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Communicating Africa forward: a private sector imperative

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Africa


Africa has shown strong shoots of economic growth in the new millennium, but its reputation remains rooted in the last century. The global media prefers to hone in on negative stories about the continent, and there are not enough positive ones coming through from our own businesses to counteract this bias. If Africa is to revamp its image, increase the GDP of its individual nations, and transform its trajectory, it cannot rely on government organisations and think tanks alone. The private sector needs to step-up and play its part in better communicating African business success.

In Nigeria, we are acutely aware of the negative reputation that surrounds our business sector. In August 2019, the FBI arrested and indicted almost 80 Nigerians – in what it described as one of the largest cases of online fraud in US history. A CNN opinion piece at the time wrote that “Previously, Nigerian criminality existed in the popular imagination somewhere between mildly serious and an internet joke.” More recently, that sentiment was invoked again, when so called Nigerian ‘social media influencer’ Ramon ‘Hushpuppi’ Abbas was accused by the FBI of money laundering.

While the rest of Africa may not be as strongly affiliated with the emails of Nigerian princes that arrive into western inboxes, it is fair to say the continent at large still struggles in the global popularity contest.

Of course, there are many reasons for this. Longstanding economic patterns, historic prejudices, and the very real presence of business malpractice wherever in the world this behaviour is allowed to go unregulated and unchecked, all play their parts. But it is in the way that we communicate our qualities, and the wider narratives we tell, that African businesses and brands can themselves have a positive impact on the future economic prosperity of the continent at large.

When we think about the US, we are to this day met with visions of economic freedom and the American dream, even if we are all too aware of some of the serious issues that the country now faces. The nation’s flag has become a brand in itself that seems to rubber-stamp all of the heroic literature that emanates from beneath. From Hollywood to companies like Apple and Nike, celebrities like Michael Jordan, Beyonce, and the Kardashians, politicians like Obama and even Trump, America continues to shine out to many as a beacon of positivity, precisely because of its diversity and soft power.

The effectiveness of soft power is a notion that Africa – and African culture more globally – has been awakening itself to in more recent years. One of the reasons that Black Panther was so successful, is that the image of ‘Wakanda’ resonated with millions of black people around the world. It was a story told for us, by us (a black director), and it also helped to bring a new perspective to non-black people along the way.

Festivals like the Ake Arts and Book festival, Lagos Photo and ART X Lagos have helped to put Nigeria on the bucket list of art lovers around the world, with many also keen to experience the legendry nightlife and famed hustle and bustle that is Lagos. In the music sector, superstars like Burna Boy, WizKid and Davido have taken the world by storm and done more for the country’s reputation than any political leader in recent memory.

Across the wider continent, recognisable business figures like Mo Ibrahim, Tony Elumelu and Dangote, as well as sports stars like Siya Kolisi – South Africa’s first black rugby Captain – have done more to sell Africa than most African governments combined.

From outside of Africa too, we see business personalities like Jack Ma, Jack Dorsey, and previously Mark Zuckerberg, visiting the continent. Entrepreneurs such as these understand the importance of soft power and recognise the value-exchange to be had in affiliating their brands with emerging and still largely unexplored new markets.

But more of this kind of work is required, particularly from within Africa itself. Music, art, film, fashion, and increasingly the entrepreneurial creativity of business are unified by a common theme: their ability to powerfully communicate, and engage people through, narrative.

When it comes to influencing trends at macro level, individual businesses can only do so much. Government institutions must also learn from these techniques. Engaging through the narrative is not solely for the private sector, and the state still has an important part to play. We see this approach taking shape in its most basic of forms, through the TV ads being run around the world by different governments – Malaysia, Japan, US, UK, etc. that tout the many reasons to come and visit their countries. But beyond this, governments have the duty to lay the legal and infrastructural framework to enable businesses succeed. Especially in an age of COVID, when national lockdowns have wreaked social and economic havoc on communities at large, this type of government intervention becomes more important than ever before.

History Professor Margaret O’Mara states in a Washington Post interview about her 2019 book ‘The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America’, that “something most people don’t realize is how the federal government played a key role in building Silicon Valley. There were tax breaks and research projects and regulatory fixes, fiercely lobbied for by tech entrepreneurs and investors from the 1970s forward, that accelerated the rate of investment and wealth creation in the Valley.”

By actively engaging with businesses and entrepreneurs, and then taking practical steps to help sell the idea and facilitate the reality of African business growth, governments can undoubtedly play their part in communicating Africa forward.

In a recent interview Nikolay Malyarov, CEO of PressReader International, a Canadian-headquartered digital media company, spoke about the allure of Ireland in seeking a new territory from which to expand the international business:

“We’d been courted by a number of countries. There are a number of these foreign entities that are looking for FDI, bringing foreign companies into their markets. Ireland was one of them. It’s the Irish Development Agency (IDA), which is well known around the world for bringing quality companies into Ireland to set-up their European operations. That process had started before Brexit, so I can’t really say that Brexit had anything to do with our decision to go into Ireland. But I have to say that the Irish Development Agency really showcased what Ireland is all about.”

