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Textbooks for Malian students

Canada responded favourably to Mali’s request and agreed to help develop a textbook policy and implement the necessary measures to ensure its success.

Project background

Textbooks are a student’s best friend. As well as providing an opportunity to read, both for fun and to learn more about the world, they are a gateway to learning about oneself and others. Unfortunately, in many African countries, including Mali, textbooks are all too often a luxury that many students do not have. And yet, it has been demonstrated time and time again that of all educational materials, textbooks have the greatest impact on the quality of education and student achievement.

Textbook procurement is one of the most complex activities in education, as it is the only one spurring international competition, often fierce, between companies and an ongoing process involving tenders and rigorous contract management. It would seem that the cycle has to be constantly renewed and that the challenges are the same from one contract to the next. Indeed, many cannot be completed because procedures are so slow.

This failure is even more significant among local publishers. The African Publishers Network has estimated that, in the context of textbook procurement funded by the World Bank, for every book purchased from local publishers, 50 are purchased from foreign-based ones. Given the government monopoly on textbook development, until recently, production involved getting them reprinted abroad, which brought no local benefit in terms of capacity development and economic growth, or lasting effect.

Until recently, Mali was unable to avoid these mechanisms and the resulting issues. Prior to the early 2000s, the Ministry of Education (Ministèred’éducationnationale[MEN]) was responsible for writing textbooks and having them printed abroad through an international tendering process. Once the books had been delivered to central warehouses, the MEN had to find ways to get them to schools. Production and distribution were slow. In addition, 40% of textbooks disappeared during the delivery process, ending up on parallel markets. This resulted in major deficiencies in schools’ access to textbooks. Textbook-to-student ratios were alarming: 0.4 textbooks per student in elementary schools in 2001 for all subjects. This meant there was only one textbook for five students for the basic subjects of French and Math (the target ratio is two textbooks per student).

One clear finding emerged from a 2003 review conducted by the MEN and its partners in the education sector. “The failure to adopt and implement an official textbook policy is resulting in serious deficiencies: a discrepancy between provisions and actual needs in the field, a failing distribution system, a discrepancy in provisions at the regional level and the absence of a participatory management policy in teaching academies and district education offices.”

In light of this bleak observation, the Government of Mali expressed a willingness to make significant changes to procurement conditions, notably by facilitating the Malian book industry’s contribution to the development of sustainable national solutions. This led to the development of a unifying textbook policy that would establish guidelines for procurement, and under which all partners would take the necessary measures to provide classes with sufficient quality textbooks, delivered on time.

To make this long-term vision a reality, the Government of Mali called on Canadian aid for assistance in this major project.

Canadian involvement

Canada responded favourably to Mali’s request and agreed to help develop a textbook policy and implement the necessary measures to ensure its success.

Support in developing the policy

In 2001, Canada supported Mali in facilitating industry dialogue and in developing a draft policy on textbooks and teaching materials that sets out a long-term vision for improving procurement. The policy reinforces the strategic importance of the Malian book industry, with publishers as linchpins and essential partners in education, and reinforces the role of private publishers as suppliers of textbooks for the education system and leading partners.

Adopted in 2004, the Malian Policy on Textbook and Teaching Materials was among the first of its kind in French-speaking Africa.

Support in improving procurement mechanisms

Mali’s Policy on Textbooks and Teaching Materials, adopted in 2004.

In 2001, at the time of drafting the Policy, the MEN wanted to set about reforming the procurement process by introducing concessions based on a public-private partnership with Malian publishers. Canada provided support for the development of a mechanism that assigned the copyright for textbooks, owned by the ministry, to private Malian publishers.

What are these concessions? Before the 2000s, the MEN was responsible for textbook writing. It held authors’ rights and owned the copyright to 28 textbooks used in Malian schools. But given the multiple challenges the MEN continually faced in reproducing the textbooks and getting them to schools, it decided to assign the copyright of these 28 textbooks to private Malian publishers, namely the right and, above all, the responsibility of reproducing them and getting them to schools on an ongoing basis.

