He is every corporate organisation’s dream man at the top. Well suited, calm-looking and studious, he makes look simple the rigour of running a flourishing publishing firm. Erudite in thought and practical in approach and from being a foot soldier to being the head of his organisation, he knows what it takes to maintain the company’s winning ways. Only one man has the depth of capacity to lead a publishing firm as Nigeria takes a dangerous bend in its economy. Hassan Bala, the Acting Managing Director and Chief Executive of Learn Africa Plc. (formerly Longman), recently made history as the first northerner to be appointed the head of the big publishing firm.

Bala is not new to Learn Africa. In fact, he joined the organisation when it was known as Longman in 2000 as a sales representative in charge of Borno and Yobe States. He became an area manager in 2008 and by 2010, he was already an acting district manager. Three years later, he became the firm’s district manager. Thereafter, he was made head of sales for the North before he was announced as the acting managing director and chief executive officer. In this interview, he tells Samuel Ajayi about the state of publishing and its challenges in Nigeria, his rise to the top, the menace of pirates and why the future is still in the printed material

The book industry, especially the publishing industry, has been under pressure for some time now. How has Learn Africa been able to cope?
The book publishing industry has been under severe pressures for some time now, just like agriculture, mining, transportation, oil and gas, textile, banking and almost other industries in Nigeria. The distinctive feature is that we are in an industry that is very crucial to the human capital development of our economy. Our operations influence almost every aspect of our existence as a nation. As a matter of fact, every family needs intellectual development and you can hardly achieve that without books. The poor reading culture in our country is a big challenge to the publishing industry. Books rank very low on the preference list of an average Nigerian and this has made it difficult to generate turnover that is commensurate with our huge population. Many people would rather spend their money on electrical appliances, jewellery, clothes and on unnecessary social events than buy prescribed textbooks for their children.  It is very important for our people to appreciate the fact that functional education can provide solutions to many of our current socio-economic problems.

I must also say frequent bombings and clashes between insurgents and the law enforcement agents have forced many companies to close their offices while others have substantially reduced their operations and business hours. As a company, we are greatly concerned about this terrible situation, which has limited our promotional activities and revenue generation efforts. Our sales and marketing operatives have not been able to move extensively in order to sell the full benefits of our excellent learning resources to the teachers, school administrators and other influential persons in the educational sector. Several schools and bookshops have been closed down due to the destruction of facilities, widespread killings and threats to lives of students and their teachers. Many teachers in those areas have also lost the opportunity and interest to update their knowledge and upgrade their skills through attendance at capacity building events like the seminars and workshops that we organised in several locations across Nigeria.

Moreover, many of the state governments that used to buy books in bulk for distribution among students in their public schools have stopped doing so and this represents loss of significant business. Huge allocations are channelled towards fighting the criminal elements in order to guarantee security of lives and properties. It is important to state that despite the tough business climate, we have continued to meet our obligations to the employees, suppliers, authors, shareholders, government and other stakeholders. We are also making significant progress in our efforts to take this company to greater heights despite the challenges. We have been able to forge ahead due to the unflinching support of our shareholders, our solid capital base, wide range of excellent products, the goodwill of our customers, the resourcefulness and resilience of our employees, the committed management team and the visionary board.

How much has piracy affected Learn Africa as a publishing firm?
The greatest threat to the survival and prosperity of the book publishing industry in our country is piracy. It is a great assault on the intellectual rights of authors. As a matter of fact, some of the pirates pass off outdated books as new editions to innocent buyers. It is also possible for them to use money that is derived from their criminal trade to finance other dangerous activities. It is painful that some criminals engage in unauthorised printing of fast-moving titles from established publishers and sell them at ridiculous prices. They neither pay royalties to authors as rewards for intellectual creativity nor pay taxes to support the developmental programmes of governments.  Estimates vary, but there is a strong feeling that perhaps more than two-thirds of book industry revenue goes to pirates. The problem has affected the growth of the industry, limited its ability to generate employment opportunities for our growing population and reduced its contribution to the national economy. As a company, we have a standing anti-piracy squad that collaborates with the Nigerian Copyright Commission, the Nigerian Publishers Association and the law enforcement agencies in order to address this problem. We will continue to intensify efforts to minimise, if not eradicate, the menace of book piracy in Nigeria. We would also like to appeal to school authorities, parents, booksellers and the general reading public not to purchase pirated copies.

