INTERVIEW: How we shipped 36 million books to Nigeria, others since 1988 – U.S.-based charity

Since 1988, Books for Africa, a small Minnesota-based charity, has been shipping tonnes of books to Africa to improve literacy, reading culture and all-round educational development in the continent.

Patrick Plonski, the executive director of the charity with the simple but lofty goal “to end the book famine in Africa” told PREMIUM TIMES how the group has managed to consistently send no fewer than 36 million books in 28 years.

PREMIUM TIMES: Tell us about Books for Africa. How was the idea birthed? 

Plonski: It started when our founder Tom Warth sold his book business. He had created a book business – selling car books for people who are interested in cars, like collectors’ cars, old cars and stuff. It was a very profitable niche. And someone bought the company from him. He retired early because he made a lot of money from selling his business. So he was traveling around the world. He’s an Englishman. His grandfather had been in Africa; he was in Jinja, Uganda, and was invited to tour a library, and when he visited the library, he saw that they had no books. This was in 1988. He came back to Minnesota and sent a few books to Jinja, Uganda. They were very well received and so they set up Books for Africa and said let’s keep doing it. In those early days, he worked with his friends in the publishing industry, and it grew from there and that was 36 million books ago.

PREMIUM TIMES: Book for Africa started by sending books to Uganda. What other countries in Africa have you sent books to since you were established?

Plonski: We have shipped books to 49 countries in Africa. We are the world’s largest shipper of books to Africa. We sent over 36 million books to 49 countries; almost all countries in Africa have received books. They go by the tonnes, over 2 million books a year. It is basically where English is one of the official languages. So Nigeria gets a lot of book. I think Ghana is our number one recipient, followed by Ethiopia, followed by Nigeria and there is a bunch of others – Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Liberia.

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PREMIUM TIMES: You said Nigeria is your third largest destination for books. How many books have you sent to Nigeria in the last five years, for instance? And who are some of your biggest receivers of books in the country?

Plonski: Let me say we have sent about 3 million books to Nigeria; maybe 4 million since 1988. We sent a lot of books into the Port Harcourt area and a lot of books into Abuja. Not so many books in the north because it’s difficult to transport and more Islamic; and Arabic speaking. I don’t know why we have not been able to send more books to Lagos. The books that go into Lagos seem to be passing through. For some reason, Lagos, I can’t figure it out.

In Nigeria, we don’t really have one key recipient, it’s always sending to somebody different. We have sent books to a lot of universities. In some other countries we have a go-to partner or a repeat donor who is always ordering books. We don’t really have that in Nigeria with the exception of Sir Emeka Offor. He is our largest single donor and he would order containers of books for Nigeria.

There are a lot of university books and a lot of science books in Nigeria but we send everything because I know a lot of times they request for some types of books we don’t have in stock and we say you have to wait five months for us to send you shipment or can you show some flexibility on what we put in your container.

PREMIUM TIMES: What is the value of books Sir Emeka Offor has ordered for Nigeria so far?

Plonski: He has paid shipping cost of over a million dollars to send books to Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. His last quota for Nigeria was 16 containers. Every container is 20 tonnes that is 320 tonnes of books and computers that he has ordered. I look forward to being in Nigeria later this year or early next year. I think we are going to have some sort of distribution centre.

PREMIUM TIMES: So how does it work? Do you just send books to high schools, Universities or public libraries? And how do you make sure the books get to where they were intended?

Plonski: They go everywhere from pre-school to universities to hospitals and everything in-between. The way it works is, the donators decide. You are from Lagos, let’s say you talk to me that you want to get books to a library in Lagos, I would say to you okay you got to raise the money to send the books. I could put 20 tonnes of books in Lagos; the cost is $10,300 so you would raise the money and get it to Books for Africa and then we would send the books to you or who you tell me to send them to. So at the end of the day, I’m not responsible for deciding where the right place is, you are because you are funding it. It’s all donor-driven. I call it the model. Whoever is paying for it tells us where to send the books.

PREMIUM TIMES: What impact has Books of Africa had in the countries it sends books to? How do you calculate the impact your programme has had over the years?

Plonski: It’s hard to do. Traditionally, because it is a demand-driven model, we say the impact is large – a) we sent out a lot of books; b) there is a demand for a lot of books. So if there is a lot of demand for your product you say we must be successful. I know that is not always true, because the funders aren’t the same ones receiving the books. So over the last 28 years that is how we measure it. Because there is a lot of demand and we know there is so many needed we know that the impact is good. We do site visits and we do get a lot of feedback from recipients on the books – are the books good; what you want more; what you want lesser?

In an ideal world we would spend money into pre-imposed assessment into education, reading culture, literacy level and all of the classical assessment, we have done a little of that and we are thinking of doing more of that whereby we would do more assessment of impact. We are also commissioning a firm to do that for us. There is a firm in Minneapolis that does programme assessment and evaluation. We are small non-profit, that stuff is expensive. That is something that USAID, World Bank, they have money to do all of that. We haven’t done much as we would have liked to. Mainly because we’ve sent so many books and it’s a demand driven model.

PREMIUM TIMES: The books you send to Africa, are they new or used books?