In the interests of transparency and fairness, the MEN launched a call for tenders in 2001, after which textbook concessions were awarded to four Malian publishers (GraphiqueIndustrie, EDIM, Donniya and Jamana) for a three-year period that was renewable twice. These concessions included an entirely new condition: publishers were responsible for delivering the textbooks to schools using a transportation and distribution system they had to set up.

But the new procurement mechanism did not solve all the problems. The MEN also had to improve planning for contracting and monitoring. Through its technical advisor, Marcel Ouellette, Canada strongly supported Mali in improving contract terms and conditions and management tools, in particular for 2008 contracts. The focus was on implementing a series of measures to improve textbook procurement mechanisms, from needs assessment to final payments.

Various tools were created based on the mandates and obligations of each of the parties, including textbook needs assessment grids using statistical yearbooks, procedure manuals and delivery slips.

Complemented by support for procurement

Adequate access to textbooks depends on two essential and separate conditions: (1) having textbooks; and (2) being able to get them to schools. In this twofold goal, Canada supported Malian textbook procurement for a decade, thereby contributing to students’ better learning and improved quality of education.

Canadian support began in 2002, with a limited amount of Can$2 million for republishing and printing three textbooks in the Djoliba Collection. However, it had reached Can$75 million (35 billion CFA francs) for the 2002 to 2013 period. During the same period, various parallel initiatives funded by Canadian aid were set up to build the capacity of sector stakeholders, such as publishers, authors, illustrators and graphic designers, both in the MEN and the private sector.

However, procurement in 2013 was different since Canadian aid to Mali was suspended following the coup d’état in 2012. Aware of the precarious access to textbooks during the crisis and keen to respond to the destruction of materials in schools in northern Mali, Canadian aid decided to join forces with UNICEF, whose support was still operational, to fund procurement of textbooks, while providing enhanced support to schools in the north. Throughout the Canadian textbook support program, measures were taken to create favourable conditions for access to textbooks in more disadvantaged areas (providing a greater student-textbook ratio in rural areas, for instance).

Involvement of other partners

According to a 2014 study (Odette Langlais, Case study: Textbooks in Mali), “Canada took a bold step in supporting the national policy on textbooks. Some have criticized its support for tenders reserved for Malian companies. Canada remains the only financial and technical partner to have provided textbook support for over a decade.” Apart from the Netherlands, which has supported the procurement of textbooks on an ad hoc basis, Canada is the only financial and technical partner to have assisted the Government of Mali in implementing its policy of concessions on textbooks.

Canada’s support motivated the Malian government to increase funding to improve access to textbooks. Thus, Canadian contributions accounted for 40% of procurement investments, with the Government of Mali paying the remainder.

There are also partners who provided reading books, which are of course complementary to textbooks.

The World Bank funded the procurement of reading books, mainly in national languages, for reading corners and libraries in Malian schools. Through UNICEF, Canada took advantage of textbook procurement to purchase reading books, mainly in the national languages (bamanankan and songhoï) but also in French, to increase children’s opportunities to read.


An analysis of the results of Canadian support points to benefits at many levels, including greater access to textbooks, improved procurement conditions, and the development of a Malian book industry.

Improved textbook-to-student ratios

The first major result is the improved access to textbooks, measured by the textbook-to-student ratios. In 2001, the ratio in elementary grades was 0.4 (compared to the target ratio of two textbooks per student). On average, one textbook was shared between five students for the main subjects of French and Math, which made teaching and learning very difficult.

In some classes, teachers had the only available textbook and copied the text on the board. However, this brought on a major problem: after years of schooling, students could read cursive script but not printed text because they never had access to textbooks.

