The African Publishing Innovation Fund: Turning Talk on African Book Literacy, Publishing, and Accessibility Challenges Into Action

In 2018, I began working with a dedicated group of African publishers through the International Publishers Association (IPA) to host a series of publishing events in Africa called the African Regional Seminars. Focusing on sustainable development in publishing, the first ever seminar was held in Lagos, Nigeria in May 2018 and attracted 180 attendees from over 20 countries.

In organizing the inaugural Nigerian seminar, a frequently voiced critique was that many African publishing events fail to lead to tangible outcomes. This concern led to a call for a Lagos Action Plan to document seminar recommendations and commit to tangible progress. One frequent challenge in translating the words in such plans into action is the question of who should ultimately provide the funding and resources to catalyze partnerships and collaboration to make progress on the challenges identified in seminar proceedings?

The IPA’s response to this resourcing question was the creation of a first of its kind partnership with Dubai Cares to launch the African Publishing Innovation Fund (APIF). APIF is a four-year, $800,000 grant program funded by Dubai Cares and administered by IPA. APIF provides catalytic funding to scalable, cutting-edge African publishing innovations. Now in its third grant giving cycle, APIF sources innovations through thematic calls for proposals. So far, APIF has focused on indigenous publishing and online learning with the most recent third iteration of the grant program now focused on increasing accessible books for the visually impaired.

Due to my work with the Kalimat Foundation on the Ara program and cooperation with the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Accessible Book Consortium, I know how critical training and technical assistance are to delivering on the goals of the Marrakesh Treaty. That’s why, in this iteration of APIF, we formed a partnership with the DAISY Consortium, an international, membership-based non-profit organization focused on inclusive publishing, to help potential APIF beneficiaries develop a strong technical foundation in accessible publishing.

With almost 30 members in Africa, the Consortium is serving as an implementation partner by providing APIF applicants and beneficiaries an online training program on the production of accessible works. The introductory session of the Consortium’s training program, which covered the fundamentals of print disabilities, accessible standards, and assistive technologies, was hosted in early July with a recording of the training available here. This training will be followed by more technical training later in the year which will be required in order to receive funding through APIF in this iteration of its grant program.

In my conversations with African publishers over the last several years, one positive impact of the global pandemic on African publishing has been the push it has given publishers in embracing digitally-enabled business models. African publishers are increasingly adopting digital publishing and targeting new audiences like publications for the visually disabled. For far too long, audiences with different reading disabilities have gone unsupported and unnoticed. Thankfully, this is now changing in Africa and globally.

The Marrakesh Treaty played a very strong role in raising consciousness about the need to accommodate those with reading disabilities, but the global pandemic exposed the strong business case for producing accessible books to many publishers in developing publishing markets for the first time. Through the Inclusive Publishing and Literacy Committee, APIF, and our stewardship of the Accessible Books Consortium, IPA is supporting global publishing in making book accessibility an integral part of publishers’ business models.

I believe that everyone has the right to read a book in whatever format is accessible to them. Given the growing strength of several African national publishing industries and its large youthful population, there is no doubt Africa will be home to some of the fastest-growing, most interesting publishing markets in the next decade. The last few years have been a very important watershed in making progress on digital and accessible content in Africa, and I am excited to see what the coming years have in store.

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Bodour Al Qasimi

President of International Publishers Association; Founder and CEO of Kalimat Group, Kalimat Foundation and PublisHer network to empower women in publishing.