research & Documentation. Journal of SCOLMA (the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa), no. 127 (2015). Part 1 of the study "Book Donation Programmes for Africa: Time for a Reappraisal?" by Hans Zell is available here.

In this video, the Strengthening Tanzanian Publishing (TZAP) project discusses the difficulties and opportunities for academic publishing. Featuring Walter Bgoya, a leading African publisher who has attempted to do groundbreaking work in the field of African publishing for over thirty years.  

Feature image via Wivela blog.