Largely through the combined efforts of the Government of Mali and Canadian aid, the textbook-to-student ratio reached 2.32 in elementary school (Grades 1 to 6) in 2008 to 2009 (the target ratio was 2) and up to 3.8 in the lower secondary school (Grades 7 to 9) in 2009 to 2010 (the target ratio was 4 in the main subjects).

Distribution to schools

As laid out in the textbook and teaching materials policy and found in concession agreements, the obligation of publisher-suppliers to deliver textbooks to schools is a particularity of the procurement mechanism. Suppliers are not paid until they have given all delivery slips to the MEN to be checked and validated. Considering there are 13,000 schools in Mali spread over a vast area, this is quite a challenge! This shows how responsibilities are shared between the MEN and publishers in their public-private partnership.

What is most remarkable is that the textbook loss rate during delivery, which was 40% before the policy was adopted, has dropped to zero. Every single textbook arrives at its destination—in a student’s backpack, thereby reducing the number of government-supplied textbooks sold on parallel markets.

Whether textbooks are delivered to the capital city of Bamako or the northeastern town of Tessalit, the consistency of distribution costs means fair treatment for all schools nationwide, regardless of geographical location and distance from the capital.

It is not surprising then that these changes have spurred enthusiasm in the education community. During delivery follow up, schools expressed their satisfaction with the textbook delivery. Parents and school administrators hoped to see deliveries continue, as they see it as the only way textbooks can reach their readers. No one missed the public distribution system days, when many schools did not receive their due.

Development of the Malian book industry

Students in class

Students studying together

The adoption of the Policy on Textbooks and Teaching Materials in Mali had a major impact on the national book industry. When concessions were awarded, only a few publishers were in a position to meet the partnership conditions. As a result, only four publishers/printers (GraphiqueIndustrie, EDIM, Donniya, Jamana) were awarded contracts. The MEN was criticized for focusing “investments” on these companies, at the expense of the industry at large. At the end of the concession agreements in 2010, however, there was general surprise to see that over 20 companies had moved into production and submitted textbooks to the MEN for approval, when initially, there had been just 3 suppliers. Over the years, many contractors had created conditions for the emergence of strong and diversified book industry.

In addition, over 100 titles were available on the market for schools. This meant that alternatives to the original textbooks were now available.

With a few exceptions, the education system no longer needed old textbooks to cover its needs. This was a major step forward thanks to the private sector’s investment in textbook production. The policy had triggered free-market production in Mali.

Many non-concession publishers were also awarded textbook contracts, notably through Canadian funding, to procure textbooks deemed appropriate and approved by the MEN.

Distribution also had a considerable impact on publishers’ capacities and job creation in the industry. Always considered a weak link in the book and textbook chain, the responsibility of distribution now fell to publishers who mobilized significant technical and financial resources to ensure it was done properly. A central warehouse was set up in Bamako, as well as in-transit warehouses in regional capitals, secondary cities and towns. These warehouses were responsible for bundling textbooks and transporting them to schools (one publisher has 38 in-transit warehouses outside Bamako).

Publishers hired permanent or seasonal workers to carry out operations at every step of the chain. One publisher claims to have created nearly 200 permanent jobs to manage the flow of books. Another has 100 permanent workers and hires 500 seasonal workers at each delivery period. Many publishers, including GraphiqueIndustrie and Donniya, have invested in a large-enough vehicle fleet to deliver textbooks throughout the country.

As Canadian firm Econotec notes in its impact study on textbook industry support projects in Mali (2009), “support projects that target a particular sector often have ramifications in other fields. The education sector has clearly had a favourable impact on the development of the private sector, employment, added value, etc.” Econotec believes that, between 2001 and 2008, the added value resulting from Malian textbook production (tenders and private purchases, Canadian and Malian funding) and the sector’s net contribution to the Malian economy was between 42 billion CFA francs and 45 billion CFA francs (between Can$105 million and Can$112.5 million). It also assesses at about 1,500 the direct permanent jobs generated by firms (concessions and excluding concessions), not to mention seasonal distribution jobs and specialists offering their services to firms.

