The announcement in 2017 by the government that its decision to select and supply books directly to schools had saved the taxpayer billions of shillings was celebrated.
That was understandable, given that parents are already burdened by a skyrocketing cost of living.
But a closer look at the control of the school book value chain reveals that it might, in the long run, be a costly blunder that will water down the quality of education and the economy.
Besides supplying textbooks approved by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), publishers and booksellers, over and above creating jobs, also supplied storybooks, novels, plays, novellas and short stories that nurture learners’ creativity.
But the government has blocked schools from levying fees to buy the creative works, and learners now have to reread their school library stock.
These would have come in handy in forging careers in film-making, journalism, authorship and other arts-based professions.
Again, many authors get almost naught in royalties as publishers cannot sell their works to public schools.
But they still sell these works of literary art to private schools, which are largely free of the stranglehold of the Education ministry.
That amplifies the advantage enjoyed by students in private schools, who are mainly from better-off backgrounds.
It, hence, widens the social and economic chasm between the haves and the have-nots and makes nonsense of the expectation for education to be a leveller of opportunities.
Rogue school heads and booksellers had turned textbooks into a multibillion-shilling scandal, yes, but the rotten eggs should have been dealt with through the criminal justice system, not by killing off the entire publishing industry.
Make no mistake, though: we need not nurture creativity just to plug the unemployment rate of 10.75 per cent in 1991-2018 with the youth the worst hit.
No. The creative economy is a game changer that churns out billionaires by the day.
LACK OF SUPPORT
According to Forbes, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, which — aha! — targets mainly children, raked in a cool $92 million (Sh9.2 billion) in 2017.
James Patterson trailed her closely at $70 million. The figures are even more staggering for filmmakers and other creatives.
In my earlier incarnation as a publishing editor, I saw people pocket a few cool millions in a year — and in a country where many see a million only when the family plot is charged to a bank to secure a loan!
We have been quick — and wrong — to vilify traditional publishers for sitting on manuscripts and not doing enough to market creative works.
But why can’t we utilise the many online self-publishing and marketing tools that give authors the freedom and empowerment to reach millions, probably billions, of readers?
Three reasons: policy, policy and policy. From the cost of data bundles to the absolute absence of a book policy, the environment does not empower our creative types to exercise their potential.
Besides creating jobs, the creative space could also add to the billions of shillings from the diaspora.
World Bank data shows the remittances hit Sh280 billion in 2017, eclipsing the Sh242 billion sent to the rest of East Africa.
A few more billions from across the world courtesy of our creative efforts would further bolster our balance of payments, which has been ruined by our tendency to import everything.
But I digress. Let’s pull out all the stops to make Kenya the world’s film-making destination and ensure that, in the spirit of the competency-based curriculum (CBC), learners eyeing talent-based professions not only have role models but are also empowered to be all they can.
But looking at the policy landscape, it’s not hard to see why filmmakers go to South Africa and why new Kenya authors are largely discovered and nurtured abroad.
Killing the supply of creative works to public schools without offering an alternative is akin to a family throwing a party for a child who drops out of school as they’ll no longer pay fees.
Mr Munene is a revise editor at the Daily Nation. [email protected]