It is true what is said of necessity, of it being the mother of invention. No one would agree more with that proverb than an innovator and start-up founder like Okechukwu Ofili, whose frustration with the publishing and distribution industry in Nigeria propelled him to create OkadaBooks, an e-publishing platform that is revolutionising book publishing in Nigeria.
Prior to establishing the platform, Ofili was an engineer who wrote and made illustrations part-time. “… Because I was an engineer, when I faced publishing and distribution difficulties, instead of sitting down and complaining I said ‘how can we engineer a solution?’ and that’s how I stumbled upon OkadaBooks.” In an industry that is plagued by piracy, fraud and a dearth of adequate publishers and distributors, Ofili’s OkadaBooks is a breath of fresh air, the refreshing change that the industry so desperately needs.
In this exclusive interview with Ventures Africa, Ofili, who had recently quit his job to focus solely on growing his platform, discusses not just the challenges of running a start-up but also the fascinating surprises that make the hustle worth it.
Ventures Africa (VA): What’s the story of Okada books?
Okechukwu Ofili (OO): Okada books started when I moved back to Nigeria in 2010. I had just published a book called How Stupidity Saved My life and I did what every author would do, I went on radio to promote it, I put it in bookstores and I was lucky enough to get my book to sell. But there was a point where I was being owed over N1.5 million and every time I went to the bookstore, I was told, “Oga come back tomorrow, the manager is not around.” They kept posting me. So I did a social media campaign where I said: “XYZbookstore, pay me my money.” I did that and it got a buzz because I was writing for Bella Naija and Ynaija at the time and I had a large followership.
Eventually, the bookstore in question called me to their office, and said: “here’s your money, please stop the social media campaign.” That experience made me realise we need to fix the system. The only reason I was able to fight the system and get my money was that I had social media clout and I had the time to chase it. But there are horror stories of authors who did not get their money from bookstores. Or in some cases, the bookstore disappears. So I said how do you create a transparent system that allows you to know where your book sales are coming from? And makes it easy for you to access your money. That’s how Okada books came about, out of my frustration.Over time, it has evolved to a platform that not only tackles financial transparency and ease of distribution for authors but also allows people easily publish and distribute their books across Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa.
Over time, it has evolved to a platform that not only tackles financial transparency and ease of distribution for authors but also allows people easily publish and distribute their books across Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa.
VA: How does it work?
OO: We say the process is as easy as riding an Okada. If you’ve written your story and have a book cover, you go to the platform, upload your story, set a price and instantly, your book is available for everyone to read. There is no filter. If you publish a good book and people give it positive ratings, it appears at the top of the site. But if you put a bad book with grammatical errors or uninteresting stories, it’ll get pushed to the bottom. We use the audience to edit and filter the good books to the top.
VA: How does OkadaBooks compare to Amazon and the likes?
OO: We are similar in a way but our model is slightly different. Besides South Africa, Amazon is really not interested in Nigeria or Sub-Saharan Africa. That’s not to say it won’t change in the future, but right now, they are not interested in that market. Our competitive advantage is that we are focused on the local market. OkadaBooks is built to adapt to the market and the people, the app allows for the use of mobile money services like mCash. Our focus is on discovering new local talents. We are not settling for publishing the books of well-known authors like Chimamanda Adichie. Rather, we aim to discover the next Adiche by providing a simple publishing platform. These are the things that separate us from the others.
VA: Do you host only literary works?
OO: No. We have SSCE and JAMB past question papers, textbooks, academic materials; it’s not just literary stuff. And Nigerians love their religion so we have religious books as well.
VA: How does being a writer affect running OkadaBooks?
OO: It was through writing and through experiencing the frustration that I founded OkadaBooks. One of the other things that writing does is that I understand what authors go through in Nigeria. I understand what they need. I sat next to the editor-in-chief of a big publishing house at a book reading some years ago complaining that I was being owed. He called me after the event and told me that his firm was being owed over 10 million naira and that’s when I knew it wasn’t just me. The difficulties I experienced as a writer drove me to create something I and other writers can utilise.
VA: What challenges have been faced so far?
OO: Power. You have to spend so much money on fuel, generator and all. You have to spend so much time ensuring that your developers have access to electricity and it makes work difficult. And you also have to deal with getting unsatisfactory services from artisans and repairmen. Things are done over and over before they work. These things make business difficult but what I always say to get me through is, “if it were easy, everybody would be doing it.”
VA: What are the things you find fascinating and interesting about the process?
OO: When you build a product, you really don’t know how people will use it. You have one thing in mind, but people end up making it into something else. When we built Okada, we were just going to focus on books and we thought that people would typically write books in English. But when our analytics spiked, we saw that people in the north were buying a lot of our books. We also realised that there were people writing books, romance novels in Hausa. And it was quite exciting to see the platform being used in that way.
Another thing that’s really impressed me with the app is that people use it as a source of income. We are paying people. Some people have earned over half a million naira on the platform. Some make about twenty to thirty thousand naira per month in supplemental income. It has been quite exciting and we just keep driving because if we are able to increase our users, we are also going to see authors earn more. These things keep us thriving in the face of challenges like the absence of power.
VA: How do you deal with piracy?
OO: We have a DRM protection system that has been audited by Pearson PLC. The DRM system protects books from being pirated. People can only access and read published books through the OkadaBooks app. But there is an option for authors who do not care about DRM and they can choose to opt out of it. The fact is there is no 100 percent solution to piracy but our system makes it very difficult.
VA: What has your experience been like working with other book publishers?
OO: It has been interesting. With everything Nigerian, and I say this because we all criticise ourselves, people are wary. When we started out, there was a lot of caution, but as we proved ourselves, people started asking to promote us and to put their books on the platform. Kachifo was the first to trust us with books to put up on our platform. We also have a good relationship with Cassava Republic. Slowly publishers are realising that they can trust us and are coming to us as opposed to us chasing them.
VA: Do you plan to expand to other African countries?
OO: Absolutely. We want to expand. I quit my job about three months ago because the platform was experiencing exponential growth and I could not manage it at a part-time level anymore. We started getting investors and these investors push us about our growth and expansion. So definitely, we are looking beyond Nigeria to Ghana, Kenya. But first, we need to stabilise and fully understand the Nigerian market before we start moving out to other countries.
VA: Where do you see OkadaBooks in the next 10 years?
OO: I see OkadaBooks being an Uber for authors. There are authors that have their works just sitting on a blog doing nothing, we are approaching them with the idea of converting their blog posts to a book on our platform where they can earn N50,000 to N100, 000 naira a month. If we are able to increase our approximately 150 thousand users to a million and optimise our system by improving the website and app, then we are going to get more views on books and generate more money for authors. Seeing authors make lots of money on OkadaBooks will make me really happy. That is where I want us to be. I want people to say, I become a millionaire by publishing on Okada books and I quit my job at an oil company.
VA: Are there plans to venture into non-digital publishing at some point?
OO: I think the success of a company is focus. For now, Okada Books is trying to become the best digital/e-book firm in Sub-Saharan Africa, that’s our goal. We are not looking at audio or traditional publishing. We would partner with the Farafinas and Kachifos but we would not delve into traditional publishing. I think focus is our path to success in this industry.