The coming to power of the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) government in 2002 ushered a new era for publishers and booksellers in Kenya. No sooner had the Mwai Kibaki government settled in than the national school curriculum was overhauled in a review that started in 2003.
In an ingenuous policy move that spurred business in the textbooks value chain and breathed fresh life into school books, publishers found themselves hiring additional editorial staff besides recording a spike in turnover and profitability.
Policy changes were further strengthened to ensure publishers concentrated on producing books and booksellers focused on selling the books to end users.
This ensured a whole value chain in book trade that would, and did, translate into enormous economic gains.
For this to work, the government would play three key roles. One, it would protect intellectual property by ending piracy and ensuring that cash given to or collected by school managers was utilised prudently.
Two, it was to create a conducive environment for players in the market to run the book production and distribution show.
The Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) — later renamed Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) — would ensure the content publishers put out was of the highest standard.
Three, and most important, the Education ministry would ensure that school heads did not steal money meant for books, food, tuition and other vote heads.
However, a few years later, the great plan fell through. Audits revealed that not only were head teachers colluding with rogue book traders to steal cash, as the official line went, but the cost of books had shot through the roof.
This led to the ongoing education reforms, kicked off by former Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, where the government has gone back to supplying books to schools with the aim of cutting the textbooks budget and destroying the evil trinity of cash-mad school heads, crooked bookshops and pirates who stepped in to reap from books they never wrote.
A casual look at the issue of State-owned publishers supplying books to schools, as has been happening since January, may strike parents as ingenuous for the simple reason that it has cut costs and ensured delivery to the learners.
QUALITY OF LEARNING
But looking at the impact on the economy and quality of learning, the reforms, as law professor PLO Lumumba would say, may be a classic case of using a hammer to kill a mosquito.
It is not lost on this writer though that it is abhorrent for unscrupulous people to siphon cash meant for learners’ books. What must, nevertheless, not escape mention is that amid the reforms, we must guard against the Sisyphean act of digging a hole to fill another.
All the government needed was to do to kill the cartels were three things. First, it should have tightened school budget oversight to ensure the money meant for books was actually spent for that purpose and all the textbooks were delivered and remained in schools.
Secondly, it should have hunted down rogue individuals in the bookselling and school management circles and punish those found culpable of stealing from the country’s future drivers.
Thirdly, it ought to have consulted widely on the implications of the reforms.
If you ask teachers, they will tell you that the reason some schools preferred more than one book per subject, which Dr Matiang’i’s reforms set out to stop, is that various publishers handle various topics with varying levels of excellence.
Thus, a geography teacher is likely use one publisher’s book to teach human geography and another physical geography.
And when all the teachers in public schools are saddled with one book, yet they are keen to give the best to their children, the drain of stifled creativity and lack of room for innovation is a sure recipe for career dissatisfaction.
Still tied to this is the constitutional principle of public participation. The publishers might not shout it but failure by the ministry to consult them, especially on the timelines for submission of school materials to KICD for approval, is a fraught issue.
Creative writers who have been getting a pittance in royalties in the past few months wonder why they should continue writing. When teachers who are keen to nurture a reading culture are told there is no money for novellas and they can’t ask even willing parents to buy them, one chokes on the irony of the claim that we are moving towards talent-based education.
As we grapple with the ticking bomb that is youth unemployment, is it justifiable that we kill booksellers and consign publishers to Siberia just because the ministry and its many inspectors and directors couldn’t stop textbook theft?
Mr Munene is a media and publishing consultant. [email protected]