The story of an independent Tanzanian publisher who helped…

Foremost among these is the weak enforcement of copyright laws, which undermines potential growth. Copyright violations reduce revenue from legal sales. They also reduce the ability of independent publishers to break even and get into publishing new titles.

Admittedly, textbooks guarantee stable income for these publishers. But this tends to crowd out scholarly publishing and fiction. Another common problem is represented by underfunded and understaffed public libraries. This leads to the inability to acquire new books and equipment, poor cataloging and processing, and poor maintenance of existing books. This, combined with the declining purchasing power of Africans, in turn leads to reduced access to books and less interest in reading.

These challenges are well summed up by the trajectory of an independent Tanzanian publishing house: Mkuki na Nyota. I first came across this publisher’s books in 1996 when I was an undergraduate studying Swahili language and literature. But my to research on the history of this publishing house only took shape in 2014 when I met Walter Bgoya, its managing director.

Bgoya’s passion for reading dates back to the 1950s. But his worldview was shaped in the 1960s. It was an exhilarating period of decolonization, Pan-Africanism and – in his country – the ideals of the president’s flagship ideology Julius Nyerere, Ujamaa, or African socialism.

After a relatively brief but promising diplomatic career, Bgoya first joined Tanzania’s thriving parastatal publishing house in 1972. Soon after, he became its managing director.

Revolutionary anti-imperialist books like Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and that of Issa Shivji Class struggles in Tanzania were released under his supervision. Rodney was then based in Dar es Salaam.

But in the early 1980s, Ujamaa was in decline and the country was facing a serious economic crisis. Amid government austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the publishing industry has not been spared. Parastatals, university press, and independent businesses faced undercapitalization, rising printing costs, and a lack of basic materials like ink and paper.

This crisis was compounded by high taxes, weak distribution systems, and the decline of public libraries. This is how Bgoya slowly broke away from the struggling public publisher to found Mkuki na Nyota.

What followed for Bgoya and his new venture was a tumultuous journey through many financial, political and operational constraints. It is a testament to his vision and tenacity that he finally gained a foothold in the 1990s and continued to prosper.

The first days

At first, Bgoya focused on fiction, art, scholarly and children’s books in Kiswahili. Through partnerships with Western donors, he successfully launched a children’s book project that released nearly 80 children’s books in five years, in Kiswahili and English. However, the unstable local currency resulted in high printing costs and limited print runs. Resources to strengthen distribution networks were scarce from the start.

In the mid-1990s, Bgoya was able to take advantage of falling printing costs in India and then China. While he chose to personally edit the Kiswahili fiction, he had to outsource independent external editors for his English titles. Although in conflict with his cherished ideology of self-reliance, these choices resulted in the publication of better and cheaper books.

The growing visibility and global distribution of its production have been facilitated by the creation of the African Book Collective. It is a platform for African publishers funded mainly by the Swedish and the Norwegian agencies that would not become self-funded until 2007. Foreign donors provided funds, facilitated regional training courses, and sponsored international book fairs, through which independent African publishers developed their networks and expanded their markets.

Accepting donor patronage, however, did not extinguish Bgoya’s progressive, anti-colonial intellectual project that drew him into publishing. He felt that donors were interfering with the final decisions of publishers and with the needs of local readers.

To support new publications and curb donor interventions, he sought new sources of income that would support publishing. These included freelance publishing, commissioned writing, advice on media and book publishing, and allowances from his membership on various boards.

Millennium Declaration

New challenges for independent publishers emerged in 2000. Donors suddenly withdrew after the adoption of the UN Convention. [Millennium Declaration], which has included universal access to primary education among its eight development goals. The statement excluded publishing, higher education and teacher training. This so-called poverty reduction strategy has caused the decline of key platforms for networking and marketing African books such as the Zimbabwe International Book Fair.

Another potential blow came in 2014, with the restoration of the state monopoly on the lucrative textbook market in Tanzania. Since 1991, private sector publishers had replaced the state monopoly they enjoyed between 1966 and 1985. The renewed monopoly represented a major setback for independent publishers who were heavily dependent on revenue generated from textbooks. However, Mkuki na Nyota of Bgoya managed to overcome this challenge through a diversification strategy.

On the list of innovations was its investment in print-on-demand equipment. With this machine, he could produce commercially durable books and avoid the vicious circle of high printing costs, unsold books, and storage costs. Yet importing spare parts was expensive and local staff were not trained to operate the machine, which became inoperative for some time.

Lessons for editing

Although Tanzanians read for pleasure, books remain expensive relative to their disposable income. Authors tend to favor English, the language of the scholarly minority, over Kiswahili, the language of the overwhelming majority. Thus, English-language publications further reduce the already limited local reading audience.

Despite a succession of different challenges, Bgoya’s approach has been consistent. At the heart of this is a commitment to progressive, quality books, participation in the publishing process through close interactions with authors, and the overall ability to continue to produce what he intended. The growing local and international prestige of his publishing house offered him new bargaining power through which he pursued his intellectual autonomy.

But the efforts of independent publishers must be accompanied by long-term practical interventions. Governments must create the conditions for writers to thrive. These include enforcing copyright laws, training authors and publishers, and streamlining language policies.

Funding for public libraries is also vital. It is the role of librarians and archivists to integrate printed books with online services, e-books and multimedia activities. Well-stocked libraries have the potential to trigger a virtuous circle: increased use of libraries can increase people’s appetite for reading. The result is more readers patronizing and willing to read or buy books.

Despite the current challenges, independent publishing must maintain quality, innovation and reasonable prices according to Bgoya. Books should influence public opinion, contribute to national debates, stimulate appreciation of reading and writing, and meet the needs of a liberating education and culture.

For over thirty years, Bgoya has strived to do just that. DM/ML

This story was first published in The conversation.

Maria Suriano is a senior lecturer in the Department of History at the University of the Witwatersrand.