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The Africa Soft Power Project: Taking African culture mainstream in the global discourse

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The Africa Soft Power Project: Taking African culture mainstream in the global discourse

The Africa Soft Power Project is focused on harnessing the continent’s creative, cultural, and knowledge industries to propel itself forward, while championing the inclusion of African and diasporan voices, in global discourse. In the run-up to the company’s first in-person event, founder Nkiru Balonwu talks to New African about what soft power means. 

Nkiru Balonwu founded The Africa Soft Power Project in the middle of the pandemic. The idea had been brewing for quite a while. Bolonwu whilst working for Spinlet, which at the time was Africa’s largest homegrown music streaming app, began to realise the (soft) power that the African creative and cultural industries could yield.

Like a great many things at that time, she says, the pandemic accelerated the trends towards the digital and information economies. “Once we identified the opportunity, our team quickly got to work. We put together a series of virtual events designed to both showcase African creativity, bring people together, and give them something tangible to rally around, at a time when everything felt very disconnected. The themes we explored in those uncertain times proved to be quite timely and relevant to people working in a great many areas. The initiative has really continued to gain momentum since.”

Two years on and The Africa Soft Power Project is hosting its first in-person event post-covid in Kigali, Rwanda, which is gaining traction for a hub for innovation and the creatives industry.

New African: What do you understand as soft power and through which platforms, by what means, can we make a meaningful impact in changing this narrative which seems to be persistently penalising Africa?

Soft power really refers to the ability of an individual, institution or nation engage, communicate, and persuade, and it’s applicable right across sectors, from the creative and cultural, to digital and tech, and even more traditional industries like finance or energy.

Traditionally, the shining example of soft power in action has come from the US, where we see the American dream being played out – at least in theory – through MTV, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and even Wall Street. More recently, we’ve come to see other countries leveraging significant soft power too, such as the UK’s rollout of Premier League football internationally, or the breakthrough of Korean culture on the world stage in the form of K-pop or Squid Game.

These outputs are hugely important because they simultaneously generate growth and create modern narratives, which as you point out is critical for Africa right now, in a world that still looks at the continent with misunderstanding and even scepticism. By leveraging the supreme power of the creative and cultural industries, we can create growth not only in these areas themselves, but also help transform Africa’s wider business sector.  

Is soft power as much about changing the way we perceive ourselves as much as how others perceive us? 

Absolutely. Right across the continent, we need to have more confidence in our own abilities, and invest more heavily in ourselves. Yes, we want to see greater investment from Facebook and Google and Netflix and Amazon, and greater international cooperation… But additionally, we need to go beyond that, both through the public and private sectors, and look at stronger support for home grown talent, business, and technology.

Taking the recent example of Burna Boy at Madison Square Garden, and remembering from my days at Spinlet the African artists we used to work with, one of the main recurring qualities I would see in those individuals that seemed to separate them out from the pack was confidence. We need to remember that growth is as much about inspiring the next generation of artists and entrepreneurs as it is about attracting international investment today.   

What would you say have been the big takeaways from all your activities over the past couple of years? How has your thinking changed?

I think one of the biggest things we have found is that the appetite for change is definitely there. When we first started, there was a sense that there was something of an education job to be done on convincing people of the value of Africa’s creative and cultural industries, and what they can bring to the global economy.

But actually, right across the board whether it’s financial institutions, or third sector organisations, creative and cultural businesses, everybody we have spoken to seems well aware of the value of soft power in today’s modern economy, and it’s more about removing some of the obstacles that prevent it from flourishing.

So we see our role now as more of a networking or communications platform, bringing like-minded people together who may have similar goals, but are from different sectors, and helping to inspire and facilitate collaboration.

You call this a project. Does the project have an end goal, a finality; when will you consider it done?

Of course, the job will never be completely done. But I think when we start to see genuine commitment from major international firms, in the form of establishing an actual physical presence on the continent – something that remains sparse even to this day – we will be able to recognise that progress is being made.

In the other direction, I hope that when we start to see the African equivalent of Squid Game, or a major African media tech player, truly establishing itself in the global conversation, then these sorts of cultural signifiers will also act as signposts for success. 

I previously gave the example of Burna Boy playing Madison Square Garden. This was good, but we need more of it. Ultimately, it’s about making African culture mainstream, wherever in the world it is showcased, and having a proportionate share in helping shape the digital and knowledge economies of tomorrow, which will be crucial to all of our future growth. 

I feel that ‘Brand Africa’ does have an identity, a common purpose, at least without the continent. And yet the continent continues to be fragmented. How can we overcome these so that we work towards a common goal?

Probably there are two answers to this one. Yes, the continent is somewhat fragmented, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that we have 54 independent countries, with 54 unique cultures, and 54 individual creative sectors. This highlights the true richness that African culture can add to the global zeitgeist, if only it is properly understood and supported.

The key of course, is always about balancing uniqueness with collaboration, which again is a big part of ASP’s focus. If you look at an institution like the European Union, one of the big focusses that has grown up there in recent years is the need to protect national culture and sovereignty, while simultaneously removing the barriers to collaboration, because the bloc as a whole recognises that it is stronger together. The African creative and cultural economies can act in much the same way, bringing unique outputs but operating efficiently as a continent, and in collaboration with the wider world. 

What are the highlights of this year’s forum?

Well I mentioned collaboration previously, and the theme of this year’s convening will be: ‘Africa and the Global Community: The New Face of Collaboration’. And that’s really what it’s all about, especially as we emerge from the pandemic era and get back to face-to-face interactions again.

We want to see greater collaboration between the creative and financial sectors, between the public and private, and between individual entrepreneurs and companies. Beyond that, it’s about strengthening those intramolecular connections between different African countries that we talked about, reaching out to the global diaspora community more, and beyond to establishing African soft power amongst the Facebooks and Disneys of this world.

So we’ll be in beautiful Kigali, Rwanda… we’ll have a traditional speaker programme, as well as more offbeat networking opportunities such as drinks and a fashion show, and a trip out to the Basketball Africa League playoffs, which take place in Kigali the same time we are there. So its all about showcasing the true diversity of African culture in a modern setting, and bringing it all together to in-turn showcase it to the wider world!

New African is a media partner to The Africa Soft Power Project. The meeting in Kigali is taking place on the 25/25 May. For more information visit https://theafricasoftpowerproject.com/africa-month-may-2022/ or their social media platforms

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