Corruption to blame for high cost of textbooks in Kenya

Parents shop for books at a Nairobi bookshop
Parents shop for books at a Nairobi bookshop

In Kenya, the availability of textbooks has not kept pace with the rapid increase in enrollment due to the free primary education policy and the problem has been compounded by the prohibitive cost of textbooks.

A report released by Unesco this month shows that in Kenya, textbooks are more expensive than in many other countries. The report notes that the cost of textbooks varies dramatically the world over with unit costs of a primary textbook in Sub Sahara Africa ranging between US$2 (Sh200) and US$4 (Sh400) compared to US$0.33 (Sh33) and US$0.66 (Sh66) in Vietnam. “(But) in Kenya, the unit annual textbook cost per pupil of a set of textbooks for Grade 1 is 2.5 times more than what it costs in Madagascar.”

The report points to a variety of reasons why the costs vary so dramatically and these include fluctuating prices for raw materials, manufacturing, procurement, publishing overheads among others. It also says corruption could influence the price of textbooks. “The risk of corruption is high across the value chain for teaching and learning materials, especially before textbooks reach schools. There is the risk for example that textbook contracts are awarded towards procuring books of lower quality and higher cost.”

Locally, middle level private schools charge an annual fee of between Sh3,000 and Sh5,000 for textbooks per pupil, provide pupils with tattered books and insist on parents buying supplementary textbooks that cost much more than the approved textbooks. There are many varieties of these revision books and one is hard pressed to explain the criteria used to select one version from the other.

Many of these are ‘authored’ or photocopied by teachers who teach the same subjects in their schools or people known to the schools and one can sense corruption and/or collusion in the fact that they are ‘revised’ practically every year, although the changes made, if any, are irrelevant. Corruption is perpetuated through the revision which rules out passing on the books to the pupils’ siblings or friends and the lower quality of paper used.

This subtle form of graft makes books much more expensive, despite the fact that they are published locally, which Unesco says can bring prices down. The UN body gives the example of Vietnam, where the price per book is so much lower than in Sub Sahara Africa, “because it prints books in the country and facilitates competition among publishers to drive prices down”. The report however notes that Vietnam’s book market is large and hence the benefit of printing ‘in-country’ as opposed to smaller markets that would make printing of books in-country unviable.

The other element that makes the price of textbooks unreasonable in Kenya as compared to a country like Rwanda is the distribution mode used. “Although both countries use commercial distribution to deliver books to schools, the unit textbook cost in Kenya is almost 50 per cent higher partly because publishers in Rwanda deliver directly to schools whereas in Kenya they are delivered through bookseller middlemen.”

Technical specifications is another issue. In some Sub Sahara Africa, textbooks are printed on poor quality paper with poor binding. “Though produced cheaply, textbooks constantly needed to be replaced sometimes more than once in a school year.”

Kenya is among countries that disburse block grants to cover non-salary expenditure including teaching materials. However, these grants can be insufficient and vulnerable to budget cuts. Unesco says funding non-salary recurrent expenditure through such grants to schools can “perpetuate a lack of budget transparency in relation to what is actually spent on textbooks and other teaching materials”.

Kenya rolled out the free primary education programme in 2003 during the Mwai Kibaki regime and the Jubilee administration has substantially increased the block grant to cater for the enrollment of more primary school pupils.

Part of these grants cater for instructional materials, but the programme has been hit by scandals with a forensic audit revealing that billions of shillings meant for the programme between 2005 and 2009 could not be accounted for. This led to the withdrawal of donor funding that was supporting free primary education.

Earlier this month, President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered an audit on the usage of the money the government has disbursed to primary and secondary schools for free education in the last three years. These disbursements aside, head teachers continue to charge parents extra levies, some purportedly for textbooks, yet they provide pupils with torn books that have not been replaced for years.

The Unesco report notes that the unsustainability and unpredictability of financing textbooks has often left parents covering the cost of learning materials for their children, which further exacerbates inequalities in learning, by wealth. This disadvantages families which cannot afford these out of pocket expenses.

An analysis for the Unesco report estimates that a centralized national procurement approach could save US$3 (Sh300) per book bringing the unit cost to US$2 (Sh200). “Were all low and lower middle income countries in Sub Sahara Africa to aim for six textbooks per curriculum and no more than two students per textbook, they could save US$953 million (Sh95.3 billion) from the total cost... Under this scenario, Kenya could save US$64 million (Sh6.4 billion) from their textbook bill.”