I first became aware of Deborah Ahenkorah a few years ago when I was prospecting the internet for groups working to address diversity issues in children’s publishing. Ahenkorah is the cofounder and executive director of Golden Baobab, the groundbreaking pan-African social enterprise behind the Golden Baobab Prizes for African children’s literature. Golden Baobab not only uses its literary competition to identify talented writers and illustrators but also acts almost as a literary agency, working through its publishing partnerships to help secure book contracts for the competition’s shortlisted and prizewinning writers. Hailed by the global philanthropic organization Echoing Green in 2011 as one of the most “game changing social innovators in the world today” and named one of Africa’s Top 30 Most Inspirational Young People by Youth Village South Africa, Ahenkorah is one of a generation of bright young Ghanaians educated in the United States who chose to return to Ghana, where she is investing her talent and knowledge in the development of her homeland.
In Africa she has become a household name for her unflagging efforts to inspire a new generation of African authors to write children’s literature in which African youth can see themselves reflected. When she was young, growing up in Ghana, her mother would take her to a children’s library that had been started by a Canadian woman, Kathy Knowles of the Osu Children’s Library Fund. That is where Deborah developed her love of reading. Her younger self thought it was “very cool” that the Canadian benefactor cared about the needs of Ghanaian children, and she vowed to emulate that act of kindness when she grew up. And she has. In fact, she’s built a whole social enterprise around giving back — through children’s books. She graciously took the time to answer some questions about Golden Baobab, publishing in Africa, and her passion for children’s books.
Summer Edward: As a student activist at Bryn Mawr College, you started a book-drive club that shipped eight thousand books to more than thirty countries in Africa. One night, you say, “a light bulb went on” in your head. Can you describe that “aha” moment?
Deborah Ahenkorah: I was boxing up donations and came across a book with pictures of a little African girl, and had a fleeting thought that the book was much different from the rest. It did not really make sense to me that it was the only book of its kind I had seen while organizing the book drive. This made me realize that in the children’s book industry, the voices and stories of Africans were missing. So I decided to do something about it.
SE: Please tell us about the evolution of your work.
DA: The book drive was the genesis. It inspired everything, and we have certainly come a long way. Because of my own experiences growing up, I was full of excitement and passion about children having access to books, so establishing Golden Baobab and our prizes happened naturally. Children deserve all kinds of books, and I believe that African children deserve to read more about themselves. Through the book drive we helped children in some African countries be able to read about others. Now, through Golden Baobab, we are hoping to create opportunities for children across the continent to read more about themselves.
SE: Golden Baobab is dedicated to “championing the finest African stories for children” and celebrating and supporting the people who create these stories. In addition to awarding the Golden Baobab Prizes, how do you go about doing this?
DA: We also organize workshops and other initiatives to champion African writers and illustrators to create beautiful stories for children. We have a business arm, the African Bureau Stories, which is a publishing and multimedia social enterprise. It specializes in stories that reflect African experiences and produces beautiful, high-quality children’s and young adult fiction.
We are very excited that the African Bureau will be launching new book titles for children within the year. We think it is very important that stories told by Africans reach beyond the continent to the diaspora and to places like the Caribbean, the UK, the United States, etc. We would love to encourage people to check out these books and engage with us at www.africanbureau.com and on our Facebook page: facebook.com/africanbureau.
SE: You speak often about transforming the children’s book industry in Africa. Why does it need to be transformed?
DA: Industries around the globe are transforming, and so should ours. The insufficient supply of culturally sensitive books for African children has been going on for a very long time. It should not be an issue we still face today. It seems to have become the norm, but we really should uproot the problem. That is why I think we need to adopt transformative and even some radical approaches.
SE: You have said you were running on passion with little expertise when you started Golden Baobab. How did you go about developing the necessary business acumen?
DA: I really simply learned on the job. We took things one step at a time and addressed hurdles as they came up.
SE: Do you think women have a unique role to play in the children’s publishing industry, and in social change movements in general?
DA: Countless women have given me their shoulders to stand on and have pulled me up along this journey. I am very grateful to the many inspiring women who have mentored me and to the ones I have admired from afar. I believe young women should be able to see themselves reflected when they look at the women who inspire them. This way of thinking is very close to Golden Baobab’s vision to ensure that young Africans have access to books they can relate to and that represent them. It leaves young people feeling empowered and gives them a sense of place in the world.
SE: What financial advice do you have for fledgling social enterprises looking to grow, raise funds, and scale up their operations?
DA: I have come to learn that you won’t get opportunities if you don’t go after them. They don’t come to you when you sit down or fold your arms. You have to work hard and pursue them. We got many of the funding sources we now have because we put in a lot of effort to apply for them. There is really no magical formula involved.
SE: There was a paper published in 2000 out of the University of Botswana that stated that “Africa imports close to 70% of its book needs and exports less than 5% of its total output.” Has that scenario changed?
DA: I really cannot say if the scenario has changed. Certainly, there is a lot more attention being paid and there are more organizations around, such as Nal’ibali and FunDza. There are many people working hard to make a dent in this field. I can say that we are in a much better position now than before.
SE: You’ve been very vocal about the role that social media and email marketing played in establishing and promoting Golden Baobab.
DA: We began in 2008. Since then, the way the internet and social media work have changed very much. We got noticed quite quickly because the social media platform in Africa was not as noisy as it is now. I believe social media is a very powerful way to reach audiences. Organizations that invest well in their social media can reap some extraordinary benefits. We have certainly benefited from it.
SE: You did an interview for e.TV Ghana’s show Be Bold in which you said, “It’s not rocket science, you know, producing books for children. We shouldn’t be stumped by something like that, not in this age.” It makes me think of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which has spotlighted the frustration of communities flummoxed by the publishing industry’s failure to produce children’s books that adequately reflect them and their experiences. I also think of the struggles of the children’s book industry in my own region, the Caribbean. If bookmaking is not rocket science and there are so many untold and under-told stories, so much potential waiting to be tapped, then why have we been struggling for so long with this issue of under-representation in children’s publishing?
DA: Technology has simplified the publishing industry. In the past, there were the major players who determined what got published. It was a largely white industry, thus what was produced predominantly catered to white audiences. Now many more people can insert themselves into the process. If we want to see more books that represent people of color, we have to do it ourselves. I am a firm believer in being the change you want to see. We need more active participants and problem-solvers and fewer people sitting on the sidelines. We need more people of color driving the innovation, setting up publishing houses, and producing diverse content for children. If this happens more often, we will be halfway toward solving the problem.
More on Anansesem magazine
Anansesem is an online Caribbean children’s literature magazine founded in 2010. It is a community-driven digital forum in which Caribbean children’s literature can be discussed, dissected, and celebrated. In addition to discovering and nurturing new writers and illustrators, Anansesem provides an outlet for the non-commercial work of established children’s book creators. We place a strong emphasis on marginalized voices, experimental writing, and works by important but often overlooked Caribbean authors.
Anansesem is the first children’s literature publication in the English-speaking Caribbean. We have published works that challenge accepted views of children’s literature, that foster an international and multicultural sensibility of children’s literature, and that preserve and extend the literary tradition of Caribbean children’s writing. As sponsors of innovation and purveyors of experimentation, we are proud to be an iconoclast in the publishing world. Visit Anansesem online at anansesem.com.
From the November/December 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.