Two African Women’s Solution to the Lack of African E-books
As digital publishing and e-books make their mark across the world, one African publishing company is front and center. Founded by Barbara Njau and Kudakwashe Kamupira, e-book publishing company Bahati Books aims to bring well-written African literature by African authors to a global audience. With recent partnerships with reading app Okadabooks and literary magazine Afreada, Bahati Books is opening doors for African authors and readers alike. We spoke to Barbara and Kudakwashe about the inspiration for starting their company, challenges they’ve faced, and what the future holds for them.
What was the “aha” moment that inspired you two to start your e-publishing company?
The “aha” moment was some time in the making. For me (Barbara) the idea came to me about three years ago. I worked as a journalist and I was travelling a lot — I was away from the country at least twice a month, travelling to places as far flung as Burma, China, UAE, Rwanda and Botswana (I covered Africa, Middle East and Asia). My boyfriend bought me a Kindle as a present as he knew that even though I couldn’t sleep on long-haul flights, I didn’t have enough concentration to do much work, so reading literature kept me sane. I really got into African literature but I noticed that beyond the big-name African writers, there wasn’t much else to download or read. After downloading amazing novels like “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “Things Fall Apart,” it was tough to find suggested similar reads by contemporary or classic African writers. Amazon would usually suggest books on AIDS, Famine, War or Disease if I searched “African literature.” Thus I wondered: why isn’t there a publisher which specializes in creating an online marketplace to bring together the best that contemporary African writers have to offer for readers like me who want to explore what is beyond the mainstream?
I sat on the idea for a few years before Kudakwashe and I decided to launch Bahati Books.
For me (Kudakwashe) the “aha” moment came when I was reading “On Black Sisters’ Street” by Chika Unigwe. I found the book so gripping and I was bursting to talk to someone about it so, as usual, I called Barbara as she was the person that I always spoke to when it came to any conversations about any interesting African literature books. It was in the midst of this conversation about “On Black Sisters’ Street” that we also started to talk about our frustration about the lack of African literature books beyond those that are in the mainstream. It was then that Barbara told me about the idea that she had thinking about for a few years and in that moment we both just decided “Yes! Let’s do it!”
Last year Bahati Books was named winner of the second Africa Tech Pitch LDN event. What has the reception of your publishing company from Africans in Africa and the diaspora been like since then?
The reception has been amazing. We have signed on 18 authors and we have so many authors reaching out to us daily. We actually cannot keep up and it’s amazing, but also poignant, because we feel sad that there aren’t other publishers who are interested or proactive in creating a space for African literature to be developed and showcased. We have also had a lot of success with readers from Africa and in the diaspora. We get hundreds of visits to our website a week; our social media, particularly Twitter, has amassed a fantastic following and our readers are constantly engaged. One reader wrote to us on Facebook, expressing that this idea has been a long time coming, and they are pleased that someone has finally stepped up and created this platform!
Yet the interest has not been restricted to Africans. We have received amazing feedback from non-Africans from around the world. English people based in the UK, Americans and even people based in non-English speaking countries like France and Portugal have reached out to us (despite our work being available only in English) stating our initiative is unique and much needed. We are doing much to reverse a lot of perceptions many non-Africans had of Africa through our authors’ stories and even the news and information we share about African culture and African arts on our social media. One of our newest supporters is King’s College London. We’re really proud to be part of their Incubate Programme, and despite KCL being an English educational institution, the organizers expressed enthusiasm about the rich cultural and literary works that we are showcasing via Bahati Books.
What can you say about the current reading trends of African literature in the continent as compared to the diaspora?
Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora, are huge readers. It is worth noting that Nigerians based in the UK are actually the most qualified ethnic group, in terms of educational attainment (many hold Masters and PhD degrees), and this stems from a deeply-rooted African phenomenon of reading, which is prevalent across the continent. Although academic reading is slightly different from leisure literature reading, the first thing that’s important to remember is Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora, have been avid readers so literature consumption trends are nothing new.
However, the major change that is particularly worth noting with respect to Africans on the continent is reading patterns in the last decade have shifted significantly. Internet uptake across Africa has grown in excess of 3,000% and with this, literature reading trends are changing. More people on the continent are reading literature on their phones and mobile devices. The success of e-book apps like Okadabooks, which emerged in Nigeria about three years ago is testament to this growing appetite on the continent for literature that is easily accessible and readable on mobile devices. I think the diaspora is also consuming more literature on e-devices like the Kindle, and it is interesting to note that while Africans both in the diaspora and on the continent are reading more on mobile and e-readers, trends are skewed much more towards e-readers with Africans in the diaspora (more people in the diaspora own Kindles, Kobos and conventional e-readers), while Africans in the continent consume literature much more on their phones, via apps like Okadabooks.
Your platform makes it possible for African authors to easily publish their books and make it accessible to markets. What are the requirements for an author to get published and what services do you offer authors in the process?
