Mr. Gbenro Adegbola is the CEO/MD of First Veritas Educational Content Delivery Ltd, a digital publishing firm he set up after over 2 decades of working at different publishing firms. First Veritas was established in 2013 after he had spent 13 years at Evans Brothers (Nigeria Publishers)Limited. A Tech enthusiast and lover of education, First Veritas is his avenue to express his ICT passion, yet doing what he had always done, and how he wants to do it.
For someone who stumbled into publishing, Mr Gbenro Adegbola is proof you can achieve phenomenal success with a reckless entrepreneurial daring. Engaging technology to achieve his visions, this not-young publisher has walked where the young geeks are yet to conquer.
You are not of the millennial age yet you are so engrossed in and with Technology. Tell me about your foray into tech and the drawing fascination?
I’ve always had a fascination with technology. Grew up with a lot of exotic gadgets. My late father had a priest friend when I was growing up who was the communications coordinator of the church. Sunday visits to his house were a delight! He would spend time demonstrating to us every new gadget he acquired. His study was like a communications laboratory; various models of film projectors, tape recorders, camera, name it That was my earliest fascination with technology.
Much later in my late 20s, I had an opportunity to serve on the board of one of the earliest companies to emerge at the dawn of the personal computing revolution in Nigeria in the mid-80s. That itself was a fortuitous opportunity. My brother who is a multi disciplinary engineer had founded a company known as Technological Initiatives for West Africa, (TIWA Systems Ltd).
That was my first close relationship with computers. Soon after setting up the company, he had to leave for the UK on a Chevening Scholarship to do a post graduate degree, so the task of running the company partly fell on me and I learned a lot about the entrepreneurial side of the business even if I was only barely computer literate! Around this time, I also had a side ‘hustle’ as a local TV personality. This plus my experience running TIWA earned me a nomination by the USIA as a fellow of the US State Department International Visitors Program to get familiar with the then growing information super highway.
It took me on a study tour of six US states with other participants from a number of other countries, observing and learning about the various applications of internet technology on different aspects of life from civic engagement, to journalistic efficiency, etc. So these experiences combined to spark my interest in technology. My core experience then was in the publishing trade where I also got very early opportunities in top leadership positions.
Consequently, by a few years ago, there was not much else I hadn’t done in the industry and I had started getting bored with print publishing. That led me to starting to push Evans Publishers, my employers gently (or so I thought) in the digital direction but I don’t think I had the full agreement of my management staff. This was further complicated by the sudden and unfortunate death of one of my colleagues, a non-executive director on the board who had the breadth of vision and understanding of what I was canvassing.
Let’s talk about Opon Imo of Osun State. Whose ideas, yours or the Governor? Have you started digitalizing books before then or was it the birth of your digital publishing?
Opon Imo came at the peak of my boredom phase in my former incarnation as Managing Director Of the Nigerian operations of Evans Brothers Publishers Ltd. As I said I had started making a case for the company to begin to look at digital publishing and had put together a small R&D team headed by a fairly pleasantly eccentric Frenchman who was a reasonably good computer programmer.
Our first tech project was developing and successfully deploying a school management solution. I had finalized a plan of doing more with tech, including setting up a subsidiary company to take over the team’s work fully. It was around this period that I led the company on a visit to then, newly installed Governor Aregbesola of Osun. I did a presentation on a wide range of ideas on efficient educational content delivery and ways we could ‘assist’ the state to change education for the better. We spoke about educational broadcasting, digital tablets etc. Unknown to me he was already nursing similar ideas.
If you know Gov. Aregbesola, he can be quite dramatic. At that point I finished talking about digital devices, he just cut me short and with obvious delight and a wide smile on his face, declared; “Mr. Evans, we will work together!” He then went on to share his own ideas in some detail.
So to answer your question, was Opon Imo my idea? No! It was not. It was rather a coincidence of ideas. He certainly already had his own clear ideas of using digital devices to deliver educational content and was already putting together a team. So, in the end, Evans merely provided the content on the devices. Somehow, a combination of circumstances earlier referred to meant that Evans could not proceed on the bigger plans according to my laid blueprint and that is partly what gave the impetus for First Veritas.
Embracing change can be tough, are schools embracing technology and the other IT solutions of First Veritas?
There is a technology phobia among many people of certain age, not only in Nigeria but all over the world. So that was the first hurdle we had to overcome. There is also the issue of limited internet penetration etc. This, coupled with the difficulty of finding representatives salesmen who had sufficient knowledge of tech and could at the same time speak the language of the curriculum in schools to market our content, informed our decision to temporarily go low tech.
So all we are doing for now is ensure that most of our content has a low tech digital component; multi media VCDs, Video CDs, while we continue to develop more ambitious digital products. We still have 3 major digital products in the can fully tested and ready to deploy at an auspicious time.
Are you able to work with public schools also?
We are not currently working with public schools, although we are pursuing active proposals with two state governments. We are also starting working with the Universal Basic Education Commission on book procurement for the UBE program.
One notable challenge in publishing in Nigeria is lack of professionalism and evolving knowledge. Some educational books are filled with stone age social contents and some with unforgivable grammatical errors. How does First Veritas beat this?
I am afraid I do not share your views about professionalism in publishing or the lack of it. The problem really stems from an extremely low entry barrier to the industry which means that many companies who do not have the right resources have found their way into the industry. Most of the poor quality content you describe are from such stables.
I rather think the industry has grown and has achieved almost 100% local authorship at the lower educational levels, which I think is a good thing. There is also the problem of the fact that there are very few institutions in the country where one could study the course, so the industry has had to resort to short courses on key aspects of the trade. This is not to say all is perfect.
You mention the standard of language for example. This is true to some extent. Part of the problem is that the use of language itself is evolving and has already evolved away from received standards to a level where certain rules of grammar seem to have been lost by a vast number of people. That is a problem that will correct itself one way or the other as there emerges a standard Nigerian grammar ‘rulebook’. But on the whole, I think the industry has made tremendous improvements since it came out of the long years of depression in the 80s and 90s.
Do you publish educational contents only?
Our main focus is educational content. We however, occasionally do a few special publications which we think are important and might otherwise not see the light of day.
What would you say to a young aspiring publisher?
Publishing is a fairly tough business anywhere in the world, in the sense that there is no perfect science of determining what book will sell. This is why most Nigerian publishers have taken the line of least resistance and limited themselves to educational publishing, where the numbers are just incredible. There are about 25 million pupils in our primary schools; that is almost the total population of Ghana. The number of people living in metropolitan Lagos are more than the total number of people in Benin and Togo combined. So the opportunities are huge.
So, if I had to talk to an aspiring young publisher, I will therefore encourage her to play at the point where literature and education converge. Interestingly written and illustrated stories for young people are required. These should be marketed as reading and vocabulary building programs for schools.
Two birds are being killed with that; you are helping develop their reading power while you selling your books and at the same time, you are creating an army of readers which will keep you in business for the future! I will also suggest you do not go into publishing if you do not have a true passion for it; there will be many frustrations along your way and you will need to fall back on your passion to keep you going at those times.
What do you aspire to do next?
I am nearing the end of my adventures in publishing and what I aspire to do next is totally different! I’m interested in indigenous high art music production and distribution internationally as well as in the performing arts and already working on the idea of a small company that can keep me reasonably engaged and hopefully can deliver reasonable value in terms of returns.