Magunga Williams grew up in Kisumu, a Kenyan city that’s home to more than three hundred thousand people but to only two major bookstores. There, Williams told me recently, “people depend on books that they find in supermarkets.” Most of these books come from the United States and Europe. “These supermarkets do not have a rich African collection,” Williams said. But there was one place where he could always find a wider range of books. It was the personal collection of a local man, whose house became a neighborhood meeting place and an unofficial sort of public library. “It helped so many of us,” Williams, who is now twenty-five, said. “There are people who used to skip school so that they could go to the library and read comics.”
Eventually, the library in Kisumu closed. Williams moved to Nairobi and began an undergraduate program in law, but he never forgot the way that a house full of books, in a city with too few, became an escape. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Williams said. “The dream has always been to have a library.” So Williams, while he was in school, started a literary blog, Magunga.com, and when he received his undergraduate degree he decided not to take the necessary final steps to become a lawyer in Kenya. Instead, he made it his mission to create a space like that library—not in a house but on the Internet. The result is a fledgling online pan-African bookshop: the Magunga Bookstore.
In becoming a bookseller, Williams was, in part, following in the footsteps of his girlfriend, Abigail Arunga. A few years ago, Arunga, a Nairobi-based freelance writer in her late twenties, stopped by a few local bookstores and asked if they would stock “Akello,” her self-published collection of poems. At one shop, she was told that Kenyans don’t read poetry. At another, an employee claimed that her ninety-three-page book was too short. “They told me that my book had to be at least a hundred pages,” she said. So she decided to sell the book herself—at poetry readings, literary festivals, even family gatherings. “Literally everywhere. Like, except illegal places,” she told me. She kept a stack of copies in the trunk of her car. “I had at least six in my handbag at all times.”
This summer, she sold her thousandth copy, which translates to nearly one and a half books a day for the past seven hundred days. But she’s frustrated that it came to this. “You have to self-publish, you have to self-market, you have to self-everything,” she said. For both Arunga and Williams, it was an education in literary marketing. The two of them saw the vast gap, especially in Kenya, between those people who sell books and those who write them. “At the end of the day, a bookstore is a business,” Arunga said—and businesses have a way of resisting change. Shops won’t stock books unless they’re popular, but books seldom become popular if they aren’t stocked in shops. “Sometimes, people don’t ask for books because they don’t know that they’re there,” she said.
An epiphany came last winter, when Williams was reading an article in theGuardian and noticed that the newspaper operates its own online bookstore. He told Arunga that they were going to open a bookstore, too. “You’re going to start doing deliveries, because you have a car,” Arunga remembers him telling her. Williams earns his living by writing sponsored posts on his blog, which attracts around five thousand readers each day. He asked his Webmaster, David Mabiria, to add a new tab to the Web site, which would offer books for sale. Williams was evidently undaunted by the fact that he was trying to imitate one of the world’s best-known newspapers on a sub-page of his blog. He and Arunga requested book donations from writer friends, who provided copies of their own work. They launched the feature with ten titles in stock, under a simple slogan: “Spreading the Word.”
Word spread slowly. The Magunga Bookstore made its first sale in December, 2015, when Williams was out of town—he had to ask a friend to deliver the book. “He was telling me he was in traffic,” Williams recalled. “And I was, like, ‘I don’t care. Just go get a boda-boda ride.’ “ (Boda-boda is East African slang for a motorcycle taxi.) He remembers telling the friend, “I’ll pay you even if it costs me double the price. Just to make sure the client is happy.”
Arunga and Williams agreed on one rule: They would stock only African books, distinguishing themselves from larger sellers such as the Guardian and Amazon. “Africans want to read African books,” Arunga said. “It’s all very well to think global, but I do believe in thinking local first.” On the streets of Nairobi, as in the supermarkets in Williams’s home town, venders tend to offer cheap books from the West. Strangely, Arunga says, Kenyan writers rarely attract attention locally until they’ve found success internationally.
In the first few weeks after the page went up—during the holiday season—about two dozen books were sold. Williams and David Mabiria then decided to create a standalone page for the store. They designed the site so that customers could use it on mobile phones or with 2G Internet; it went live in early January. Soon, they began contacting publishers to acquire well-known books like “Americanah,” by the Nigerian-American novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and “From a Crooked Rib,” by the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah. When possible, they added books on a sale-or-return basis, so that copies which didn’t sell could be sent back to the author or the publisher. They added fifty titles in the first three months; today, the site has two hundred, most of which cost between seven and ten dollars. In Nairobi, where the streets are filled with boda-bodas, the site offers same-day delivery.
The online store, which Arunga described as “Amazon for Africa, with fewer payment options,” has now sold a thousand books in Kenya and beyond—a relative handful, but, to Williams, a meaningful start. In order to support a full-time employee, he said, the store only needs to sell fifty books a day. And if that happens it could serve as a proof of concept for literary entrepreneurship in the developing world. “The timing couldn’t be better, because of the growth of social media, the growth of connectivity on the continent,” Eric Chinje, the C.E.O. of a pan-African nongovernmental organization called the African Media Initiative, told me. Chinje believes that, with the right marketing strategy, the store can appeal to a quickly expanding African middle class. A few orders have come in from Germany, the U.S., and the U.K. as well—countries that have historically exported literature to Africa, instead of the other way around.
For now, Williams and Arunga are learning that even modest digital success has concrete consequences: the apartment that they share, in Nairobi, has become a sort of literary warehouse. Whenever a new order comes in, which happens about half a dozen times a day, one of them has to sift through stacks of books, package the purchase, and hand it off to a local courier or the postal service. Perhaps the bookstore of the future won’t look so different from the library in Kisumu. Williams spent much of his youth in a house full of books. It seems increasingly possible that he’ll spend his adulthood in one, too.
By Daniel A. Gross, originally published in The New Yorker, November 21st 2016