On Monday, the government listed a number of state corporations it intends to privatise. There was a surprise entry; that of Kenya Literature Bureau (KLB)
Now a number of people have aired their views over what they think the implications of putting these firms up for sale means, but not many are talking about KLB.
This is probably because what KLB does, which is majorly publishing, is not understood by many Kenyans. There are lots of people who cannot differentiate between publishing and printing.
Well, KLB does both. Confusing right?
Now, KLB, which is known as Sirkal, in publishing circles, is one of the biggest and most profitable publishing houses in the country. Conservative estimates indicate that KLB sits on top of the publishing pile.
The fact that KLB is government-owned and profitable is a testament to how well it is run. You must by now know that there are not many government-owned institutions that operate on a healthy balance sheet, for obvious reasons.
The above fact lends itself to the question of why the government wants to rid itself of KLB. While I might not provide you with government insights as to why it wants to put KLB on the market, I shall at least try to shed light on how the Kenyan publishing scene operates and whether or not the government’s participation adds value.
For one, the core of KLB’s business is in school publishing. That is where they make the bulk of the money. As I write this, KLB is the only government-owned firm left in the business of commercial publishing. This is after the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation (JKF) quietly exited the publishing scene, towards the end of last year. (Story for another day).
With KLB earmarked for sale, it can only mean one thing, that the government is no longer keen on engaging in commercial publishing.
What this also means is that with or without government participation, educational publishing will still go on uninterrupted and that this crucial aspect of publishing is in the safe hands of private publishers.
While it is the primary duty of the government to provide education, the government relies on the private sector (especially after it sells KLB) to provide learning materials. In fact, publishers, through their umbrella body, Kenya Publishers Association (KPA), consider themselves as reliable partners of the government, when it comes to the provision of educational materials, and they do a good job of it.
Part of the reason the government feels comfortable to divest in publishing, including educational publishing is due to the fact that through the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), it keeps a tight leash on what goes into schools, in the form of learning materials.
Thus despite the fact that the bulk of Kenyan publishing is privately owned, it is heavily regulated by the government. Well, as long as you dabble in educational publishing, you willingly surrender to government control.
Now, KICD comes up with the curriculum to be used in schools and gives it to publishers, who translate that into book form.
Publishers then submit those books to KICD for evaluation and vetting. If satisfied, KICD then approves the books to be used in schools.
Once approved, the government, through the Ministry of Education, provides funds to the publishers who then print and deliver those books to schools.
Privately owned publishers have travelled a difficult path to be where they are today. In the olden days, educational publishing was the preserve of government, through KLB and JKF. Privately owned publishers were only allowed to supply supplementary reading materials, basically crumbs.
At some point, the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE), the precursor of KICD, was also in the business of providing learning materials to schools.
KPA contested KIE’s participation in the business of educational publishing, on the basis that this constituted a conflict of interest. They argued that KIE could not prepare learning materials and at the same time be the body that vets and approves these materials.
That made sense.
Publishers won that war. Next, they fought to be included in the provision of core learning materials alongside KLB and JKF. This came to fruition when Mwai Kibaki came to power, in 2003, on the back of providing Free Primary Education (FPE)
Donors who bankrolled FPE pushed for the liberalisation of the sector.
It now meant that privately owned publishers could compete on equal footing with government-owned publishers in the provision of learning materials to schools. They competed on the strength of their manuscripts; not whether one has government backing or not.
This marked a season of glad tidings for independently owned publishers, as they shared in the millions set aside for the provision of free education.
Credit to KLB, they did not sulk and throw tantrums now that they no longer enjoyed the near monopoly of providing learning materials to schools. They retreated to the drawing board, rolled up their sleeves, put in the hard work, and rose to the top of the pile.
In view of the above, the only speculation as to why the government is selling part of family jewels is that KLB is a low-hanging fruit, guaranteed to bring in easy money.
If the sale of KLB goes through, will they be missed? This might come as a surprise but the rest of the publishers cannot wait to see the back of Sirkal, only they cannot say it aloud for that would be bad manners.
The argument is that the government has no business competing with private business entities; that it exists to provide a conducive environment so that businesses can thrive and pay taxes.
So who will buy KLB when it comes to it? Well, this is a story for another day.
— Mbugua Ngunjiri is the curator of Maisha Yetu, a digital Arts and Books media firstname.lastname@example.org