Reading-book production

Very few Malian publishers just produce textbooks. Most hope to reinvest revenues into producing reading books, which are also needed in schools.

Many publishers also produce books in national languages. Given that curriculum guidelines in Mali are centred on teaching in the national languages in the elementary grades, this type of investment is essential to delivering quality education. The Government of Mali’s decision to prioritize working with Malian publishers is paying off, as these publishers are reinvesting the economic benefits generated in the education system.

Challenges encountered

The procurement of textbooks, especially their delivery to schools, is a major challenge, both for the MEN and its private publisher partners. The MEN faced significant challenges in developing textbook distribution keys, shown by recent statistics of the changing realities in the field. However, support from district education offices in validating distribution keys has been key in managing this risk. Improving the quality of statistical data remains a challenge for the MEN’s central services. Similarly, checking 13,000 delivery slips for each supplier is an onerous and complex task, especially since it has to be done quickly.

Distribution will always be a large challenge for publishers, particularly when textbooks have to be delivered to remote schools or areas during the rainy season. Due to the inaccessibility of certain areas during the rainy season and insecurity in northern areas, distributors have looked at alternative strategies to make textbooks available to schools (the textbooks are delivered by the district education offices once schools again become accessible; schools are allocated credits if they pick up their textbooks themselves; textbooks are delivered to nearby libraries, etc.).

The MEN faces two major challenges today. Firstly, adequate access to textbooks requires not only substantial financial resources, but a regularly available funding. Procurement must also be stable and predictable to better balance needs and resources. Mechanisms to decentralize textbook procurement have not yet been introduced, as this relies on various prerequisites: the stabilization of teaching programs and languages of instruction, the development of mechanisms to evaluate and approve textbooks, the training of schools about decentralized purchasing, etc. These challenges must be overcome diligently if the MEN wants to ensure the sustainability of its gains made so far.

Gender equality

Girls’ access to schooling often depends on the amount families have to pay to educate their children. The most disadvantaged families sometimes prioritize educating boys. Free access to textbooks provided by the government and its technical and financial partners, such as Canada, may not resolve the situation but it does lighten the financial burden on families and thus increase all children’s chances of getting an education, which is their right.

On the whole, textbooks are gender-sensitive. Girls can find examples that inspire and empower them. Textbooks are a window to the world, helping them to broaden their perspectives and see the many available opportunities for self-development.

Lessons learned

Canadian aid learned many lessons during the decade of textbook support in Mali, which have since been applied to development aid policies and programs.

First, it became clear that the new policy must include measures to rapidly implement its strategies. To this end, the principles of the Policy on Textbooks and Teaching Materials were immediately applied through the introduction of concession contracts, setting change in motion and leading to the implementation of other commitments. This lesson has been applied to Canadian support for textbook procurement in Senegal.

The partnership between the government and private publishers provides valuable lessons. The MEN’s goal was primarily to share responsibility for production and distribution so it could focus on more educational concerns. Not only did the private sector shoulder these challenges, it invested considerable amounts in textbook production and distribution infrastructure, which greatly benefit the education system. The public sector would not have accomplished as much alone.

Lessons learned about delivery effectiveness and efficiency support the hypothesis that managing textbooks becomes more transparent and equitable when you establish closer links with schools. Thanks to the new conditions, the loss rate during delivery is now practically zero, a huge contrast to the previous situation. The involvement of decentralized educational structures’ through validation of distribution keys and distribution tracking ensures textbooks arrive at their destination, in students’ backpacks.

Information sources

We would like to sincerely thank the following for their assistance in creating this story:

The Impact Stories series of Canadian aid in Mali was produced by the Field Support Services Project (FSSP) and in collaborationwith the above-mentioned stakeholders.

Rue Sotuba/ACI, rond-point de l’ancienne chaussée
Bamako, Mali
Tel.: +223 44 90 44 45
Note: The FSSP received funding from the Government of Canada.

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