For a long time Africa has suffered from a terrible representation in the media, but we must admit that things have changed quite a lot recently. Except for the campaigns of some visibility-hungry organizations (see “Kony 2012” or “A day without shoes”, among others), the number of articles that refer to “Africa” as the “next big thing” has reached an historical high: “Africa the next investment frontier”, “Africa the next consumer market” “Africa the next big food trend” “Africa and the upcoming fashion industry”. I’ve always enjoyed reading about innovation and positive change rather than the usual pity-news. But a recent tweet by Linda Polgreen, mentioned in Africa is a Country, unveils an interesting new side of the story:
What is more insulting than the idea of “positive news” from Africa? As if the continent was a dull witted child in need of encouragement.
Is this “positive-news-hype” part of the same paternalistic approach towards the continent? Is it time for Binyavanga Wainaina to write a new “How to write about Africa” making fun of this extreme afro-optimism?
The obvious answer is that we need a balanced coverage. But we also need to realize that the negative portrayals of the past are very “sticky” and they represent a serious obstacle to change. “Rebranding”, if done in the proper way, does not mean inventing a fake reality -it means emphasizing the processes of change that are actually happening.
As the Roving Bandit wrote last week, ignorance about the country-specific contexts in Sub Saharan Africa had negative consequences in terms of foreign direct investments:
due to lack of knowledge about the countries in the continent, investment decisions are often not guided by country-specific conditions but rather based on inferences from the environment of neighbouring countries. Thus, to some extent, foreign investors evaluate African countries as if the countries in the continent constitute “one big country.”
… after controlling for the main determinants of foreign investment; including openness to trade, infrastructure, and average returns to capital, sub-Saharan African countries still have FDI/GDP ratios 1.3% lower than comparable countries
Moreover, in my experience in the Kariobangi Industrial cluster in Nairobi, the issue of “rebranding” the area comes up nearly every week. I wrote a few weeks ago about how development research could be bad news for businesses. Since I wrote that post, I realized that entrepreneurs in the area are trying VERY hard to change the image of the cluster. For example, more than a hundred entrepreneurs joined forces and bought land in a nearby neighborhood. Their dream is to start a new industrial park and get the rid of the “jua kali” reputation (i.e. being informal). I’ll write more about it in future posts. In another interview, the owner of a shoes-manufacturing business told me that the quality of its boots are so high “that people don’t even realize we are from Kariobangi”. I laughed when another entrepreneur told me that the problem is with the word “bangi”, which means marijuana is Swahili, “people think we are all stoners”.
So, to conclude, I believe that rebranding is very important when sticky old reputations represent an obstacle to change. If it means only hiding the bad news, then I’m all against it.