Grace Kiire is a communications consultant who has worked in several industries and across many markets. In this interview with Africa-OnTheRise, we learn more about this astute professional who is passionate about nurturing the dynamic transformation now underway across Africa.
1. Over the course of your career, you have worked in varying capacities as a communications and marketing consultant, tell us about yourself and your journey so far?
I’m a Communications professional who has worked in several industries and across many markets. My first steps into this dynamic field were in the fashion industry, where I provided PR support for the likes of Tiffany & Co, London Fashion Week and also Giorgio Armani.
As a third culture kid in the UK, having been born in Zimbabwe, my world and perspective has always been across borders, and so from very early on, I gravitated to work that was international. With this in mind, I joined the world’s largest PR agency, Weber Shandwick and that position exposed me to global communications fairly early on in my career which is quite unusual. My biggest account throughout my time there was ExxonMobil where I was in charge of overseeing communications for four of their lines of business in several markets including Egypt, Finland, Turkey, Poland and Germany.
It was at Weber Shandwick that my first taste of working with Africa presented itself. Whilst being of African origin, working with African businesses or on the continent was not in my plans. Fate would have it that I was put on the only African account in the whole London office (over 300 people), on which there was only one other person. Without me knowing it at the time, this account changed the trajectory of my career forever.
This particular client – the Investment Climate Facility for Africa, dealt with improving and promoting the investment climate of Africa in order to drive more capital. The Account Director at the time, moved to an African private equity company called Jacana Partners, and a year later poached me.
Joining Jacana Partners in the Marketing team fully embedded me within the African business landscape. Our investments covered 6 markets across West and East Africa, and I was exposed to all sorts of stakeholders from investors to SME business owners. Communications was needed at both a company level (Jacana Partners) but also for our portfolio companies which ranged from serviced offices in Kenya to a leading provider of high quality industrial products in Ghana. It was a huge learning curve.
From there, I joined AfricaPractice, a risk advisory and communications consultancy, where I currently work as a Communications Consultant. I specialise in the designing and execution of communications strategies for leadership positioning, and the building and protecting of the reputations of African focused businesses in the West and on the continent – with a particular emphasis on East Africa. After working in AfricaPractice’s London office for 1.5 years, I relocated to Nairobi in November 2015 to build up and support the communications team in the company’s East African office. I am currently based in Nairobi.
2. As a leading young communications expert and considering your focus on Africa, what are your thoughts about how Africa can leverage its large youth population to achieve a peaceful, prosperous and integrated Africa?
Dissatisfied youth plus lack of opportunity are perfect ingredients for social destabilization and migration across borders and continents.
Ultimately, I think the solution is three-fold. Firstly, governments need to intensify their efforts in rolling out interventions, passing policies and directing investment into areas that affect youth the most: education, employment and health. Whilst African governments have made notable steps such as the introduction of a national youth policy and youth enterprise fund in Zambia, or the national youth service in Ghana, more action is needed – particularly to create stronger job creation mechanisms.
Secondly, a robust labour force will go a long way in maximising the continent’s full potential leading to prosperity, better integration and less conflict. Due to the inevitable demand for talent, it is in the private sector’s interest to strategically nurture the potential in African youth and effectively and efficiently match youth skills to jobs. Impressive examples of private sector initiatives include the MasterCard Foundation’s Youth Livelihoods Program which provides skills training for economically disadvantaged young people so they can find employment; or the Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa (DJA) initiative which seeks to catalyze new, sustainable employment opportunities and skills training for Africa’s youth, with a focus on the ICT sector.
African youth also have the power and potential to change their trajectories and becoming pioneers in innovation is a great place to start. The entrepreneurial spirit and energy in Africa is light years ahead of other markets. Did you know that more people start a business in Africa (19%) than in Latin American countries (13)? In the absence of jobs in traditional employment, introducing new products or services and proactively seizing new technologies remains a viable trump card that African youth should continually leverage.
3. Gender was a priority in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and continues to be so in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), how can women empowerment programmes be leveraged to achieve this goal?
I believe that women can change the world and the continent is losing out by not holistically addressing gender inequality. Without women being truly integrated into our economies, how can we be operating at our full capacity?
For any development goals to be successful they must be inclusive of all stakeholders and women empowerment programmes have to be progressive and ambitious yet realistic about what they can achieve. They also have to be deliberate in communicating their successes and challenges so that other groups can learn and replicate.
