In 2000, The Economist declared that Africa was a "hopeless continent". It was a deliberately inflammatory statement, but it wasn’t hard to see why the magazine had reached this conclusion.
Much of Africa seemed trapped in a cycle of corruption, inefficiency and poverty. Africans – although proud of their cultural identities – shared a sense of frustration at the failure of the continent to keep pace with the rest of the world.
A decade later, the picture had changed radically. The Chinese had made significant investments in the region’s infrastructure and become Africa’s largest trading partner.
Multinationals, too, saw the opportunities: in 2011, Procter & Gamble’s "grow Africa" strategy identified the continent as its next frontier. The race to uncover African creative talent was on.
Today, five of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa. The term "Africa rising" is so common, it is practically a meme – and African creativity is bursting out of the continent across every medium.
The ripples of this can be felt here in the UK. Afrobeat is what the cool kids are listening to; Malaika Firth (pictured, right), a Kenyan/British model, is on the cover of Vogue; and the Nigerian film industry is the world’s second largest after Bollywood.
This new wave of creativity is captured in the acronym Tina: this is new Africa. Any agency without Africa on its strategic plan is already late to the party.
The way of the lion
According to Felix Kessel, the co-founder of the South African agency OwenKessel, it took a long time for African nations to build up their confidence and find their voice. Now a new breed of creative has emerged who is unapologetically African, willing to take risks and break the stereotypes.
Kofi Amoo-Gottfried, now the global communications director at Bacardi, previously worked with one of this article’s authors, Richard Robinson, to set up Publicis Groupe’s West African operation.
Amoo-Gottfried’s vision was to reclaim Africa’s birthright as a creative force. As a start-up, they had to think laterally when recruiting.
To find good client services people, they looked to the banks, hiring their corporate relations managers. Journalists and bloggers were brought in as copywriters, while artists and designers honed their skills on the job.
Amoo-Gottfried also reached out to his network, bringing in experienced creatives from India and the US. Teams were regularly sent out to local marketplaces to conduct primary research. "In Africa, there are no short cuts," Amoo-Gottfried explains.
A mobile, social continent
Another driver of African creativity is technology. Agencies in South Africa already compete on the world stage, but digital technology is also connecting creatives across Africa to developments in the rest of the world. As Kessel points out, mobile is increasingly important: "Although the cheapest way to get a message out in South Africa is still TV, that is not true in places such as Nigeria and Kenya, where it is mobile first."
Gaurav Singh, the chief digital officer at the Kenyan agency Scangroup, agrees: "The design process starts with mobile. Our technologists are not coming out of traditional universities, they are teaching themselves. They do front-end design, but they code, too. For us, mobile is not a by-product, it is the product."
However, Amoo-Gottfried injects a note of caution: "There is more demand for agencies to provide truly local solutions. No-one’s cracked mobile yet."
The use of social media is also spreading rapidly across the continent. Kessel says African oral traditions are providing opportunities for branded storytelling: "People don’t mind marketing if it contains a story worth sharing." As in the West, brands are starting to think more in terms of conversation and engagement, rather than purely broadcast. "Right now, Nigeria is the most experimental place on earth," Kessel adds.
African creativity reborn
There are a number of platforms showcasing African creativity. Examples include Bozza and African Digital Art. Google has created the Africa Connected platform, and Diesel has partnered the fashion brand Edun to launch Studio Africa online.
African creatives are gaining international recognition. The Zimbabwean graphic artist and designer Sindiso Nyoni has worked on projects for brands such as Nike and Audi. In 2010, he created R!OT, an alias that explores subversive street style. His work has been exhibited as far afield as Mexico City, New York and Croatia.
At an agency level, OwenKessel’s work for Amstel and the South African newspaper Business Day reflects a renewed confidence and willingness to challenge the establishment. Ogilvy Africa’s "on-the-job interview" campaign for Radar Security in Kenya demonstrates a fresh approach using word-of-mouth and social media.
In the UK, a fresh group of young creatives are emerging. Engine’s Akwasi Poku says: "Marketers see that the audience demographic is changing and are starting to look for a more diverse talent pool. That creates opportunities for creatives like me."
It’s clear Africa is leaping forward with creativity and passion at a rapid pace. UK agencies should take note.
Jonathan Akwue is a partner at Engine, and Richard Robinson is the managing partner at Oystercatchers