The Africa Soft Power project aims to harness the continent’s creative, cultural and knowledge industries to propel itself forward, while championing the inclusion of African and Diaspora voices in the global discourse. As the company’s first in-person event approaches, the founder Nkiru Balonwu talk to New African on what soft power means.
Nkiru Balonwu founded The Africa Soft Power Project amid the pandemic. The idea had been brewing for quite some time. Bolonwu, while working for Spinlet, which at the time was Africa’s largest music streaming app, began to realize the (soft) power that Africa’s creative and cultural industries could produce.
Like many things in this time, she says, the pandemic has accelerated trends toward digital and information economies. “Once we identified the opportunity, our team quickly got to work. We hosted a series of virtual events designed to both showcase African creativity, bring people together and give them something tangible to gather around, at a time when everything seemed very disconnected. The themes we have explored in these uncertain times have proven to be very timely and relevant for people working in a wide variety of fields. The initiative has really continued to grow since then.
Two years later, The Africa Soft Power Project is hosting its first post-covid in-person event in Kigali, Rwanda, which is gaining momentum to become a hub for innovation and the creative industry.
New African: What do you mean by soft power and through what platforms, by what means, can we have a significant impact to change this narrative that seems to constantly penalize Africa?
Soft power refers to the ability of an individual, institution or nation to engage, communicate and persuade, and it applies to all sectors, from creative and cultural , digital and technology, and even more traditional industries like finance or energy.
Traditionally, the A shining example of soft power in action came from the United States, where we see the American Dream being played out – at least in theory – across MTV, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and even Wall Street. More recently, we have seen other countries also take advantage of significant soft power, such as the deployment of Premier League football in the UK internationally, or the breakthrough of Korean culture on the world stage under the form of K-pop or Squid Game.
These results are extremely important because they simultaneously generate growth and create modern narratives, which, as you point out, is essential for Africa at this time, in a world that still looks at the continent with incomprehension and even skepticism. By harnessing the supreme power of the creative and cultural industries, we can create growth not only in these areas themselves, but also help transform the broader business sector in Africa.
Is soft power as much about changing how we see ourselves as how others see us?
Absolutely. Across the continent, we need to have more confidence in our own abilities and invest more in ourselves. Yes, we want to see more investment from Facebook and Google and Netflix and Amazon, and more international cooperation… But in addition, we need to go beyond, both by the public and private sectors, and consider support stronger for local 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 saw in these individuals who seemed to separate them from the pack was trust. We must remember that growth is as much about inspiring the next generation of artists and entrepreneurs as it is about attracting international investment today.
What do you think have been the big lessons from all your activities over the past two years? How has your way of thinking changed?
I think one of the biggest things we’ve seen is that the appetite for change is there. When we started, we felt there was education work to be done to convince people of the value of African creative and cultural industries and what they can contribute to the global economy.
But in fact, across the board, from financial institutions, to third sector organisations, to creative and cultural businesses, everyone we spoke to seemed well aware of the value of soft power. in today’s modern economy, and it’s more about removing some of the barriers that keep it from thriving.
So we see our role now more as a networking or communications platform, bringing together like-minded people who may have similar goals but come from different sectors, and help inspire and facilitate collaboration. .
You call it a project. Does the project have a final goal, a purpose? when will you consider it done?
Of course, the job will never be completely finished. But I think that when we start to see real commitment from big international companies, in the form of a real physical presence on the continent – which is still rare today – we can recognize that progress is being made.
Going the other way, I’m hoping that when we start to see the African equivalent of Squid Game, or a major player in African media technology, really taking hold in the global conversation, then those kinds of cultural signifiers will act also as road signs for success.
I previously gave the example of Burna Boy playing Madison Square Garden. It was good, but we need more. Ultimately, it is about making African culture mainstream everywhere in the world it is presented, and having a proportionate share to help shape the digital and knowledge economies of tomorrow, which will be crucial for all our future growth.
I have the impression that “Brand Africa” has an identity, a common objective, at least without the continent. And yet, the continent continues to be fragmented. How can we overcome them to work towards a common goal?
There are probably two answers to this one. Yes, the continent is somewhat fragmented, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This means that we have 54 independent countries, with 54 unique cultures and 54 individual creative sectors. This highlights the real richness that African culture can add to the global zeitgeist, if only properly understood and supported.
The key, of course, is always to balance uniqueness with collaboration, which again is a big part of ASP’s goal. If you look at an institution like the European Union, one of the great areas of interest that has developed there in recent years is the need to protect national culture and sovereignty, while simultaneously removing barriers to collaboration , because the block as a whole recognizes that it’s stronger together. African creative and cultural economies can act in much the same way, bringing unique results but operating effectively as a continent and in collaboration with the rest of the world.
What are the highlights of this year’s forum?
Well, I’ve mentioned collaboration before, and the theme for this year’s meeting will be: “Africa and the Global Community: The New Face of Collaboration”. And that’s really what it’s all about, especially as we move out of the pandemic era and back to face-to-face interactions.
We want to see greater collaboration between the creative and financial sectors, between public and private, and between individual entrepreneurs and businesses. Beyond that, it is about strengthening those intramolecular connections between the different African countries that we have been talking about, reaching out more to the global diaspora community and, beyond that, establishing African soft power among the Facebook and the Disneys of this world.
So we will be in the beautiful city of Kigali, Rwanda…we will have a traditional speaker program, as well as more offbeat networking opportunities such as drinks and a fashion show, and a trip to the Basketball Africa League qualifiers, taking place in Kigali at the same time as we are there. It is therefore a question of highlighting the true diversity of African culture in a modern setting and bringing it together to present it to the rest of the world!
New African is a media partner of The Africa Soft Power Project. The Kigali meeting takes place on 25/25 May. For more information, visit https://theafricasoftpowerproject.com/africa-month-may-2022/ or their social media platforms