Maverick Citizen


African countries must maximise their brand values and overcome negative stereotypes

African countries must maximise their brand values and overcome negative stereotypes
Currency from across the African continent. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

African countries must start to take control of their narratives to begin to present a more nuanced and updated version of ‘Africa’ to the world. This ‘Africa’ is 54 unique nations, with very different societies, economies, languages, cultures and histories.

There is a new challenge facing African countries as they continue to rapidly develop: the aims of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) are at cross-purposes. 

African countries have some of the fastest-growing economies with the youngest populations. While entrepreneurship and innovation have accelerated across the continent, the international community too often continues to regard African countries as places of poverty, underdevelopment, war and famine. This characterisation is frequently used to raise funds or advocate for increased foreign aid (ODA) for development programmes. 

But therein lies the tension. 

The negative brand value of African nations, promoted by the foreign aid industry and international media, could be inhibiting the growth of foreign direct investment (FDI) and positive sentiment that translates into increased trade, tourism and business. This directly affects the emergence and growth of commercial and industrial sectors of strategic priority in African nations as well as homegrown innovation.  

The imaginary “Africa” that we conjure in our minds is always the world’s damsel in distress. Things are quite different on the ground, with many success stories and massive diversity across the continent. But the international media continues to render African countries indistinct from one to the next.  

Take some recent headlines. “Twitter chief Jack Dorsey announces plans to move to Africa”. This headline doesn’t clearly articulate which of the 54 countries of Africa the story refers to, and as a result that country may lose valuable brand equity. 

Another article proclaimed “Polio outbreaks in Africa caused by mutation of strain in vaccine”, but only referred to Nigeria, DRC, Angola, and the Central African Republic. While this headline is technically accurate, the other unaffected 50 countries of Africa, nearly all of whom are competing with world destinations for tourism, might reasonably ask for a more specific description. 

Kidnapped Australian Dr Ken Elliott released by al-Qaeda in Africa after seven-year fight for freedom” is again technically correct, but is really a story about Burkina Faso. “Romance, strife, and broadcasting rights: African telenovela goes global” refers to a Nigerian telenovela, but does mention other African countries in the article. Another headline claims: African countries a new frontier for child sexual exploitation” but the article referred exclusively to Egypt and Senegal.

Once again, localised issues are conflated with issues facing the continent at large and all are tarnished with the same brushstroke. 

While these small oversights may seem innocuous, African countries have distinct interests, products, markets and industries that require brand differentiation to encourage interest from the right local and foreign investors. Indeed, Morocco is one of the largest exporters of ICT on the continent (making 18% of total Moroccan exports in 2020), producing ICT components and hardware, while Kenya and its neighbours have the most developed mobile-money market, as the originators of the innovative telecoms and financial services systems. 

South Africa has a highly innovative tech start-up sector in Cape Town as well as a dynamic BPO sector that was ranked the most attractive destination globally by investors in 2021. 

Rwanda hooks up with Arsenal

Some African governments who have tried to change the narrative through bold campaigns have faced criticism. 

In 2018, Rwanda’s Development Board (RDB) signed a three-year £30-million deal with Arsenal to feature the phrase “Visit Rwanda” on the sleeve of the team’s soccer players. The initiative caused a significant increase in tourism: from England alone, this amounted to an increase of 5% over the same period in 2017. 

“Before the partnership was signed, 71% of the millions of Arsenal fans worldwide did not consider Rwanda a tourist destination, at the end of the first year of the partnership, half of them considered Rwanda a destination to visit,” said Belise Kariza, head of RDB’s tourism department. Analysts estimated that the move resulted in a tenfold increase over the £30-million invested, but critics pointed out that the same funds could be used for other purposes. 

The press (both positive and negative) generated from the move alone has raised Rwanda’s profile, which is increasingly perceived as the “Singapore of Africa” for its use of innovation in governance, industry, and pristine clean cities. 

South Africa has had several songs and dances that have reached the international mainstream and raised the profile and brand value of the country, including Jerusalema, John Vuli Gate and the Gwara Gwara dance that was featured by both Rihanna and Childish Gambino in his hit song This is America

Nation brand value

Sadly, this achievement is dispersed when headlines read: “Jerusalema: dance craze brings hope from Africa to the world amid Covid”. South Africa’s unique culture, history and identity are rendered an indistinct “African”. While a united or “One Africa” is a core tenet of pan-Africanism, as described above there is a real economic impact to consider.  

There is a lot of money in “nation brand value”.  

Brandirectory measures the value of nation brands. In 2023, the United States brand value was worth $30,300,000-million, followed by China at $23,000,000-million. Nigeria, the highest-ranked African country was 41st, climbing eight places from 2018; South Africa (45th), Egypt (46th), Morocco (59th) and Kenya (64th) followed behind. 

Countries with high brand values are more likely to attract investment which can create jobs, have higher GDPs, more tourism and a higher-value currency, among other benefits. Existing stubborn narratives have real-life consequences for African economies. Headlines that reference specific countries for good or for ill better represent the nuances across the continent and allow for a more tailored engagement internationally. 

Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid argued that foreign aid increases corruption and conflict, in a similar way to the resources curse (usually reserved for countries that have gold, oil or diamonds). She advocates for an FDI and export-led path out of poverty for African countries, like the path followed by China or Japan. 

Moreover, it has been shown that foreign aid can entrench practices of foreign procurement over local procurement, hiring foreign professionals over locals and a lack of sustainability through low levels of skills transfer.  

While completely rejecting the concept of foreign aid is extreme and certainly unwelcome where there is a dire need, African countries must start to take control of their narratives to begin to present a more nuanced and updated version of “Africa” to the world. This “Africa” is 54 unique nations, with very different societies, economies, languages, cultures and histories. 

It is important to resolve these narrative tensions through balance and specificity, and by paying keen attention to which narratives are heard when and where and how. While it is true that foreign aid serves a critical purpose and is still dearly needed, the harmful “Poor Africa” narrative may be affecting investment and trade opportunities that contribute to sustainable economic development, which may reduce the need for ODA in the long term. 

This thought is being echoed by leaders across the continent, such as Senegal’s Macky Sall who said recently: “Africa no longer needs aid but positive partnerships!”

The media and international community need to be more sensitive when reporting on Africa, and African countries need to be particular about their branding and marketing to begin taking control of their own narratives — a sense of individual African identity can be powerful and helpful to the 54 nations. Moreover, when the outside world views the continent, it should be able to recognise what unites African countries but also see the specifics. 

The countries of Europe, Asia and Latin America have achieved this to a greater or lesser degree — it is important that African countries do not let international observers take the easy option. Here, African countries should not feel shy to push back on international narratives and language that have become ubiquitous but inaccurate. Ultimately, this reframing is the route to a relationship with the rest of the world that is based on opportunity and partnership, not pity. DM

Emma Ruiters is a technology and public policy analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.


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