The center of the English-speaking publishing world is shared between two cities, London and New York. But what if you based a major publishing company somewhere else, say, Abuja, Nigeria? How would that change the writers and stories we publish? That’s the question that, in 2006, inspired Bibi Bakare-Yusuf to co-found Cassava Republic, a Nigerian publishing house dedicated to changing the way we read African literature. Bakare-Yusuf spoke with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about the company. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Kai Ryssdal: How did you arrange to start this company? I mean, literally, did you bootstrap this with your own credit cards?
Bibi Bakare-Yusuf: Yes.
Ryssdal: I mean, you have no experience in publishing, right?
Bakare-Yusuf: I was an academic. I went to Nigeria to work as a visiting scholar, and I looked on the bookshelves. I felt the bookshelves [were] empty. I’d go into homes, [in the] homes there were no bookshelves. And I felt you cannot build civilization where there are no books. So my husband and I, Jeremy Weate, we co-founded Cassava Republic. We took out a mortgage on our property in the U.K. and just started the process. [We] did a business plan, the business plan was showing red for the next seven years. So we discarded the business plan. The business plan wasn’t telling us what we wanted to see. So we thought, OK, if the business plan isn’t working for us, let’s just start. And we started. And 10 years later, here we are.
Ryssdal: Tell me about, then, the decision to expand. I mean, you started in Nigeria, then you expand to Europe and the U.K., right?
Bakare-Yusuf: Yes, we did. We knew from the get-go that we were going to set up in the U.K., and eventually in the U.S. as well, because London and New York are the center of publishing in the anglophone world. For us, it was important that Africans were owning the means of production in terms of the creating of narrative. Not just telling our own stories, but it was important that we also own the means of production.
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Ryssdal: And also the idea that you are an African company. I mean, I’ve got copies of two books here. One is “Easy Motion Tourist,” the other one is “Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun,” and they visually have a brand identity to them, if that makes any sense.
Bakare-Yusuf: One of the things I was very concerned about is the representation of African books, where there’s a certain imagery of Africa, but it also doesn’t reflect the complex, gorgeous realities of the continent as it is today rather than an imaginary world. So I wanted a branding that was very confident, that still incorporate the colors of Africa on one level, but also branding that suggests a certain cosmopolitanism.
Ryssdal: So here comes the trickier part of the brand identity question, because if you ask most people, I would wager, about what they know about Nigeria, one would be: They’ve got a lot of oil, but that has become a curse for them. And the other one is Boko Haram and the kidnappings there, and all of that that’s been in the news. So there is a certain weight that you have to fight against, I suppose.
Bakare-Yusuf: So, for us, part of what literature does and why it’s important is to really fight and struggle against that imagery of Nigeria just being about Boko Haram and kleptocratic oil society. There are many, many narratives of people who are living, who are surviving, who are thriving. OK? They’re not just surviving, they’re thriving. They’re producing art, they’re producing culture, they’re producing the things that will contribute to civilization. They’re also really working with and against the structure in the country. They’re helping to redefine the kind of society they want to be. And that’s really important.