By guest blogger Dr. Mussa Idris*
Kassahun Checole is the founder and publisher of Africa World Press and the Red Sea Press. Mr. Checole was born in what is today Eritrea. While in secondary school in Keren, Eritrea, he enjoyed organizing a musical group and wrote poetry in his school’s first newsletter. Later, he started attending Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but due to political demonstrations in 1969 in the University, Mr. Checole left school and started working at a clearinghouse in the port city of Massawa, Eritrea.
In August of 1971, Mr. Checole migrated to the U.S. to further his undergraduate degree in political science and African-American studies and obtain his master’s degree in sociology at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton. While at SUNY, Mr. Checole began Third World Review, a monthly newspaper. He also became an active member of the Association of Eritrean Students in North America (AESNA) and was responsible for AESNA’s newsletters, magazines, books and other publications.
Mr. Checole has taught sociology and African studies at several colleges, including at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey (U.S.) and El Colegio de Mexico (Mexico). Mr. Checole founded the first graduate program in African Studies in Latin America.
As a graduate student and later as a professor, Mr. Checole was unsatisfied by the severe shortage of publishing outlets for topics concerning Africa and was frustrated by the small supply of written materials on Africa and African-American issues. He hoped one day he would do something about it, so that African scholarship would get central attention and Africanist scholars and people of African descent would be able to publish in their own voices and “tell their own story.”
Business Development: The Founder and Publisher of Africa World Press and The Red Sea Press
In the early 1980s, in his late 40s, Mr. Checole did something to solve the problem of the scarcity of publishing outlets on topics related to Africa by founding the Africa World Press, Inc. (AWP), in 1983, with a mission to “provide high quality literature on the history, culture, and politics of Africa and the African Diaspora.”
Once Mr. Checole started publishing at the AWP, the biggest challenge for him was finding enough distribution outlets because well-established distribution companies were hesitant to carry AWP published books on their shelves because they thought that they would not find enough market for them. This obstacle made Mr. Checole found his own distribution arm, the Red Sea Press, Inc. (RSP), in 1985.
When AWP first started publishing in early 1984, it was producing a handful of books per year. It was publishing 25 titles per year by the end of the 1980s and about 70-100 per year by year 2000. In its relative short history, Africa World Press and the Red Sea Press increased their publishing to over 1800 books on Africa and African-American Affairs, mostly nonfiction books, including works on sociology, and economic issues. AWP has had great success, in 1984 it had about a dozen full-time employees in a 5,500-square-foot warehouse in Ewing, New Jersey, but ten years later, in 1993, the company moved to a 15,000- square-foot office and warehouse in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. These were impressive gains given that at that time many publishers assumed that African issues’ publications were not going to be profitable.
In the present day, AWP publishes more than 120 books each year. It has offices in the U.S., England (in London), Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Ghana. With its international presence, the Red Sea Press, Inc. has now become a premier distribution network, also distributing the books of over 250 other publishing companies, with a special emphasis on books concerning Africa, African-American topics and Caribbean issues.
In addition, from the 1970s to the 1990s, Mr. Checole was actively involved in Pan-Africanism, human rights, and relief organizations. In 2000, he helped organize the first international Pan-African conference: “Against All Odds: African languages and literature in the 21st century” in Asmara, Eritrea. Mr. Checole’s social activism, original entrepreneurial efforts and contributions have been recognized and awarded by many, including through induction into the International Literary Hall of Fame, the 2006 Distinguished Africanist Award received at the University of Texas in Austin, and recognitions and honors from the African Studies Association in 2011. In the same year, Mr. Checole received the American Dream Award from the International Institute of New Jersey.
Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why have Kassahun Checole and his presses been so successful?
Some key characteristics come to mind:
Mr. Checole recognized the limitations on publishing materials related to Africa and African American issues and set out to fill the gap. He used his intellectual CREATIVITY to solve problems related to the dearth of publishing materials that were available on Africa and African-American issues.
He took CALCULATED RISKS in building his businesses and followed through with a visionary persistence in his passion.
*Dr. Mussa Idris is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Elon University, North Carolina in the USA. He co-leads a January term study abroad course to Ethiopia and Tanzania. Prior to teaching at Elon, he taught at the University of Asmara in the Department of Sociology and Social Work, where he was also the Chair of the Department from 2003 to 2005. His Ph.D. is from the University of Florida and his area of expertise is entrepreneurship among the Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area. Dr. Mussa completed his Master’s Degree on a USAID scholarship, has served as a consultant for NGOs in Eritrea on topics such as social entrepreneurship, health, and education and is the recipient of the Student Government Association’s Gerald L. Francis award for Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year (2015).