The requirements are quite straightforward. The author must have a fantastic idea or manuscript, a strong writing style and they must be open to edits and developing their writing style and the story with the help of Bahati Books. In terms of services, we assist all our authors with editing if we deem their work and idea is strong enough. Once we have published the book we also do all the marketing and promotion of the book and author.
Who are some of the authors you are currently working with?
We have recently published “Nairobi Echoes,” – an e-book written by Stanley Gazemba, who is an author from Kenya. His work is exciting — – he writes about the Nairobi that doesn’t make it into Kenya’s tourist postcards: the interlinked lives of the city’s slum dwellers, the maids, the well-to-do elite and the country’s foreigners. His work is gritty but hilarious, – informed by his own background of growing up in Kangemi, one of Nairobi’s poorer dwellings, and working during the day as a gardener and at night as an author. Stanley is an award-winning novelist. – His debut novel, which was published back in 2003, won Kenya’s literary award (Jomo Kenyatta Prize) for best novel. He is a Hay Festival-supported author, and he was highlighted in Hay Festival’s 2015 “Africa 39” anthology as one of African’s leading contemporary writers, his work featured alongside Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Lola Soneyin.
We have also published “….on about the same things,” – a poetry anthology by Katlego Kol-Kes, who is from Botswana. She is an award-winning poet whose work is informed by her experiences growing up and working as a transgender woman in Botswana. She was selected by the World Economic Forum as a ‘Global Shaper, an award recognizing young people, under 30, who are making huge contributions to their communities. She is an outspoken advocate who works to represent Queer communities across Southern Africa and we are huge fans of her work.
Another one of our earliest novels is by Marko Phiri, – a Zimbabwean author who wrote “Fool’s Gold” for Bahati Books. His work is informed by his social and political activism as a journalist and government critic and he writes extensively through the eyes of different Zimbabweans: from the wealthy political elite, to the township dwellers.
Also our first- ever novelist, called Mirette Bahgat, is a fantastic addition to Bahati Books. – sShe published our first- ever novel called “A Coffin Of Roses.”. She is from Egypt and her writing is inspired by her activism as a feminist, as well as her experiences seeing Egypt through the lens of the ‘Arab Spring’ political uprisings. Her work is rooted in Egyptian mythology, blending her experiences with older historical Egyptian symbols and stories.
What challenges have you encountered since launching?
The major challenge is achieving and running a company which covers so many elements of the publishing industry as a two-woman team! It’s exciting and fun, but also exhausting and there really aren’t enough hours in the day, – cliché as that may sound. The second main challenge is we do not wish to keep African literature as a niche genre. – African literature represents a continent of over one billion people. Africans’ stories matter just as much as European literature and European genres, as well as Asian, Latin American and North American literature. Therefore, another challenge we have faced is educating readers – both Africans and non-African readers that on the extent of what African literature has much to offer. If you enjoy romance, you can read African romance books asand well as European romance literature. Likewise if you enjoy action literature, or sci-fi, literature – there is African action and sci-fi literature, which is just as entertaining as American or Asian sci-fi or action books. Africa is not this one-issue continent. – Iit is diverse and, complex, and we can all learn more through its literature and enjoy ourselves while doing it, through its literature.
I read a recent article titled “I’m Done With African Immigrant Literature” by Siyanda Mohutsiwa and in the article she points out that most African literature is set outside of African and this does not move African literature forward. What’s your take on this?
We read this and we can understand her frustration at the seeming over-representation of diaspora Africans , when it comes to bestselling literature written by Africans. Arguably the most popular African writer author of our current generation, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, spent a significant part of her life studying in the US and her novel “Americanah” is based around the immigrant experience in the US and the UK.
However while we understand Siyanda’s frustrations, which she articulates beautifully, we also disagree with her view. What she inadvertently is still saying is African literature belongs in a narrow box: written by Africans, living in Africa, familiar with folklore, etc. This still means that a narrow view of what “Africa” is – is still recognized as being authentic, and this is simply not true, and i is diminutive of also takes away from Africans in the diaspora who also have valid stories and opinions that are equally interesting and worth listening to.
If we extend Siyanda’s view to European literature – to state that literature is only “European” if the writer is from mainland Europe and has never traveled or ventured beyond Europe, then classic European literature would have to exclude writers like Ernest Hemingway, – an American writer whose work has greatly influenced European literature.
Africans living in the diaspora only add to the richness and diversity of African literature, just as much as Africans living on the continent. As Shadreck Chikoti so eloquently put it: “I get afraid, very afraid, when somebody, anybody, prescribes to me which books to read and not to read. When somebody gives me a template of what African literature ought to look like.” African literature doesn’t fit one mould or stereotype. It’s diverse, multifaceted and that is why we take issue with Siyanda’s feature.
In the near future will you consider expanding past African literature to publishing any work by African writers?
If by this question you mean, – will we publish beyond African literature to other genres, like Caribbean? We will never say never. For now, we will focus on African literature, but as we grow, we would certainly be interested in considering other non-African writers.
Thank you for your time, we would love to chat some more with your writers in the future.