Opinion | Are innovation narratives the key to driving a new vision of Africa?

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In recent years, a new innovation narrative has emerged from Africa, with new stories about how technology is enabling people across the continent to access a wide range of services that were previously out of reach, writes Olugbeminiyi Idowu. From financial services and healthcare to agriculture and commerce, the narrative that has accompanied this new wave of market-creating innovation is not only opening up various new growth opportunities, it is also changing how Africans view themselves and their continent.

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From a public relations perspective, these new narratives have been central to reshaping global perceptions and driving significant investment into Africa. Over the last 5 years, Africa’s emerging startup ecosystem has attracted more than $20 billion in venture capital equity and debt funding. This figure is even more remarkable when you consider that the continent as a whole only
attracted $12 million in 2013.

We are all familiar with the established global narrative about the continent so there is no need to amplify it again here. That narrative is often framed as an attempt to draw attention to challenges that undoubtedly exist on the continent. While this may seem noble and altruistic, the pervasiveness of this narrative has done more to pigeonhole the continent as a subject of patronising pity and a destination for handouts and charity. Rather than a dynamic and nuanced landscape that, if intelligently explored, can be a source of profitable investment and trade opportunities.

For example, non-consumption is a major issue across the continent. Nonconsumption occurs when people are unable to purchase or use a product or service that would help them make progress, typically because it’s too expensive or inaccessible. It is easy to see instances of nonconsumption and miscategorise them as ‘poverty’. However, there is an increasing number of success stories where innovators have identified instances of nonconsumption and built multi-billion dollar businesses that employ millions of Africans around that nonconsumption. Therein lies the paradox of the African opportunity – the opportunity is in what seems like an absence of opportunity.

Amplifying the stories of these market-creating innovations can indeed play a crucial role in shaping and driving a new vision of Africa. These narratives, centred around the continent’s creative potential, technological advancements and entrepreneurial spirit, can be a catalyst for much needed growth and development on the continent. However, it is important to note that this cannot be just narrative for the sake of narrative. The objective of these narratives has to be to shift the global perspective to see Africa as a hub of innovation and opportunity. Afterall, people invest in opportunity. Not problems.

I believe very strongly that effective public relations can be a catalyst for this new narrative and the benefits that come with it. There is ample evidence to support the position that organisations with strong, well-managed brands grow faster, are more profitable, and attract more investment, and the same principle applies to other entities (including nations and continents). No long term good will ever come out of a constant commitment to amplifying problems. At best, you will end up with a patronising pity that will be counterproductive to the progress you may seek to achieve.

Another potential benefit of innovation stories is the impact it can have on how Africans are viewed. By amplifying stories of home-grown innovations, there is a great opportunity to project Africans as inventors, entrepreneurs and leaders. Not helpless victims that need saving. Public relations can be the engine to make this happen. Effective PR and communications can ensure that even in the midst of challenges, the innovation and opportunities remain in the spotlight.  

While innovation narratives alone are not a silver bullet for all challenges, they are a powerful tool in shaping beneficial perspectives of Africa and driving momentum towards a more prosperous and technologically advanced future. It’s crucial, however, that these narratives are grounded in reality, acknowledging the challenges that still need to be addressed but amplifying the growth opportunities that undoubtedly abound on the continent.

Olugbeminiyi Idowu is the founder and managing director of Talking Drum Communications, a public relations and communications consultancy that supports companies innovating in Africa to shape perceptions and get more effective publicity for the work they are doing.

He is an African Tech PR specialist, with extensive experience in leading and delivering successful media campaigns for a wide range of companies – from established global players to Africa-focussed start-ups.