Living in Nairobi, women empowerment programmes are a dime a dozen, but a programme that stands out to me is Hivos East Africa. Their Women’s Empowerment programme specifically promotes economic rights and justice for women and enhances women’s participation in politics and public administration, and I think that is both tangible and awesome.
4. According to the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, Rwanda ranks 1st in Africa and 4th globally, and also ranks number one (1) in the world in female participation in legislature and leadership. How do you imagine this result can be replicated in other African countries?
Gender gaps are established by various socioeconomic, policy and cultural variables. In order to achieve prosperity at a socioeconomic level, discrimination against women must be ruled out at all levels as female inclusion and equality will have a multiplier effect across other developmental areas. Governments should be bolder in upholding women’s rights and breaking access barriers. Culturally, Africa still has a long way to go to change mind-sets, however; if change happens at a leadership level as was the case in Rwanda, it should eventually have a cascading down effect across segments of society.
5. You are currently the Communications Lead for UK funded FoodTrade East and Southern Africa, how has this influenced your thoughts about agriculture being the next economic boom for the African continent?
I am convinced by it. Living on the continent quickly taught me that there is no running away from agriculture. It is a part of the continent’s DNA. Growth in the agriculture sector is 11 times more effective at reducing poverty than growth in any other sector. Economically, it is incredibly important.
The biggest lesson FoodTrade East and Southern Africa has taught me is the transformative potential of agriculture and trade to strengthen food security in the region. As an organisation it offers a fantastic story from a communications perspective of the impact that can be made when the private sector, governments and other development actors come together to bridge the gaps at the heart of agricultural systems in East and Southern Africa.
I do not believe that money coming into the sector is a problem, but I do think that there needs to be better coordination and accountability at a national, regional and continental level to boost agricultural productivity.
6. What are some of the peculiar challenges that you encounter in your work, and how are you able to overcome them?
In this industry, it is very common to be working with multiple industries across multiple sectors – and sometimes in just a day! You have to be super flexible and a fast learner because as a communicator you have to present yourself as an expert in the fields you are representing.
You also have to be 2 steps ahead in most things that you do. That means you should be constantly educating yourself by keeping up to date with the experts, regularly reading blogs, books, and magazines on the field. You have to be on top of all the tools you need to communicate. Are you keeping up with the latest trends on social media? Do you know which new journalists have joined industry? Do you know what makes your audience tick? Do you know what will make them tick tomorrow? To work well in this industry, you should.
My work ethic has carried me a long way. Professionalism is the baseline of all my work. My secret is to enjoy what I do, because if it is interesting, rewarding, challenging and making me a better person then I’ll do it well.
7. A lot continues to be said about the rise of Africa, the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative it is called. Do you agree that Africa is indeed rising? If so, what are the changing realities, scenarios and events that inform your conviction that Africa is indeed a continent on the rise?
I joined the African communications industry at a time when the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative was in full steam both off and on the continent (2012). Things have definitely changed. I see this most strongly from a Western perspective. Since 2016, there’s been a noticeable hesitancy and in some cases detachment when it comes to some foreign businesses wanting to engage with Africa. We have felt it in the communications industry and there is a greater push to develop content that convinces rather than informs stakeholders about the opportunities in Africa.
Working within African private equity for a significant part of my career highlighted the need for progress in Africa to be looked at from a long term horizon. To me, the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative is far from dead, but the level of change that is required cannot be sorted with a short term fix. Reforming healthcare, improving education, building infrastructure are all long term plays, and in the meantime, the progress that has already been made should not be disregarded. There is so much to be proud of. In Kenya alone, steps are being made to achieve its Vision 2030 goals with the recent launch of the Standard Gauge Railway (Madaraka Express) efficiently connecting Nairobi to Mombasa being the latest example.
8. You have lived and worked in varying capacities with different corporate entities abroad, what advice from your experience so far would you like to share?
Challenges will arise regularly but so too will opportunities. If the opportunity arises to work with other countries and cultures, do it! I’m an undeniably better Communications practitioner because of it.
9. What should Africa look forward to from you soon? What is the next big thing you are working on right now?
I am passionate about nurturing the dynamic transformation now underway across Africa and this is grounded in my commitment to sell and promote a positive image of Africa. I plan to continue working with ambitious businesses and African entrepreneurs and I’m militant about portraying a much needed balance of perspectives about African business and business owners.
I have been blessed to have been able to help build and defend reputations across geographies and across industries; spearheading outreach; identifying compelling strategies and cultivating reputations. This won’t stop anytime soon. Watch this space!