How do you generate your contents?
Generally speaking, we generate contents from specialists on different subject areas, many of who are independent authors. Sometimes, we commission carefully selected authors and team of authors to provide contents that would be suitable for publication as textbooks for the Nigerian educational system. We have actually partnered with representatives of the Science Teachers Association of Nigeria and The Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council in the publication of textbooks. From time to time, we also receive unsolicited manuscripts from established authors and aspiring authors. We evaluate the manuscripts on the basis of their relevance to our current publishing objectives, the target market and the identified needs of the reading public. We have contractual agreements with all our authors and we do our best to nurture mutually beneficial relationships with them.

Why is Learn Africa mostly into educational book publishing?
Learn Africa Plc was incorporated in August 1961 as a book publishing company.  It developed as a subsidiary of the well-known international company, Longman Group UK Limited, now known as Pearson Education Limited, which is the world’s largest education business. Learn Africa’s mission at inception was the marketing and distribution of imported Longman Group titles, as well as developing publishing in English and the indigenous languages, to meet the growing book requirements of the Nigerian market.  Today, Learn Africa is the largest educational publisher in Nigeria with over 5, 000 titles. We publish educational materials for pre-school, primary, secondary, tertiary and professional levels. Our publications enjoy wide prescriptions at all tiers of education and are consistently extolled by all users for their excellent quality and pedagogical adequacy. Learn Africa’s objective is to sustain its leadership position through the provision of educational products of the highest quality. We have achieved an enviable reputation for our ability to identify, encourage and utilise the services of talented Nigerian authors. This effort has enabled us to publish some of Nigeria’s most successful learning texts, such as: NERDC Basic Mathematics, New Concept Mathematics, Stone & Cozens Biology, New Concept English series at the secondary school level, as well as Nigeria Primary English, New Method Mathematics and Basic Science and Technology at the primary school level.

We are also involved in the publication of creative writing titles, continuous assessment booklets, school diaries and attendance registers. Learn Africa’s publishing skills and authorship resources are formidable; its book distribution network is very comprehensive and dynamic, while its products enjoy worldwide acclaim for their content and value.
Our leading role in publishing in Nigeria has enabled us to secure and efficiently execute several and significant book-related contracts from governments and allied agencies. Our organisation was one of the few publishers appointed at the inception of the UPE in 1976, to fashion out a number of books in the core subject areas of Mathematics, English and Science at the primary level, for use in the implementation of the scheme. The company has subsequently participated in all the tranches of the World Bank and the PTF Educational materials procurement programmes and is a major player in the Universal Basic Education programme. In line with our corporate mission, we have remained focussed on the provision of first-rate educational materials that would be of great benefit to readers of all ages and interests.

Who are your two closest competitors and how do they affect your market share?
Without sounding immodest, I am confident that our new and backlist titles enjoy widespread acceptance and patronage at all levels of the Nigerian educational system. Our titles have been widely adjudged to be excellent in terms of contents and production quality. Besides, our highly motivated salespersons regularly engage school administrators, subject teachers, government officials, booksellers and other relevant targets across Nigeria in order to convince them of the great benefits that are inherent in the various products that we have. Moreover, we update our textbooks regularly in order to align them with changes in the curriculum requirements, introduce new publications to meet new demand and come up with exciting initiatives to support teaching and learning. In addition, we have an extensive distribution network, which ensures that our customers can obtain stocks without any difficulty. I can boldly say that we are enjoying impressive patronage from all segments of the educational books market in Nigeria. As you might be aware, Learn Africa Plc has a rich heritage of excellence in books publishing and marketing. The current board, management and staff are committed to ensuring that we continue to set the pace for our competitors in terms of product range, quality of offerings, customer engagement, market share, turnover and return on equity.

