Kenya: Mike Mburu - I Don't Believe That Kenyans Don't Read

interview

Meet Mike Mburu, a father of three girls, is a Kenyan book enthusiast and the sales and marketing manager of Kwani Trust.

You've probably seen him set up a book store at some of the most prominent art events in the country. He is comfortable setting up on the streets, in a corridor, at the entrance to an event or on a random corner so long as the books, mostly by African authors, gain a presence and have a space to breath, be seen and felt.

For how long have you worked with Kwani Trust, and how has your experience been, considering you've been there since the time Binyavanga was around to date?

I have worked at Kwani Trust for thirteen years now. I joined Kwani? when it was housed at Queensway Towers in town.

The exciting thing is that we were a total of five staff members then, and we would share resources such as the desktop computer which we used in turns.

Our meetings were held in restaurants, but I believe these were the best moments at Kwani? There was no obstruction of ideas. Some of the best ideas and projects that Kwani later undertook were born then. This includes projects such as Kwani? Open Mic, Kwanini? Series and the Kwani? Series. Kwani was a party.

Billy Kahora, Annette Majanja, June Wanjiru, Amunga, Erick Orende, Binya and Kairo Kiarie were the people working for Kwani Trust in those earlier years.

You are passionate about your work. Did you start selling books by joining Kwani Trust or was it something you picked up way earlier?

When I came to Nairobi in 2002, I immediately joined the arts through a project called Voice of a Dream by Mumbi Kaigwa. Through that project, I met Philip Oketch who then ran Fifima, an organisation that dealt with the distribution and management of Kenyan artists.

Through Fifima, I started distributing Kenyan music in form of CD's such as Suzanna Owiyo's, Kalamashaka's, Erick Wainaina's, Jomenes' and others.

I later started doing this independently and it was in the process of hawking music in offices and selling at events that I heard of a book that had been launched called Kwani.

I believed my clients would love to read an exciting creative book. I visited Kwani? offices and purchased copies of the book, and to my surprise, they sold like hot cake. In a week, I would move twenty to thirty copies.

When Binyavanga heard about me, he offered me a job at Kwani I did not have prior training in sales and marketing, but while working with Kwani?, I studied marketing management to degree level.

What are some of your influences?

Binyavanga has been one of my greatest influences. He believed in my ability to do things without necessarily having the papers. I never at one point believed I would get a formal job, and that's why I aggressively sold music and books at offices.

One of my other influences is Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor author of Dust and The Dragon Fly Sea. I worked with her on Worlds of the Indian Ocean, a big curriculum project for Aga Khan University. I am also passionate about arts and nothing makes me happier than seeing the growth of all forms of art in Kenya.

You are comfortable setting up a book store in some of the eccentric spaces. Tell us about some of the most challenging yet fulfilling events that you've had to sell books at?

Concert venues have been some of the most challenging spaces. I've met people there that I've sold to, who would prefer buying books at more chilled spaces.

Sales at such venues have not been as high as expected. The best spaces have been at literary events such as the Bookfair, Literary festivals, Book Parties, Book Clubs and Theatre spaces.

What are some of the places that your work has taken you, that would otherwise not have happened?

Books have taken me to the Cape Town International BookFair, Sauti za Busara Festival in Tanzania, to Makerere University for a Jeniffer Makumbi, author of Kintu event, to Rwanda Spoken word event amongst other places.

Besides the bookshop, you are also inclined to events planning. What are some of the outstanding events that you've worked on?

I've worked on events such as Kwani? Litfest, Kwani? Open Mic, Worlds of The Indian Ocean by Aga Khan University Faculty of arts and Sciences, Kenya International Film Festival, Paragasha and most recently, the Macondo Literary Festival.

You've recently revived Kwani Open Mic, an event that you have helped organise over the years. What different things should we expect?

We want to not only focus on Poetry and Spoken word, but also to give a platform to Story Tellers and Hip Hop artists. As you may know, some of the best story tellers have passed through Kwani? Open Mic. People like Ogutu Muraya, Bryan Ngartia, Abu Sense, and Laura Ekumbo have all at some point performed at Kwani Open Mic. We hope to continue nurturing talent.

Tell us something that we may not know about you?

Besides being a father of three beautiful daughters, I have worked with self published authors in producing quality books. I have also worked on their launches and distribution plans.

Some of the projects include Unbounded by Boniface Mwangi, Living on the Edge by Jagi Gakunju, From Misery to Joy by Asaph Ngethe Macua and I am currently working with Joseph Muthee on his translated book Mau Mau Detainee.

Any last words?

There is this notion that Kenyans don't read. I don't believe in it. Some of the books I've distributed have sold out within three months and the customers are 98 per cent Kenyans. Theirs is a ripe market for well-done books.

By well done I mean good content, well edited and with a good quality of print. Clients want beautiful well packaged and interesting reads. A good book with a great cover, good quality paper and great overall design will do well in any market.

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