From colonialism to globalism

Recently I had the honor of delivering the closing remarks for the International Publishers Association’s ‘Publishing for Sustainable Development – The Role of Publishers in Africa’ seminar in Lagos, Nigeria. As the conference unfolded during the day and the discussion continued on social media, I had the chance to reflect on how different but alike the Arab and the African publishing markets are.

They are both having to reconcile traditional cultures and values with an increasingly globalized world – and both are using the cultural industries to redefine their sense of identity and challenge stereotypes.  

In common with African countries, both the UAE and many Arab countries have colonial legacies that have shaped our cultural values, literacy levels, and pride in our heritage. Today, several Nigerian and other African academics have observed a cultural conflict in which Africans want to be seen as world citizens first before being identified as Africans.

In 2005, the Nigerian writer Taiye Selasi authored an influential essay in which this phenomenon is labeled Afropolitanism. According to Selasi, what most typifies the Afropolitan consciousness is the refusal to oversimplify – the rejection of being defined by a single reductionist story or narrative. The Cameroonian philosopher Achielle Mbembe and his South African wife Sarah Nutall, suggest that overcoming misconceptions and attempts to oversimplify Africa and African identity can be addressed by a focus on the cultural and creative industries such as publishing, fashion, music, and art.

Similar to the rise of Afropolitans, I believe the Arab World is witnessing the rise of Arabpolitans. As with their analogues in Africa, Arabpolitians share a similar rejection of being reduced to a single, caricatured narrative. As is happening in Africa, Arabs are utilising culture to call for a reinterpretation of global narratives about our region, countries, cultures, and values.

While it is true that the UAE, due to its mineral wealth, is better off than some countries, it was not financial capital that built our publishing industry and addressed low literacy rates. What built our publishing industry and eradicated illiteracy was a deep belief in the worth and capabilities of human capital and a targeted government program to engender a sense of identity and cultural pride. I saw this focus on humanity in the conference room at the seminar in Nigeria, and I see it shining even more brightly from the diversity and richness of the books and cultural output coming out of Africa. It is clear that, what some African countries lack in financial capital, they more than make up for in human capital.

Emerging markets account for 90% of the global population under 30 with Africa and the Middle East having the highest proportion. These are the readers of the future. Consider this too: emerging and developing markets also now account for almost 60% of global GDP, up from just under half only a decade ago. These are the book buyers of the future.

Emerging markets are now drivers of world growth, and it is only a matter of time until these populations and economic trends change the face of the global publishing industry as we know it. At the same time, the contemporary culture of emerging economies is also growing in influence globally. You only need to look at the success of Nollywood [Nigeria’s film industry] to see that African culture has global appeal and significant export potential – why not publishing?

The internet is also playing a critical role in the globalisation of culture, and, similar to more developed publishing markets, is also transforming the African publishing industry. Africa and the Arab World have experienced the highest growth in internet users over the last two decades of any region in the world. This is another sign that emerging regions are rapidly growing in importance, not only in the publishing industry, but in the broader cultural industries.
The growth in the demographic, economic, and cultural influence of emerging economies will no doubt affect the publishing industry. The globalisation of the publishing industry presents an opportunity for African publishers and writers and their peers in other developing publishing markets to meet surging global interest in more diverse, original narratives.
The Nigerian author Chimamaanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken eloquently about the danger of a single story, the danger of reducing regions, countries, and people to a single narrative. It is only by telling our stories and making our voices heard that we can overcome biases, misconceptions and prejudices.  
Readers globally are seeking out more diverse voices and books. They are increasingly interested in other cultures, countries, ideas, lifestyles. Global readers are asking emerging publishing markets in Africa and the Arab World to provide alternative narratives to the single stories that are often told.  

Similar to my optimism about the publishing market in the UAE and Arab World, I am confident Africa’s publishing markets will be rapidly integrated into the global publishing market bringing with them unique voices that have not previously reached global audiences. I think this trend of the integration of developing publishing markets into global markets will inevitably lead to a shift of the global publishing industry from traditional global hubs in developed countries to other important secondary hubs in developed and developing countries. The UAE and Nigeria are clear examples of this rebalancing unfolding.

It is in frontier, emerging publishing markets that the publishing industry will find its future readers and customers. Emerging publishing markets, which played a relatively modest role in the global publishing market just a decade ago, have the potential to occupy a much more important role in the global publishing industry of the future. I have no doubt that Africa and the Arab World will be significant beneficiaries of this rebalancing.

Bodour Al Qasimi is the founder and c.e.o. of Sharjah publishing house Kalimat.