Chikezie Chiedu is Executive Director, Kawuriz and Manilas Publishers located in Onitsha. Established in 1986 by his father, the company went through rough terrain and yet came out strong mainly because it publishes books written in Igbo language. Here, he talks about the company’s trials, the Nigerian publishing industry, the relevance of indigenous languages, and more.
Bookshelf: Your publishing company, Kawuriz and Manilas Publishers, was founded by late Sir B.O. Chiedu in 1986. How has the journey been thus far?
Chikezie Chiedu: This year is exactly 30 years since the establishment of this company, making it one of the foremost indigenous publishing companies east of the Niger. It has been thirty years of clear-cut vision of the founder, thirty years of passion, challenges, breakthroughs and stability.
Bookshelf: Why and how was it founded?
Chiedu: It was founded by my late father as a result of his long-held childhood dream and ambition. As a kid in secondary school at Oraukwu Grammar School in Anambra State, he was passionate about literature. He taught Literature-in-English after his ‘A’ Levels and studied English in the University of Ife [now Obafemi Awolowo University] between 1971 and 1975. He ate and breathed literature. After his university education, it was clear to him that the only way he will continue to be around books is through writing and publishing. He wrote and self-published his own books for years. Chiedu Series was quite popular in the late seventies and eighties, then in 1986 he registered the company Kawuriz and Manilas Publishers as a limited liability company. Kawuriz (Cowries) is an old medium of exchange.
My father came from a very humble background, hence he dreamt that through writing and publishing books, he will someday escape poverty and he did. The early days of the company was extremely challenging. He started the business with the few savings he made out of his teaching job, toiled in his little press, churning out books at night and selling them in the day time. Every kobo he made, he ploughed back into the business, leaving his then young wife at that time to support the family with her teaching job. Then in 1981 just a few months after I was born, tragedy struck. There was a heavy flood, so devastating it swept through the press and destroyed everything, including books, machines and printing materials. So, it was a nightmare. He started all over again and in 1986 Kawuriz and Manilas Publishers Limited became a full-fledged company.
The company’s major breakthrough came in 1989, when my father conceived the idea of an Igbo book for primary schools. As at then, the industry was largely dominated by multinational giants like Longman and Macmillan. He thought that having a niche was the only way he could cut out a sizable market share in the industry with limited resources. And he was right. Mbido Igbo, a primary school Igbo book birthed in 1989. I still remember vividly, one evening when my father walked into the house with a book and a smile. ‘This is a book that will change the fortune of this company,’ he said. Mbido Igbo was a hit. By the time my father died in 2001, this singular book had indeed changed the fortune of the company as he predicted. Till date, the book sells not less than 500, 000 units annually, making it probably the best selling Igbo text book for primary schools in Nigeria. It is Mbido Igbo that has given the company the direction it has followed in the past 25 years. Its success was an indication that the Igbo language market should be explored, harnessed and dominated. Therefore we channeled majority of our resources toward developing many Igbo titles. Today we have what is called Mbido Igbo Brand Strategy aimed at developing many titles around the Mbido Igbo Brand. We have the Nursery series, the Akuko Ifo series (folktales) and so on.
Bookshelf: How long have you been with the company?
Chiedu: I came into the company in 2005.
Bookshelf: What has changed in the business when compared with what was obtained in the 1980s and 1990s?
Chiedu: Within the past decade, the publishing industry has grown drastically. The Nigerian economy has expanded, population has increased considerably, a lot of schools have sprung up and much awareness, attention and priority is given to education now more than before. This scenario has thrown up business opportunities in the book industry, more especially, publishing companies that major in academic books just like ours. It has become a very competitive industry now, unlike what was had in the 80s and 90s, when you had only the multinational giants.
Secondly this era has seen the emergence of technology, which has created a different medium and platform for the decimation of knowledge. In the 80s and 90s it was just the hard copy. Today you have books in electronic format, which are easy to download with a touch of a button anywhere you are. Therefore, when you look at the industry holistically today, you realize how competitive it has become and how hard it is to keep up with the pace.
Bookshelf: Does the company still publish books in other languages, aside Igbo?
Chiedu: We are a publishing company and not an Igbo publishing company. We have many titles in different fields, from science to arts, even in French language. We have one of the bestselling Basic Science textbooks by Dr Ngozi Agbasimalo for Junior Secondary Schools. However, like I said earlier, the Igbo language market is our niche and what defines the company. It is just like the Coca Cola Company that has Fanta, Sprite, and Eva Water as products. But at the end, it is all about Coke, their number one brand. That makes all the difference.
Bookshelf: We probably have less functional publishing companies than we did decades ago. What do you think is responsible for this?
Chiedu: I disagree with you on that completely and with facts. If you study the book reviews conducted by various ministries of education within the past ten to fifteen years, you will find out that there has been a surge in publishing companies competing for recommendation of their books. Therefore, in terms of numbers, we have more, but in terms of quality of the publishers, there lies the challenge. I think there is too much mediocrity now in the industry, unlike what is obtainable in the past. In my own observation, too many aspiring entrepreneurs who lack the understanding and peculiarity of the publishing business venture as a result of the vast business opportunities perceived. Unfortunately, it is a knowledge industry where mediocrity and short cuts can never thrive.
Bookshelf: Your Company has thrived for over two decades. Was there a time when it found it hard to survive?
Chiedu: The publishing industry is one of the most challenging industries in Nigeria. You are up against so many factors that range from access to capital, piracy, a drop in reading culture, lack of quality authors and so on. Therefore survival is an everyday thing in the business. You can never be immune to these harsh environmental challenges. It is in our DNA to survive. But if I have to single out one thing that has kept us afloat all these years, it is simply the Igbo language niche. We have held and continue to hold it closely to our chest.
Bookshelf: These days, most so-called publishing houses are mere printing presses. What do you have to say about this?
Chiedu: How do you think publishing business in Nigeria can be enhanced? The publishing industry has one major hydra-headed monster, and that is piracy. If piracy can be gotten rid of, you will speedily enhance the industry, and not just the publishing industry but the entire intellectual property business in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the end of this malady is not in sight.
Bookshelf: How big, really, is the market for books written in the Igbo language?
Chiedu: Igbo is a language of over 40 million people globally. It is like having a product for a country. However, it is clear that we have seriously neglected our indigenous languages. We have developed so much fondness for another man’s language to the detriment of the mother tongue. But the outcry against the extinction of the Igbo language is receiving attention and people are gradually paying attention, even in the diaspora. Therefore, I see hope.
Bookshelf: Do people actually read in Igbo?
Chiedu: The Ministry of Education is re-tooling the curriculum and fashioning out good polices to support indigenous languages. This has been helpful, but so much work needs to be done in order to encourage the younger generation to speak, read and write in the Igbo language.
Bookshelf: You recently published ‘Okowaoku Igbo Umuaka, Igbo Dictionary for Children.’ How did this happen?
Chiedu: As a publisher, I get calls often from prospective authors. A couple of months ago, I got a call from Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo. She told me she has this book, an Igbo dictionary for children that is already making waves on Amazon. She was looking for a Nigerian publisher and revealed that her experience with publishing houses she has contacted has been disappointing. When she sent in the manuscript, we were so excited, simply because the Igbo language market is our fort and no one can do it better than us. ‘Ọkowaokwu Igbo Ụmuaka’ is a great addition that enhances our brand strategy. We did the needful and the rest is history. The book is now available and seriously making waves in the Nigerian market. It is a fantastic work geared toward the development of Igbo language. Chioma Mbanefo is such a fantastic and passionate writer of the Igbo language.