Every week in the Nation, there is a round up of bestselling books in Nairobi’s major bookshops. The books in this list often cover the same few topics: self-help, religion, and business. At the Storymoja Nyamachoma Festival last August, I spoke to the head librarian at the Kenya National Library and asked her “What kinds of books are popular? What topics are Kenyans interested in?” What do you think she said? Self-help, religion and business.
Why is this? Most articles we read about the book business in Kenya talk about how Kenyans don’t buy books; they prefer to read newspapers, if they read anything at all. A comment I often hear is that books are linked to learning and most Kenyans stop buying or reading books as soon as they stop learning. Well, the news is that many people are going back to school. MBA courses are popular – at USIU, Nairobi University and Strathmore, for example.
What are these business books that people are buying? What kinds of businesses are used as examples in them? What do YOU think? Yes, they are mostly non-Kenyan books with non-Kenyan examples. Why is this the case?
Why should it be so difficult to find books that use more Kenyan examples, African examples, or at least examples from other developing countries? Most books focus on the industrialised countries. Most websites do likewise.
Recently, I was looking for business planning software. Often these come with templates for common home-based businesses. This was the list for 2009: fast food franchises; repair businesses; debt collection agencies; medical supplies; motivational speakers; cleaning businesses; discount/surplus stores; sports equipment; senior care; and chocolate. Yes, chocolate! In other years, it has included things like pet care. This software was developed in Canada. Is this list transferable to Kenya? No. Well, perhaps only the repair and cleaning businesses. Can a Kenyan list be generated? What would you put on it? It must include hair care and tailoring, of course!
I was fortunate enough to see the final draft of the first book in the Uta Do? Storymoja Business Series. What I liked about it was how it dealt with the concept of a chapati business, and how it used English with a slight Sheng approach. This makes it a readable, approachable book that is Kenyan, even East African. I’m told the Uta Do? Series will provide essential how-to guidelines on all aspects of starting and running all kinds of businesses, especially those typical to the East African region. The target is young, creative, soon-to-be entrepreneurs.
A laudable effort, but there is even more business writing that is in demand in Kenya. We need books that discuss general management principles that use Kenyan examples. USIU is developing case studies on local businesses such as the Commercial Bank of Africa, Safaricom, and Bidco. So the raw data is available. Writing books about the secrets of success of any of these companies is a good idea. People are fascinated by local business people too, like Michael Joseph, head of Safaricom – who might not be Kenyan, but seems to think like one. His biography and opinions on business would sell like hot chapati!
Things have changed since Kenyans have discovered that IPOs are not an automatic way of making money very quickly, but again, a book explaining how the stock market works, with Kenyan examples, would sell well.
How to Write the Books
Now we know there is a need, how should we go about writing these business books? I am a fiction writer, as opposed to a business writer, but I do know now that the first draft is never good enough. This wasn’t an easy lesson to learn, because I thought that inspiration was what drives a brilliant book. You have probably heard this said: Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Writing a good book is hard work, and getting the first draft done is just the beginning. You need to be able to improve the book.
I’ll suggest a few things you can do.
First focus. What is your book about? Who do you think are the people likely to read it? Write a logical outline to show how the book flows, from chapter to chapter. Make sure it is coherent and sticks to the point. Say you are writing a book about paying taxes. We know our politicians don’t pay theirs, but a business book is probably not the place to belabour the point. Make a joke about it if you wish, and move on. Stick to the point.
Language. For many of us, English is not our first language. We’ve grown up using it, we speak it fairly well, but sometimes it still feels foreign. A good writer has to learn to manipulate words. You need to understand the rules of grammar so you can stick to them, or break them if you choose. There are books you can buy on grammar at Text Book Centre, for example, and courses on English you can take at the British Council. Don’t think you learnt it all at school; there’s always more to learn if words are to be your tools. One big mistake that new writers often make is that they try to use too many big words to demonstrate that they are clever or know good English. There is absolutely no need to do this. We need to use language to communicate, not to show off. The questions to ask yourself are: What are the best words that communicate the idea? Is it clear enough?
The third thing is to find yourself a good editor. This may be hard in Kenya, but persevere. Then, you need to learn how to work with your editor. It’s not necessarily easy. The editor of my novel, “Reading the Ceiling,” gave me seventeen pages of single-spaced comments. I had the choice – I could listen to her, and try to improve my book; or I could simply ignore everything she suggested. The effort required to improve the book was more than I thought I could muster. The time was hard to find. The emotional hurdle was another difficulty – you see I thought I had finished the book. Before I could start to rewrite, I needed to change my mindset. I had to acknowledge first that someone thought my book was good enough to spend time on, and good enough to want to work with me to improve. Then I had to work at making it better. The truth is, it was harder than writing the initial draft. When I changed something, for example, I had to trace it back to something else, or go forward in the text to correct all the other references. It was difficult, but it needed to be done. And it made my book a better book.
I would love to quote from a Kenyan business writer to end this piece, and when the Uta Do? Storymoja Series are launched I’ll be able to do so. Instead, I have chosen a quote from Tom Peters, a well-known business writer who wrote a book called “In Search of Excellence.” He was asked: What is the secret to being a good business writer? I got his response from the Financial Times website.
“There is no secret: try hard, then try again. Are you throwing enough spaghetti at the wall so that some of it will stick? Whoever does the most stuff has the highest chance of doing well. It’s about getting stuff done.
I had a neighbour who won a Nobel Prize for his work on kidneys – he carried out the first effective transplant. I once asked him how he’d done it. ‘We did the most operations,’ he told me. At any point in time there are 10 people up there – one of them does the most.
You see, if you just keep at it for long enough, something good is bound to emerge.”
What is the secret to being a good business writer in Kenya? Recognise the need, do the research, put your nose down, write, write. Then rewrite, rewrite. My challenge to you is: Get the work done.
Dayo Forster is a financial development specialist, and is passionate about the possibilities entrepreneurship offers in improving lives and livelihoods. She loves writing and has also published a novel, Reading the Ceiling, which was short listed for the Commonwealth Prize. For a while, she ran a company that developed web-based database solutions. During that time, she consulted for a variety of companies, including banks, insurance companies and telecommunications firms. As an offspring from a line of female Gambian entrepreneurs – her grandmother, mother and sister have all run successful businesses – Dayo hopes that her genes will stay true to their nature. She is currently pursuing an Executive MBA at New York University / London School of Economics. She lives in Nairobi with her husband and three children.