Smart policies and investments can help reimagine a more prosperous and inclusive creative network in Africa—and beyond.
Six months into my former role as the Biden administration’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, I found myself at a very swanky private club in New York City, sitting across the table from a tech investor. One of my key responsibilities was to promote economic diplomacy with Africa, and I was excited to expose more American investors to Africa’s emerging industries. Armed with statistics about the amount of venture capital flowing to the continent, and the rise of billion-dollar African technology companies, I was confident I could persuade this investor to carve out some portion of his multibillion-dollar fund for the continent.
If Africa is overwhelmingly associated with images of death, disease, and despair—and not innovation, creativity, and dignity—it will remain a challenge to persuade risk-averse investors to simply visit.
About halfway through my pitch, I saw his eyes glaze over. I paused and asked his thoughts about the opportunities I’d mentioned. He said a senior government official from one African country had reached out, but after doing some research, his team could only find stories about corruption and human rights abuses in that country. Then he told me about a documentary he’d recently seen about another African country where locals were contracting diseases from eating wildlife. He’d concluded Africa was too risky and he would continue sourcing deals in Eastern Europe.
I walked away from this meeting reminded that culture eats strategy for breakfast. The most brilliant Africa strategies and pitch decks about Africa’s investment opportunities were useless if we were not also challenging the negative stereotypes that dominate the media’s portrayal of Africa. If Africa is overwhelmingly associated with images of death, disease, and despair—and not innovation, creativity, and dignity—it will remain a challenge to persuade risk-averse investors to simply visit.
My new media production company, Next Narrative Africa, was born from the idea that economic progress is linked to narrative storytelling. We are developing and producing entertaining and narrative-shifting content about Africa and African people as we build an ecosystem of diverse stakeholders to support creativity and innovation. Next Narrative Africa also produces events that bring investors, creatives, and policymakers together because Black diasporan storytellers, who are shifting the narrative about Africa and African people, also need funding. Ultimately, Africa must be seen as a vital source of solutions for global challenges—and not a place to extract resources and import remedies. A good story that makes you laugh, cry, worry, hope, and yell at the screen can also make you think and behave differently—and maybe even see Africa and African people differently.
Content is also good business. As Africans move to cities, enter the middle class, go online, and access mobile technologies, the demand for content aimed at African audiences continues to grow. Companies like Amazon and Netflix have noticed: These streaming platforms have entered African markets including Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa—and are making original African content that can be viewed from anywhere in the world. In 2020, Netflix became the first international streaming service to sign a deal with an African production company. Amazon’s Prime Video and Disney+ have followed, signing partnerships with production companies from Nigeria and South Africa to create projects led by directors from all over the continent.
International studios are betting on Africa and are actively planning for continental expansion. They’re planning on cross-genre content aimed at kids, teens, and adults to sustain demand across the continent and from the African diaspora. Black audiences worldwide want to see diverse stories about people who look like them. And non-Black audiences are drawn to good storytelling no matter where it comes from. As Afrobeats and amapiano take the world by storm, African television, film, fashion, and sports are sure to follow.
Despite minimal government support, the creative sectors in many African countries have blossomed and the right interventions could be catalytic.
African governments are eager to harness the development potential of the creative industries. Africa is the youngest continent on the planet demographically, but unemployment is also rampant. The creative industries are strategic, not only because they contribute to the important work of narrative change, but also because these industries are youth-driven, dependent on technology, and create jobs. In Nigeria, the creative industries are already the second-largest employment sector behind agriculture, leading the government to refer to content as “the next oil.”
Despite minimal government support, the creative sectors in many African countries have blossomed and the right interventions could be catalytic. To attract international productions, streamlined location incentives would be game-changing, as would increasing protections for intellectual property rights that make it easier for creatives to profit from their work. Training, exchange, and incentives that focus on intergenerational skills transfer would support the development of everything from television and film to fashion and beauty, as well as the legal, technical, and business talents needed to sustain said industries. These interventions would be most effective in countries where good governance and strong institutions encourage policies that address the security and infrastructure challenges that increase transaction costs and make it hard for all sectors, traditional and new, to flourish.
A bright future awaits Africa’s creative industries—but so do challenges. Investors struggle to understand how to manage the inherent risks with investing in the creative sector and creatives and investors generally don’t speak the same language. Only 2% of the investment into Africa in 2022 went toward the entertainment industry. Film and television content are increasingly in demand, but disruptions stemming from COVID-19 and technology have made it more difficult to profit using old models.
The African Export and Import Bank launched a $1 billion fund to invest in Africa’s creative industries. The World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, is also looking to launch initiatives aimed at promoting private sector investment in Africa’s creative industries. Finance is an area for US-African collaboration, and a co-investment with the US in content creation, distribution, infrastructure, and innovative financing solutions would benefit both African and US investors and consumers.
Despite the challenges, there is a significant opportunity for African innovation to reshape the global creative industries. The US has long been a leading exporter of its music, television, film, sports, and fashion industries, and that’s one reason why engaging with Africa on the development of the creative industries is strategic for the United States, who will have an advantage that no other competitor can claim. African countries can learn from America’s best practices without copying and pasting the elements that have marginalized the voices of women and minorities, furthered stereotypes about these groups in the media, or made it difficult for content creators to build wealth from their intellectual property. Young creatives can collaborate across borders—but especially between the United States and Africa, to reimagine a more prosperous and inclusive creative network.
Policymakers and investors in the United States and across Africa must educate themselves and take the creative industries seriously. We can leverage opportunities to connect diverse audiences around culture and creativity. New narratives will nudge more people to see for themselves—people like the tech investor I met in New York, who recently traveled to Africa with his team to source deals. Global audiences consuming African content won’t solve all of Africa’s problems, but it can help solve some important ones. Africa’s next narrative is long overdue.
Akunna E. Cook is the founder and CEO of Next Narrative Africa, a multi-media production company telling African stories for global impact. Cook previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the Biden-Harris administration. In this role, she oversaw the development of US foreign policy for Southern Africa, as well as economic and regional issues including trade, investment, climate, health, multilateral engagement, democracy, and human rights. She was also the inaugural Executive Director of the Black Economic Alliance, a nonpartisan organization focused on driving economic progress in the Black community through policy development, advocacy, and supporting candidates for office.
Cover photo: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.