“Ireland is about quality workforce, multilingual, diverse – certainly not just the Irish workforce, but you have access to pretty much anyone from the European Union. It’s also a very creative workforce. Ireland has obviously gone through a number of changes as a country, has developed, has had its own set of challenges back in 2008-09, but the talent that it attracts is great to tap into.”

Malayarov’s comments highlight the importance of the political and economic establishment working in tandem with a strong private sector. In taking the decision to make this location its new home, the company considered not only the official literature of the IDA, but also the wider benefits of the country, particularly in terms of the quality, diversity, and creativity of its workforce.

Some African countries are providing similar opportunities. Ghana for example set out to take serious steps in 2019 to spark further economic growth in the country through its Year of Return project. The initiative has probably been the most successful marketing and branding campaign by any African country in recent times. From providing adequate infrastructure to easing bottlenecks, giving tax breaks and other stimuli, Ghana is beginning to open itself up for business by providing serious incentives to potential returnees.

Of course, in order to build upon this success further, the Ghanaian Government must also be mindful to extend such opportunities to everyday Ghanaians. The Year of Return provides a good starting point for stimulating business growth, in that it encourages members of the African diaspora to come to Africa (specifically Ghana), to settle and invest in the continent. However, while encouraging new growth, the government has to be equally attentive to the real-world repercussions for Ghanaian businesses on the ground. The ‘gentrification factor’ for example, which creates higher costs and the displacement of existing lower-income residents, can have very real adverse impact.

Derrick Ashong, the Ghanaian born, Emmy nominated founder of AMP Global, recently explained his decision to set-up his tech start-up in Mauritius at the start of this year:

“I was invited to speak at the India-Africa Investment & Entrepreneurship Forum last August about our fan-curated media property, ‘The Mic: Africa’, which is the first multiplatform TV format born on the continent. While there I met some talented local entrepreneurs, as well as a syndicate of investors who shared some of the tactical benefits of operating on the island. These included things like easy transfer of capital between African countries, low corporate and individual tax rates, and a variety of incentives for companies in the innovation and media/entertainment sectors.”

“Combining those elements with a peaceful, multi-ethnic, religiously inclusive society, at the crossroads of our key markets in Africa and Asia, showed me it was clear that Mauritius could be a strategic gem for our business.”

Ashong’s account reminds us that in seeking to court outside investment and new opportunities for growth, we must not overlook the African success stories – and potential African success stories coming through – that are already occurring within our own countries. Now more than ever, the African private-sector needs to work in tandem with its governments to tell accurate and positive stories about the continent, its workforce, and the business environment it can provide.

Such narratives can have a very real impact on the perception of Africa both at home and abroad. If we look back to the CNN opinion piece referenced at the beginning of this article, the writer goes onto state:

“Outside of Nigeria, the ‘Nigerian’ identity risks becoming subsumed by the ‘criminal country’ single narrative that once prevented Italian immigrants in the US from moving up the social ladder. Unlike the early 20th century Italians, Nigerians have very little with which to counterbalance negative global narratives. Italy was a global hub for art, tourism, history, religion, and food. Nigeria is a barely functional African state that struggles to fund its budget and police its borders. Adding a mafia-lite dimension to Nigeria’s already poor global image risks turning Nigerians into international pariahs, which is bad news for a country that is highly dependent on remittances.”

There is a lot of truth in this piece, but it is also written by somebody who has no real love for Nigeria, and seemingly a lot of love for Italy! The assertion that Nigeria has little with which to counterbalance negative global narratives is simply not true and also hits right at the crux of why soft power is so important. International media outlets show strong appetite for reporting on negative Nigerian and wider African stories, but why should they care about the positive ones, when we ourselves struggle to tell them in the first place?

The country’s ongoing problems notwithstanding (as is also the case in the US), Nigeria is a hub for art, culture, history, religion, music and food. The world has a taste for Italian art and culture because we have been conditioned to consider it amongst the higher things in life.

And so in order to attain similar status, African nations need to engage in the same process of education, and understand the importance of the creative sectors in elevating the overall perception of the continent and its culture. Banks and development institutions must redefine what they mean by providing infrastructure finance, and help to create enabling environments/products that empower creativity to thrive. Focusing on building bridges and roads, of course, remains very important, but perhaps less so if nobody wants to come to your country and use them in the first place.

In order to do this, the business, finance, and even governmental sectors must first stop looking down on the creative industries. There is another educational job to be done here too, in helping them to understand how the various creative sector businesses actually work, rather than simply paying lip service to these endeavours.

More broadly, by communicating the realities of African business life, and the success stories that we are creating on a daily basis, we can hope to win the hearts and minds of the international business community. Greater dialogue ultimately leads to greater collaboration and more frictionless trade, which in a global economy adds to the economic prosperity of us all.

Nkiru Balonwu is Chair, African Women On Board (AWB), Managing Partner, RDF & Convener, The Africa Soft Power Project


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