You have been in charge of northern operations of Learn Africa before your most recent appointment. What are you bringing into your new position?
I joined the then Longman Nigeria Plc in 2000 as a sales representative (Borno/Yobe States) and was promoted to the rank of an area manager in 2008. In 2010, I became an acting district manager; I was promoted to the position of a district manager in 2013. I was the head of sales (North) before my most recent appointment as the acting managing director/ chief executive. I have also been privileged to attend several courses on sales management, leadership, strategic management, and negotiation just to mention a few. I have been able to rise through the ranks to my present position through hard work, dedication and most important, the grace of the Almighty Allah. I am determined to bring my wealth of experience in educational books marketing and management of human and material resources to bear on the operations of Learn Africa Plc. I will lead by example and do all that is humanly possible to reposition, reform and transform all our structures, processes and activities, and instill the highest level of transparency and good corporate ethics in order to take our company to greater heights.
We will continue to carry out periodic review of our operations with a view to maintaining very excellent relationships with authors, teachers, school authorities, ministries of education, educational agencies, booksellers and other relevant groups across the federation. We will never take our customers for granted because without them, there will be no Learn Africa Plc. We will always place strong emphasis on good corporate governance practices, cost containment and efficiency in order to guarantee optimum performance at all times.

What roles do book fairs play in positioning Learn Africa as market leaders?
We participate in many local and foreign book fairs. We seize the opportunity of such events to initiate relationships with policy makers in the educational sector, secure copyright permits, obtain exclusive marketing rights and broaden our partnerships with reputable service providers in the book publishing industry.

How has the Internet affected the book publishing industry in Nigeria?
As a proactive company, we are aligning with the growing interest in electronic books. We actually do not consider it to be a threat because we already have very good contents in the electronic format. I hasten to add that printed books and electronic books would continue to be available in the global book market for a long time to come.

How has foreign exchange restrictions affected your business?
The foreign exchange restrictions have affected our operations because the book publishing industry depends on imported printing equipment and materials such as ink, film, plate and paper which are brought in at highly prohibitive foreign exchange rates. All these lead to high cost of locally produced books, which makes it difficult for us to achieve good returns on investments. Establishing letters of credit has become practically impossible while remitting payments after due dates of the already established letters of credit now takes forever. However, the reputation of good business ethics that we have built with all our vendors and suppliers is now working in our favour.

How much of your business is local content and how much is foreign?
With the world having become a global village, business managers should ensure a fair mix of both local and foreign contents. At Learn Africa, we have continued to ensure this. We print locally and offshore. We source for authors locally and offshore. We edit and design our books locally and offshore. Currently, we do not have any expatriate on our payroll.  In all of these, our local content will be in excess of 70 per cent with the balance sourced offshore. It is hoped, however, that the government would facilitate the revival of our paper mills and the production of other raw materials for books locally in line with the current campaign to reduce import dependency.

Learn Africa NECO Excellence Award is regarded as a commendable initiative to reward outstanding performance. What is your organisation’s plan to expand the scope and sustain the award for the fifth year?
Learn Africa Education Development Foundation was established to support the growth and development of the education sector through the provision of educational infrastructure and engagement in philanthropic activities that promote learning. I am happy to report that this corporate social responsibility arm of the company has been making remarkable progress. The objective was and remains to underscore the importance of excellence in education in our national development as well as encourage hard work, diligent scholarship and healthy competition. The awards recognise the top-three candidates at the June-July Senior Secondary Certificate Examinations (SSCE) conducted by the National Examinations Council (NECO) nationally and in every state of the federation and Abuja. We also appreciate the overall best students in each of the following subjects – English Language, Mathematics, Biology and History. In addition, one teacher from the school that produced the first placed candidate is recognised while all the schools that produced winners receive free books from the foundation. The maiden edition of the event took place in 2012 during which 111 students, 97 schools and 37 teachers won various awards. A similar event took place last year and we are making preparations to ensure that the fifth year edition is even more successful.

Reading culture in Nigeria is said to be on the decline due to the influence of social media. What can Learn Africa Plc do to revive this culture?
We invest a lot of funds into the development of school libraries through the donation of books. We are interested in encouraging students to imbibe the culture of reading not only to enhance their academic performance but also as a means of developing their personality. I will like to appeal to the government to commit more funds to the effective operations of library boards so that they can provide conducive reading environments and current books for the benefit of our people. Public-spirited individuals and organisations can also contact us to find out how they can sponsor book donations to school libraries and public libraries across our country.