Otunba Olayinka Lawal-Solarin is the Chairman/Chief Executive of Lantern Books. He bares his mind, in this interview with KAYODE OLANREWAJU, on germane issues in the publishing industry, teachers’ development, and the need for the country to go back to the basics.
How has the economic recession affected the publishing industry?
Well, let me say terribly; it is terrible. Since printing industry is associated with publishing scarcity of foreign exchange (Forex) has affected publishing companies and their operations in monumental ways.
First, we should realise that we do not produce papers in the country, and we do not produce any printing materials either. Materials such as ink, plates and chemicals are all imported and, therefore, if all printing materials are imported and we cannot access foreign exchange, obviously it will greatly affect publishing industry and books generally.
In concrete terms, how much did you spend on importation of printing materials few years ago, and what has been the situation in the last two years?
First of all, Lantern Publications Nigeria Limited is not a gauge for all publishing companies in the country, because we are exceptional in the sense that we print our own books.
Few other printers also do that. But, if you want to use Lantern Books as a gauge for publishing industry, I will say that before the exchange rate was between N150 and N165 per dollars, and now it is N498 to a dollar. To worsen the situation we cannot get the foreign exchange at all. We are now spending about three times the cost we were spending before.
What would you say about the tariff system on books?
Of course, the tariff system as it concerns publishing and printing industries has not always been very favourable, but on the other hand, we should have developed our own paper mills.
At least, we have two paper mills; one at Oku-Iboku and the other at Iwopin in Ogun State that could support the printing industry. They are moribund and that has accounted for the heavy reliance on books importation, which is being killed by tariff.
Apart from resuscitation of the paper mills at Oku-Iboku and Iwopin, what other suggestions will you put forward to improve the industry?
Well, like I said earlier, you have to look at the publishing industry as you look at the Nollywood. Nollywood generates a lot of foreign exchange for Nigeria. And, not only that it is a local cultur- a l product that invests in Nigerian culture, and therefore most Nigerians in the Diaspora and other African countries watch the Nollywood films and that generates a lot of money for the country as well as develops the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It contributes between 1.5 to 5 per cent to the GDP. Of course, the publishing industry is in that category because it also has cultural contents.
Apart from the fact that if you write books, which are educational and sound, they would not only educate Nigerians, at the end of the day, we would have educated Africans while our kids in the Diaspora, who want to know about what is happening at home will be able to do so.
So we need government intervention in the sector as the Nollywood industry once enjoyed. Now, that is one way of looking at it. So, if we follow the National Book Policy, we would not only develop the book publishing industry. Of course, we cannot restrict importation of books since there is free movement of books, but on the other hand it will be easier to control. Films have free movement to Nigeria as we can go to cinemas to watch Nollywood films.
Many Nigerians both in Nigeria and abroad watch Nollywood films and in Africa as well as. The same thing is replicated in the publishing industry. If you write books that are culturally relevant in Nigeria, you will find out that Nigerians will read and we are experiencing that already. And, Lantern is experienced in that because we publish culturally relevant books and we see that Nigerians love them.
At a time the publishing companies were complaining about the dearth of writers in the country, has this been addressed?
It depends on the type of authors you are referring to. There are two types of writers; the non-fiction and fiction authors. The non-fiction authors are not producing books mainly for school curriculum, but they write story books.
But, there shouldn’t have been the dearth of authors because there are a lot of professors and teachers, who are experienced and are writing books. We do not have that kind of problems.
I don’t know if other publishers have this problem, but there is a long gestation period between when we get an author to write a book, and when the book is published.
If you area publisher you cannot wait for that, and what some publishers do is to try to cut corners by going to India to publish their books. But, that is not in the best interest of publishing industry in Nigeria because there is a National Book Policy, which states clearly that to have the right cultural milieu we should encourage teachers and Nigerian authors to write textbooks, but that National Book Policy is not being enforced.
Book is critical to education in any clime, but the cost of books is becoming highly unaffordable to the parents and students. Is there anything the publishing industry is doing to address this?
