OPINION: As the international director of an African-focused communications consultancy, it is admittedly tempting to buy into ‘Africa Rising’, a narrative that portrays the continent in a profoundly positive light.
The undeniable appeal of the ‘Africa Rising’ tagline is based upon it serving as an overarching narrative that is both exciting and emotional, conveying a continental-wide momentum that inspires confidence among a wide variety of stakeholders across the globe. The phrase itself was coined in an effort to celebrate political and economic advancements made across the continent since the turn of this century.
As such, it is a PR dream.
There are, however, a number of critical issues with the ‘Africa Rising’ concept and its associated terminology. The language used to encapsulate the socio-economic status of an entire continent of 54 countries (in addition to a couple disputed) and over 1.2 billion people is troublesome. The phraseology risks sounding patronising and oversimplified. As such, it completely fails to accurately tell the story of an incredibly complex and dynamic continent.
There are undoubtedly many shining beacons across the continent – particularly advancements in governance and education in places like Botswana, or gender equality in Rwanda. Mauritius has become a destination for global investment. Angolan and Nigerian infrastructure has begun to transform economic opportunities; and political changes offer new hope in Zimbabwe and South Africa. In addition, the African Union has recently unveiled a new framework for growth and development via its Agenda 2063 strategy.
Advocates of Africa rising are indeed optimistic about a continent that has long been plagued by colonialism and the plundering of its natural resources for so long. Indeed, there is some truth to this line of thinking.
But let’s not be naïve. Sceptics of the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative are quick to point out that challenges remain, citing the crippling impact of fluctuations in global commodities prices, the proliferation of terrorist groups and the terrible impact of the Ebola virus. Stubborn leadership and troubled elections in some African countries do not help matters. Then there are the day-to-day practicalities of life in Africa.
Anybody working in a regional capacity will know how difficult it is to fly within Africa. Weak regional aviation infrastructure leaves business travellers and tourists alike with backbreaking itineraries that will route you through London, Paris, Dubai or Johannesburg just to get to a neighbouring African country. Undoubtedly critics of the narrative have established a fairly compelling case that the continent has not successfully navigated some very crucial obstacles.
Is Africa rising or falling?
So, is Africa rising or falling?
It’s both. And neither. In simple terms, we need to think not about Africa, but about the countries that comprise Africa. This vast region is a myriad of vibrant nations that enjoy some similarities in history, language, culture, food and music. More importantly, however, is the recognition that each African nation is fantastically unique and is evolving in its own distinctive way. Measuring African development as a single unit does not make for a useful framework for determining progress in 2018.
So, what does this mean for those of us who work in African PR and communications? I would argue a welcome challenge.
If I were advising an FMCG multinational on market entry strategies in Angola, citing ‘Africa Rising’ statistics would hardly be relevant to understanding purchasing power of the middle class in Luanda. Moreover, consumer behaviors, tax laws and regulations governing imports differ greatly in Kenya than in DR Congo. Looking to launch a reputation management programme in Ghana? Approaching such a project with a generalised attitude towards the continent won’t be of much help. A nuanced understanding of the region and the specific countries one is operating in is critically important – a challenge that should be grasped as an exciting professional opportunity for PR and communications professionals.
The complexity of Africa underscores the opportunity for accurate and up to date research and data-driven insights of each market to ensure that clients realise their organizational objectives. It requires the use of intelligence and strategy – and these are the things that define great communications professionals. It also requires the employment of local talent, who understand the intricacies of the media, politics, language and culture essential to executing successful campaigns in their markets.
It’s time to put the ‘Africa Rising’ phraseology away, move beyond the deceiving utility of generalities and focus on what matters: Making an effort to understand what makes each country across the continent tick. That’s where the best stories are.
Kevin Nolan is international director of Djembe Communications, a global communications firm.