Plonski: Most of what we send are used books. But we do send a lot of new books as well from publishers. First of all, there are fewer publishers around. The publishers are going into more of just in-time publishing and they are publishing extra books they used to do in the past.

Also, sometimes publishers will donate books but with restrictions. For example, they would say you can’t send these books to Nigeria, why? Because they are trying to sell books in Nigeria, or they fear of corruption in Nigeria; their books are going to be reproduced or something. So the publishers would attach restrictions. At times they would donate what is useful for them or donate a lot of the same thing but with second hand books you get a lot of variety. So the used books we find are more useful to people. You get a greater variety of them and you get less restrictions on where you can send them.

PREMIUM TIMES: Talking about used books. There is a huge used books market in Africa. How do you ensure that some of the books you send don’t end up with people who are selling them for profit?

Plonski: Truth be told; I’m tempted to say I don’t care. The goal is to send books out there. when they sell a book they don’t care who the end user is. Somebody wanted a book, somebody got a book. But, usually that is the responsibility of whoever funded the shipment. We are not overly concerned about it because if they found their way into the second hand market, somebody is using them and that is adding value.

PREMIUM TIMES: But someone is profiting from them illegally. Donated books are of immense help to pupils who couldn’t afford to buy book. You certainly don’t want that in the hands of people who want to make profit from them.

Plonski: It is true. It is true. Books for Africa is sort of a highbred of a charity and a business. We don’t ignore the value of the marketplace. People will order books because they believe the books are valuable. We would price the books according to the market. We maintain what the price points are. For instance, what is the value of a container of 20 tonnes of used books. We know that with $10,000 someone will donate for that, if it was $50,000 they wouldn’t, if it was $4,000 or $3,000 we couldn’t cover our cost. There is an economic element to this. I know I need to cover my cost.

It is a concern. We don’t want children in schools going without books because somebody stole them but I do like the idea that books are in demand. And the second hand book market is a good thing. If somebody is selling a book and somebody is buying a book that shows there is demand for books. I’m actually looking at opening a bookstore in Lagos for that very reason. We want to open a large scale bookstore and we think Lagos is the place. The largest city in Africa, right? To summarise we don’t condone the theft of books but using the power of the market is an important element of what we do.

Books for Africa, we have cost, and we have to cover our cost. Sometime we send books to book trust that charge a dollar a book, that is a good way to get books into Ghana. Ghana is the number one recipient of books in Africa because they use book trust. They would pay us for a container of books and they would charge a dollar a book. It is a very good way to distribute books. Children in primary schools, they don’t have a dollar to buy a book so somebody has to cover those cost and we understand.

PREMIUM TIMES: How do you make sure the books you send to educational institutions in Africa correlate with their syllabi or curriculum requirement and not just in a library gathering dust because they are not what among the recommended texts?

Plonski: The books that we send do not meet the curriculum of any country in Africa. They are supplemental to the books that are being provided to the ministries of education. So everything that we send is supplemental. In an ideal world, we fill up the libraries and the ministries of education and the government and the universities, they provide the core competences in the book in the reading list and the curriculum. The unfortunate reality is that when there are no other books supplemental becomes the main books. I don’t have books in Nigerian literature to send but I do have books on basic chemistry, and I do have encyclopaedia set so why would you want to reprint identical books. It is a matter of getting them into the right place where somebody wants them.

They do not substitute for prepared books but are supplement. They fill up libraries; libraries are about vast quantity of knowledge, in my opinion. Students are able to go out there and find whatever is of interest to them. Unfortunately, you find places where there are not enough books. Ministries of educations are into providing enough books. The school books that we are sending are all there is.

PREMIUM TIMES: The proliferation of mobile devices in Africa has resulted in people increasingly using these devices as their primary access to information. What are you doing to make sure that the books are available digitally and what are your plans in competing with electronic suppliers of books?

Plonski: We do send a lot of computers. We send mostly hard copy books but we send computers -laptops and desktops – and they are loaded with contents. So there is a lot easier-to-read a book off because their screens are bigger. In terms of phones, I use my phone a lot, I would never want to read a phone out of this thing. It’s good for certain types of things, it’s good for short news articles, and things like that. In this day and age, at least in the United States, we are seeing a sort of multi-dimensional information thing, to use myself as an example. I read a news story on my phone, maybe I’d read a newspaper on my computer too, but it is multi-dimensional nobody really wants to read a book in a model phone.

I was traveling to Montana, and I read a book on tape. Audio book is a lot better. I think we don’t want to abandon those technology, but in the United States, the richest country in the world, the market penetration of e-books is 20 percent. That is 80 percent of books are still being consumed in a traditional way. Who knows what the future holds. I think in Africa we don’t want to say in five years the book is going to be obsolete so we are not going to send you any today. You have to deal with where you are right now and help people right now. In five years things may change. In five years no one may want books from Books for Africa because of something better. There would be demand for information. Maybe we would be sending more computers in the future.

It is a question of adding value. We collect donated books and distribute them. If we put books on Kindle, a Kindle is $100, you can buy a kindle for cheap. The kindle is the delivery mechanism, the questions we would ask ourselves in the future. It is about adding value.

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