I am not the President of the Nigerian Publishers’ Association, so I don’t want to go into what the association is doing about that. Lantern Books is just one of the many branches of the association and it is so established to make impression in publishing companies in Nigeria.
The trend here is to expect the industry to do something that the government is not encouraging and that is not possible because we have to work hand in hand. The National Book Policy, like I said earlier, is the area in which we can work together in terms of implementing its provisions.
We can’t do this without the government. Let me give you an example, when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was there as President, he did actually has a Minister, who worked with publishing industry to developing the book industry, but as soon as he left that process became moribund.
Again, there is no continuity in the system. There has been the Minister of Information and Culture, and there is Minister of Information, and another Minister of Culture. So, there is no continuity and when there is no continuity we will have all kinds of problems and this cannot resolve the issues.
I think at the moment, if we need to do anything about that, this government, publishers and the printers should sit down together and work out some kind of system that would make publishing industry thrive again.
There is the complaint of skill gaps in the printing industry, what is your reaction to this?
There is skill gap everywhere in the world. There is skill gap in the United States, United Kingdom and all other part of the world, with companies out sourcing their personnel. But, the only answer to this is that we have to develop our own skills.
The government once had Trade Schools for the development of these skills, but where are they now? There was a Trade School at Yaba, where in the good old days they were training printers and other relevant skills. This is what I said earlier about lack of continuity in the system.
They changed the curriculum, changed the system, and changed whatever it is over the years. Let me say this that 57 years after independence, we have not as a country gone anywhere. But, Chief Obafemi Awolowo did it and that is what we are enjoying till today.
He built infrastructure, schools, agriculture and roads. But what happened to the rest of the country. Lantern Books Publishers has been operating for over 50 years successfully, and if I may ask how many companies or entrepreneurs have had 50 years of continuous experience to develop any organisation? Everybody is looking for quick money.
What is your take on the situation where children take as many as 22 subjects in the school curriculum, especially in private primary and secondary schools?
I don’t think any school can do that. We don’t have teachers, because they no longer involve the children in the teaching-learning process. Many of the teachers themselves do not even know the subjects they are teaching.
So, there is the curriculum development department that develops curriculum and handed them over to the school system. When we were young there were Teacher Training Colleges all over the place, and there were so many trained teachers in the system everywhere.
Tell me where those teacher training schools are now. What we have are people who go to the universities and who do not even understand the courses they learned in the university, only to come out to teach the children.
What in your expectation will be the state of publishing industry in the next 10 years?
Well, if I say or tell you something or probably if I can give you figures now, is anybody listening. In fact, I have written tons of articles and publications on education development in newspapers, but nobody has done anything about all those suggestions or recommendations.
But, I am going to give you a statistics; we have 170 million people; we have 150 million subscribers of GSM telephone. Let us go back to that statistics, demographics says that at least 25 per cent of that 170 million, are children (9.42 million children).
Haven’t you heard that many children are not in school in Nigeria? I went to the Island sometimes ago and when I was coming back at night through Yaba, I saw many street children sleeping on the medians of the road. I got so sad because these children have not been trained.
Indeed, they are dangerous specie in the next five years. We are talking about kidnapping, armed robbery now, but we are breeding those kids because they didn’t go to school.
Now, where do we start? The government built school; they said they are free schools, but many parents cannot afford to send their children to schools. The government said after the children, but in actual fact, the government cannot really look after all of them. So, we are in a dilemma.
In your assessment, what will you say is the fate of publishing industry going by this current trend?
First and foremost, I cannot proclaim the fate of anything but, I can tell you that there are a lot of discussions ongoing on education. There is an organisation called the DAWN Commission, which is trying to revive History and education.
They hired old people and professors who are thinkers, who will go back and think about how to revive History and education in line with the resources and needs of the country.
We need those old people to get back and do something. Now, you can see that Yorubas have come together and they are working 24 hours to develop their region. But, what happens to the rest of the country,and that is the issue