Nkiru Balonwu exudes the kind of passion and earnestness you’d expect from someone on a mission such as hers.
Decades after the independence movement swept across the continent, Africa still labours under misconceptions that are at least in part, a vestige of the centuries of colonialism it endured. That and the inherent economic disadvantages that also flow from it have seen Africa often absent from the rooms in which major decisions are taken, even when those decisions directly impact the continent and the 1.7bn people who call it home.
Take climate change, which Africa is most vulnerable to, despite being the continent that has contributed the least to it. “I was speaking to one of the international organisations around just transitions last year and they said they don’t have any Africans there and yet we are going to be the ones who are going to be the most impacted. Again, with the way things have with our leadership gone, we haven’t really had a place in the room and we maybe because our leadership have not focused on those core areas,” she recounts.
Lack of soft power mutes Africa’s voice
Balonwu says this is due to a deficit in Africa’s soft power, that ability to influence decisions and people merely through the influence that accrues to a nation from its economic and cultural power. She is eager to change this and the organisation she founded, Africa Soft Power Project, (ASP) is focused on exactly that.
It is the lack of soft power, she says, that mutes African voices and obscures African concerns when the big decisions are being taken. The good thing is that African leaders themselves have become more acutely aware of how soft power, or the lack of it, directly affects their impact on the world stage and how that in turn impacts the economic fortunes of their countries.
“I saw a video a few weeks ago where President William Ruto was talking to Mo Ibrahim about how African leaders have to go to all these other countries. So America calls and 50 of them go there. Or China calls. And then France calls and they have to go there. So he was saying that they had a discussion at the African Union about not having to do this and they are going to have a more strategic approach, with more consideration for the kinds of things that we are talking about. So I think there is more awareness now and we are getting better although we are nowhere near we ought to be,” she says.
A new narrative about Africa
The other bit of good news is the growing power of African cultural acts, which is projecting a fresh and different narrative about the continent to the outside world. “We have Burna Boy who can sell out Madison Square Gardens and then there is Davido; there is Amanpiano and all of those dancers and then investors suddenly think Nigeria is not just about 419 [the article of the penal code that deals with fraud] and they are literally thinking what’s going on there,” she points out.
The effect of these cultural ambassadors is that the misconceptions about Africa and the conditions in which its people live are no longer as common. It is hard to believe that all Africans live in huts with no power when you can see them participating in TikTok trends from their – in some cases – stylishly appointed rooms.
Social media has been a great leveller, providing an opportunity for African creators to compete with their counterparts in other parts of the world and even “win” despite inherent disadvantages. But Balonwu says more can be gained from growing African-owned platforms.
“We also have the issue of ownership because none of these platforms is African-owned. So we have our creators producing all these music and dance videos that can be monetised but we don’t own the platform and that is really essential in terms of having a real play in the space. That is why we say we need to have our own platforms,” she argues.
Shifting the mindset
Leveraging cultural figures and institutions into soft power is a well-worn approach to amassing soft power. Balonwu references how Hollywood has perpetuated an image of American heroism and derring-do and the role that has had in the preservation of America’s power. More recently, China’s meteoric rise has been accompanied with an expansive campaign to promote its culture and institutions around the world. Another remarkable success story is Korea’s where the phenomenon of K-Pop, movies and soap operas have propelled the country to the top of teenage minds in nearly every corner of the world.
These countries, however, have approached this mission with an intentionality that is missing in Africa. For one thing, we cannot even value it properly. “We are not able to measure properly what the connection is between playing Afrobreats in Portugal or Poland and business and investment flowing into the continent.”
She does not have ready answers to this particular conundrum but insists that “we should be looking at how we shift the mindset toward Africa in terms of the soft power that is being promoted by African role models”.
Need for reliable data
One way to make these connections more clearly is through the collection, analysis and use of data, another issue that the ASP has chosen to address itself to. Which is important because it’s hard to grow what you can’t measure.
Balonwu says the lack of data is directly responsible for the lower levels of investment in the continent. “The core issue when you are trying to set up, for example, a cosmetics factory in Nigeria or Ghana or South Africa, is that you need to know the numbers to be able to tell whether anyone is going to be buying the products. I mean, there is data that some private companies have from their own mining but there is nothing that is available that allows us to make concrete decisions,” she says.
The film industry is also worse for the lack of accurate data, as Balonwu explains. ” I saw a piece where the UNESCO said the film industry in Nigeria is worth $5bn and then a few pages later it said the Indian film industry is worth $2.7bn and I don’t think that makes sense. What happens when we push these numbers around is that big American companies hear this and think they need to come in with $30m or $40m when they could actually invest between $200,000 and $1m.”
The misimpression from the inaccurate data can lead to disappointment and discourage further investment and Balonwu says it’s a problem that requires urgent attention. “Solving it is the easy thing to do. We need to invest in harnessing and collating data, which i don’t think governments have done very well. That is the one of the core things we need to be looking at because there is a lot of revenue lost form not having reliable data.”
Flagship summit highlights creative industries
These are some of the issues that the team at ASP will be hoping to highlight at the Africa Soft Power Summit, which will be held in Kigali from 23rd to 27th May. At the root is a push for African leaders and stakeholders to appreciate the significance of building and promoting the systems that will make it possible for the continent to accrue soft power.
That includes more investment into its cultural and digital infrastructure to support creative and other forms of soft skills that have such a dramatic impact on how the continent is perceived, which then has concomitant effect on its ability to provide the hard infrastructure that are more traditionally associated with development and progress, such as schools and hospitals.
“We need to think about how we define things that propel the creative industry and things that propel technology on the continent, things that we know create jobs and which young people are very interested in. These are the things that give us the biggest opportunities in terms of being able to compete within the global economy so that is a part of what we are looking at doing.”
Gender issues take centre stage
Balonwu says gender issues will also be central to the ASP’s agenda.
“I feel very strongly about the gender conversation I think we cannot separate economic growth as a continent from women inclusion and we will not get anywhere if we do not effectively include women,” she insists.
She says that progress will mean recasting them as social, rather than gender issues, which she thinks classifies them as only of interest to section of the population, when in fact the impact is felt across all social classes. That approach is perhaps why progress has been so halting and why, in some cases, there has been actual regression.
To make the point clearer, she points to how child marriage contributes to instability in the north of Nigeria. Young girls who are married off when they are as young as nine end up with children who are poorly taken care of, do not get an education and end up being susceptible to the allure of extremism, ending up in groups like Boko Haram, whose activities threaten the very structure of the Nigerian state.
In her view, therefore, gender issues are critical, even existential and best addressed with extreme urgency. “If we don’t do anything about it in the next 10 years, we may find that it is too late for us,” she cautions.
Taking on the climate crisis
Also in ASP’s sights is the climate crisis, the other existential threat where Africa’s lack of soft power increases the risk. The imagery that is conjured of melting ice caps, she says, has little resonance for people on the continent, for whom climate change means drought, desertification and hunger.
Balonwu says ASP has launched a competition for local artists to present images of climate change that are more relatable to people living in Africa, where the crisis may well have the most impact. The winning entries will be displayed at the Africa Centres in both New York and London, at the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York and at Cop28 in Dubai.
“It’s really exciting because its open to young people and apart from that, it will get the African perspectives into the mainstream,” she says.
Statement of African creativity
The conference itself will be a statement of African creativity as much as it will be about the seriousness of the issues that must be addressed to improve life in Africa. There will be sessions on gender issues, promoting investment and how to influence a new media narrative about the continent. But it will also display the power of African creatives, including at a gala that Balonwu likens to the famed annual Met Gala in New York, which is itself, a pretty compelling display of soft power.
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