That the reading culture in Kenya has been anything but wanting is not news. But what bothered a group of entrepreneurs was what steps had been or could taken about it.
This led to Storymoja, a venture the group started in 1997, aimed at providing books that readers could enjoy and at affordable prices.
What was particularly disturbing to the five writers was that the only time most Kenyans picked a local book to read was when it was for exams or research purposes. “We perceived a gap in the market for leisure reading of our own kind,” says Muthoni Garland, one of the entrepreneurs who is also a writer.
With this realisation, Storymoja aimed at providing affordable books that readers could enjoy, by sourcing widely for good local writers that it could help in editing submissions to exacting standards and develop eye-catching book-covers.
Muthoni explains that, “Our books are marketed to a wide Kenyan audience for entertainment, rather than as textbook material. This constitutes our unique selling proposition.”
While striving to produce books of international literary and production standards, major consideration is given to affordability and innovative marketing and distribution. This is so as to engage and reach the widest possible readership.
Storymoja’s first two books: Crown Your Customer by Sunny Bindra and Tracking the Scent of My Mother by Muthoni Garland were published in October 2007. The two books remain the best selling by the publisher with the former having sold almost 10,000 copies and the latter over 2000 copies.
In April, the publisher plans to launch five books to add to the others in the stores.
The initial plan was to publish adult leisure books in business, inspirational, fiction, humour, crime and detective and true life categories, but Ms Garland says demand dictated that they introduce a children section.
Storymoja wanted to challenge the perception that Kenyans only read educational text, by providing them with contemporary stories that they can identify with.
As the business grew, the writers found out that “creativity is the number one aspect you have to get in the minds of the young generation.” Thus they started supplying books to schools as alternative reading materials.
Like many businesses in Kenya, the post-election violence affected Storymoja as it came just a few months after it had started business. This negatively affected sales from January to April of 2008.
With experience in different professional fields like marketing, microfinance, journalism, PR, education and publishing, the shareholders, Muthoni Garland, Dayo Foster, Parselelo Kantai, Martin Kimani Mbugua and Ivy Mwai are committed to fanning the literary flame in Kenya for their business and country’s development.
Ms Garland and her partners run the company, which has 10 other employees, by looking for ways to maximise on sales and minimise on costs. “The first rule of business is to stay in business, even when things are not well. You should never close down and give up” she advises.
On weekends, they move to various book stores and supermarkets to promote their books, giving customers a chance to personally chat with some of the writers.
They have also sought ways of reducing on production costs by having their books printed in China or using social networks such as Facebook and blogs to advertise them.
The shareholders see the year ahead as time to change their strategy to realise their vision of making more people read as well as expand their business. They are already looking into the bigger East African market and are planning to start with Uganda.
They are also investing in the production and editing side of the business, to give better content to their consumers. Demand for bigger books is also great as most of Storymoja books are 100 and less pages, and they do not want to leave anyone out.
Storymoja feels Africa has the best writers but lacks the technology to bring it out and this hinders the growth of publishing houses. However, the company is determined to overcome such challenges.
Muthoni says that some people still bring in handwritten manuscripts, and even though they may be very good, there is need for something to be done to change this.
Last month, the books became available for online shoppers on Amazon, Uchuuzi and Mama Mikes, making them available for readers everywhere in the world, especially in Europe where Muthoni feels demand for African books is very high.
The company is also looking into other formats of presenting their books like having audio formats.
Ms Garland says the most important thing for a business to succeed is to have a clear vision of where you want your business to be. “The business vision must be shared among every shareholder,” she says.