Exclusive Interview: Kevin Nolan, Director-International, Djembe Comunications

According to Kevin Nolan, Director-International at Djembe Communications, “changing the African narrative is a collaborative effort.” In this interview with us, he shares Djembe Communications’ role in amplifying this narrative, as well as how they are leveraging innovative local partnerships and client engagement to demonstrate their commitment to the continent.

Djembe Communications - "My Dream" Project
Djembe Communications – “My Dream” Project
  1. You have previously served as a Director for Djembe Communications in North America, and now you serve as Director – International based in Cape Town, South Africa, what do you have to say about the evolution of Communications and Public Relations in Africa?
  • In my experience across the continent, having first visited here in 1997, and lived and worked across Africa for several years now, a number of trends that I’ve been observing from a commercial standpoint are that many western industries are finally waking up to the vast economic potential of the continent. The purchasing power of the middle class in certain countries has certainly been a catalyst for the major global consumer brands mobilizing across Africa.

    We’re also seeing major investments in infrastructure, healthcare, and agriculture from Lagos to Nairobi and beyond that require a particularly nuanced communications strategy to help instil confidence in investors and promote the positive impact of the projects. In addition, there is an emerging wave of exciting younger public servants in governments around the continent who understand that relying solely on press releases or four-hour policy briefings are not the best means of disseminating information in 2018. They appreciate the value of crafting messages and communicating in a way that is both genuine and meaningful. And speaking in terms of communications and PR work itself, the mechanics remain largely the same as they are anywhere else.

    This is what I would call native deficiency for multinational companies looking for market entry strategies into Africa, and the same for African stakeholders looking externally as well. This is where communications consultancies, like Djembe Communications, who understand how to bridge that divide play an integral role in this process.

  1. What have you observed in terms of Africa’s PR & Communications industry, especially in line with the work that Djembe Communications does in the continent?
  • A lot of our global competition will be based in London, Paris, New York, and will position themselves as African agencies or experts on Africa. They parachute their experts in for a couple of days at a time into Rwanda, into Maputo, into Cairo, and say that “we understand Africa, here’s your strategy”, and they’ll go back home. Whereas, what we’ve been doing that’s worked out well for us both as our value proposition and as a business model is we do have global communications experts, we have people based in US, UK, Switzerland and in Dubai, but what’s more so is we have local talent on the ground in the capitals of the markets where we operate that truly understand the culture, the media, the politics, the languages in order to execute truly sophisticated communications campaigns that requires deep local understanding to accomplish. In my role, I must have a fairly developed geo-political understanding of most of the major trends around the continent, but I rely heavily on our Drummers on the ground. For example, there are certainly nuances in Kiswahili I can’t detect, fashion social media influencers in Morocco or Algeria that I don’t know of, or perhaps there are new trade policies in Mozambique and Tanzania that are being rolled out. So, it’s a matter of marrying global expertise in communications with our local talents on the ground that allows us to really deliver for our clients in a way that some of our competition isn’t really able to do authentically.

  1. In your capacity as Director – International at Djembe Communications, what are the key goals for the African continent that you hope to achieve?
  • That Djembe Communications’ passion for Africa is clearly evident in the work that we do. This is the continent that historically has faced immense challenges, but there continues to be remarkable progress across a lot of the continent. Much of the progress that we are seeing around the continent is organic and Djembe Communications key goal is to help amplify the true narrative of Africa. People need to realize that Africa is very much like the rest of the world, with opportunities and the challenges, and the rest of the world needs to recognize that.

  1. How does this goal tie into the services that you offer your clients?
  • It depends on the client and their objectives and the audience that they are trying to reach, and of course the market itself. Whether we’re working with a government organization or a foreign entity that is looking to operate within sub-Saharan Africa, or an NGO that’s looking to implement a change behaviour campaign. We have a pretty broad-based range of communications tools at our disposal that we work with our clients to deliver everything from reputation management, digital and social media, branding and design, thought leadership to name a few. It really is a matter of working closely with the client to figure out what their objectives are, figuring out their audience and then building a bridge between the two.

    In terms of concrete partnerships across the continent, I am proud to report that as our network and client list expands, we continue to develop profound relationships with organizations in fields related to entrepreneurship and innovation. We work closely with the African Innovation Foundation, with a particular focus on their Innovation Prize for Africa—which looks to strengthen innovation ecosystems and drive business development. We also work with an organization called FACRA, which looks to improve innovation and efficiency in Angolan small and medium enterprises, and finally through our work with the Global Fund, we have worked through a number of local organizations in both Côte d’Ivoire and Malawi to effectively utilize communications channels to combat fraud and corruption in the administration and distribution of malaria and TB medicine.

My Dream 2

  1. Speaking about your goal, besides working with your clients, how is Djembe Communications pushing to achieve this goal as an entity by itself? Are there specific endeavours you’d like to highlight?
  • We have our own narratives that we want to amplify as well, and we do that in a couple of different ways, and one is definitely outreach like this, working with organizations like yours that are helping to communicate a positive narrative. One thing that I truly believe and I’m passionate about Djembe Communications is that we are genuinely authentic. The people that we hire for this company are passionate for their own careers and are passionate about Africa. We channel that through our own thought leadership, we also do that with our own CSR campaigns as well. We have one that we’ve done in Angola and now are going to launch in Mozambique this year as well, it’s called ‘My Dream’. We brought in Instructors in photography to work with kids teaching them the fundamentals and then we gave them each a camera to take their own pictures—to help tell the stories of their own lives and then we held a competition and we got the pictures to be posted in different events that we’ve held. It’s been a resounding success and we continue to do these kinds of projects as much as we can. CSR and sustainability is something that we very much encourage our clients to do whether they’re internationals coming into Africa or African clients themselves. Demonstrating a commitment to the continent is fundamental.

