Challenges & opportunities posed by Covid-19 on the African publishing industry

Ernest Oppong, Ag. Executive Director, APNET, shares the impact of Covid-19 on the African publishing industry.

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The devastating effects of the recent Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) outbreak on the publishing industry in Africa has been a cliché for some months now. Ongoing conversations by African players within the industry on this subject is not a joke but unavoidable realities that have bedevilled the industry. Since Africa started recording its cases in March 2020, the publishing activities and business became messy and financial retrogression surprisingly set up.

Among the publishing industries in the global continents, Africa has been the hardest hit in the perspective of African Publishers Network (APNET) and the reasons are simple. Comparatively, among all the continents in the world, Africa has the least developed publishing industry relative to technological advancements especially in the area of electronic publishing which serves as an alternative source of income generation for e-book publishers at all times, including lockdown periods such as this. Africa also records the lowest reading and book buying culture.

Findings by APNET…

In April 2020, APNET conducted a survey involving 26 African countries to better understand the state of their publishing industry, challenges and expected solutions. Pre-tertiary textbooks are the dominating publishing business and serve as the main butter for the bread of African publishers. Hence posing serious financial risk exposures when schools were closed without any advanced e-book publishing model as well as unpreparedness of African students and general readers for the e-book technology. Brief reports from the countries at the beginning of the pandemic were terrible and included:

i. Higher debt burden on publishers and stakeholders in the publishing industry due to drastic decline of revenue due to little or no sales of books and decline in remittances.

ii. Disruptions in national and global supply chains with a drop in value creation and delays in the shipment of major printing materials, books and other publishing materials.

iii. Stoppage of ongoing publishing projects and a reduction in the quantity of published titles due to the attendant disincentives to publish.

iv. Slowdown in investments and the potential lay-off of workers if this unfortunate situation persists.

v. Potential collapse of publishing firms.

vi. Lack of government’s support for the publishing industry.

Some updated reports from African publishers show that some of the workers in the publishing houses have been laid off, some workers receive less of their full salaries and the fortunate ones receive full salaries till date.

Emergence of e-learning

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has compelled publishers and stakeholders in the industry to be innovative and learn how to convert societal problems into opportunities. Most African governments launched e-learning projects to bridge the problem of the closure of educational institutions. Ghana for instance, launched e-learning projects for pre-tertiary education on televisions, free Ghana Library App by the Ghana Library Authority (GhLA) where some Ghanaian publishers contributed by donating ebooks freely to support but the greater percentage of the books are foreign donated books and now people can access books from the digital library for free. The industry’s expectation was for GhLA to invest hugely in the procurement of e-books from publishers to enhance the success of the project. Some private schools combine both e-learning and home learning. Universities have designed e-learning platforms to teach students.

What various associations say?

According to the President of Nigerian Publishers Association, Gbadega Adedapo, “The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 in response to book industry stakeholders’ press statement considered the incorporation of a representative of the Book Industry to be part of the creative industry committee working with Government on a probable palliative support/packages for our industry. We are still hoping this would yield a positive result. School reopening is unclear and no collaborative e-learning project has been developed by the government during the COVID-19.”

Updates from the Publishers’ Association of South Africa indicates that, “The significance of e-books especially for purposes of educational instruction increased during the pandemic but the Minister of Basic Education, Angelina Angie Matsie Motshekga announced in a media briefing that their information tells them that e-learning accounted for no more than 20%-30% of effective learning for school-going children. This means that children have to be in schools for contact sessions and in South Africa printed books are still largely used. This does not mean publishers do not produce digitally published materials nor that these are not procured. In fact, there are ongoing efforts to procure e-books by some provincial education departments.”

Updates from Professional Union of Publishers of Morocco states that, “Schools have been closed since March 15, 2020 but classes have been maintained by video conference for some schools and e-mail for others. The majority of publishing houses closed in the first three months and the state paid for a salary allowance of 2000 DH (about US$ 200) per employee from March 15 to June 30, 2020. Publishers have been seriously affected by COVID-19 and their number has fallen by 80% due to the state of emergency, the shutdown of all activities and the closure of bookstores and schools.”

Kenya Publishers Association states that, “Different publishers have introduced different portals for learners to be engaged online. The Ministry of Education has a daily program on Radio, TV and Kenya Education Cloud which is a platform for digital books for purposes of engaging learners. Kenya National Library is also encouraging learners to access their platform to engage with the books provided. Kenya has a rich variety of e-books and e-books distributors which included ekitabu and Snapplify.”

What APNET did?

The emergence of the pandemic has reinforced the significance of capacity building for African publishers to delve into the non-traditional publishing models to meet the universal needs of educational institutions, governments and the general public in Africa. Consequently, APNET has signed two landmark memoranda of understanding with International Publishers Association (IPA) in June 2019 on training within the Africa Conference Series and with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) in November 2020 on Training and Mentorship within the Publishers’ Circle.

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