My Dream 3

  1. Speaking of Africa’s unique environment and with so much going on in Africa right now, how do you think the continent can leverage its youth to achieve a peaceful, prosperous and integrated Africa – and what role do PR companies like yours play in this process?
  • One of the things that we’ve found prior to launching a research report in 2015 under Djembe Insights (and in coordination with Forbes Insights), was that, first of all, there’s a significant gap in readily available research and data on trends across Africa. As such, we conducted a survey across four markets and 4,000 young, sub-Saharan Africans to help identity key issues for long term sustainable economic growth in the region. The answers were job creation, job creation, job creation. We also discovered that entrepreneurship and innovation are considered key drivers, which means it is essentially young business leaders who will create African solutions to African challenges. And the role a communications consultancy can play is to provide the data and research supporting entrepreneurs, SMEs and innovators and vocalizing recognition of the special role they are playing with regards to the economy and job creation. We work with our clients to help facilitate engagement between public and private sectors to seek commitment to spread out seed money to fund these companies as part of their CSR commitments. We also work with our clients to ensure that they’re supporting non-profit organizations that involves local and international in their efforts to provide entrepreneurship, education and technical training to small businesses. If we are looking 10, 20, 30 years down the line, it is absolutely fundamental for Africa to be able to compete on a global scale. They will contribute greatly to diversification of the economy, which is a huge problem in 2018. And this is where Djembe can play a role as well–we need to help vocalize this need by working directly with governments and entrepreneurs themselves and innovators to help promote a better understanding of this crucial sector.

Djembe Insight - Report

  1. In a recent opinion piece you wrote, you talked about the ‘pitfalls of the Africa rising narrative in communications’, and you propose a country focus approach that highlight the strides of each country rather than a blanket covering for the entire continent that can be quite misleading. What will be a good way to advance this new approach in a world where Africa is still largely wrapped together in so many instances as one single entity?
  • Changing the narrative of Africa is a very collaborative effort and we very much share the same values in that regard. My intent on writing that piece is pretty simple–to challenge people to be more constructive in their thinking about the makeup of the continent, and, as such, take a closer look about what makes each distinct nation so fascinating. Let’s please move beyond the construct of Africa as a photo of a child in 1980s Ethiopia or of a giraffe against a golden sunset in Botswana, and focus more on the energy and momentum that we’re seeing across the continent. For example, in South Africa, there’s an immensely serious ongoing water crisis, there was a recently exited president that was all over the news. These are very real challenges. But if you look a little deeper there is reason for optimism. They’ve got a new president that has promised to root out corruption, there’s a number of music, art and fashion that’s coming out of Durban and Johannesburg that we’re seeing on the streets of New York and Paris. Look at Morocco. They are experiencing a sluggish economy at the moment, but has also recently re-joined the African Union after some thirty years of absence. 2017 was also a phenomenal year of tourism for Morocco, and the Kingdom is also paving the way for renewable energy with solar and wind power. Consider Nigeria. Every time I’m in Lagos I bring snacks in the car because of infrastructure challenges the traffic can be so brutal, but at the same time look at the number of game-changing authors that the country has produced. Moreover, I hear artists like Wizkid, Phyno and Olamide on the streets and in taxis of pretty much every African capital. I can go on and on about these stories, it’s just amazing the amount of excitement and energy coming out of the continent.

  1. Finally, do you think that a collective ‘Africa Rising’ narrative might also be responsible for expanding market opportunities across the continent, such that, an innovative business in Nairobi might become more appealing to a customer in Nigeria because the business is captured as an Africa Rising story and not only a Kenya Rising story? Essentially, I’m asking if there any benefits derived from the ‘Africa Rising’ tagline that are worth mentioning and highlighting?
  • Of course there is some merit in evaluating blocs to get a clearer picture of investment opportunities or collaborative cross-border infrastructure projects that are underway around the continent. The SADC is a major regional bloc as is ECOWAS. In this sense, collectively these markets are much more competitive in terms of signing global trade agreements with other blocs. Policy wonks and economists will always rely on this perspective to help decipher the data they are looking for in trends at the macro level. Now, internally, the nations that comprise these blocs allow them to be much more cohesive in terms of movement of labor, capital and free trade between themselves. But these stakeholders are already invested in Africa in some form. I want to challenge the rest of the world to make a more concerted effort to understand how fascinating the continent is via appreciating its diversity. For example, we don’t call art from Europe “European art”, we say it is French impressionism or Dadism from Switzerland. But art from Gabon, Zimbabwe or Burundi? That’s African art. Full stop. There is something fundamentally wrong with this outlook.

    We really have to learn to appreciate the fact that each country is developing on its own path, it has its own strengths and its own weaknesses. To truly appreciate the progress that each country has made, it has to be understood in the context of its own challenges as well.

    A lot of responsibility is on media platforms and communications consultancies to advance this approach. We can help to celebrate the diversities of each country across the continent.

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