Afrikea, founded by Sam Amsterdam, James Kimer, and Richard Elsen, brings together comprehensive understanding of the political economies of nations such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and others, allowing foreign and indigenous entities alike to maximize impact and engagement among their target audiences.
The following was originally published in Forbes Magazine:
Africa today hosts almost as many distinct business environments as it does languages. The diversity of the media on the continent presents to many, a formidable obstacle, and to others, an enticing opportunity. As African economies grow and the need for strategic communications becomes increasingly clear, industry leaders and political figures alike are jockeying to best leverage growth opportunities on the continent and raise their profiles both at home and abroad.
International communications agencies are thus shifting their gaze toward Africa.
Some agencies are going a step further, forming dedicated Africa-focused enterprises to tap into the unprecedented opportunity the continent now presents.
I recently spoke to the founders of one such enterprise – Afrikea. Afrikea is a boutique consultancy based in Washington D.C., London and Johannesburg. It was founded by 3 PR professionals – Sam Amsterdam – the Founder of Amsterdam Group Public Relations, James Kimer – President of Media Theory LLC and Richard Elsen – founder of Byfield Consultancy.
Through their joint venture, Afrikea bring together comprehensive understanding of the political economies of nations such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and others, allowing foreign and indigenous entities alike to maximize impact and engagement among their target audiences.
Sam Amsterdam: It’s not news that Africa rightly continues to reap the benefits of globalization. Yet we often, in this business, see firms with no time for understanding the challenges and more importantly the opportunities in doing business effectively on the continent. Accordingly, devoting time, energy, resources and hands-on expertise in regions such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia as but examples and forming a strategic partnership with firms here in Washington D.C. and abroad that exude the very same experience and these qualities was an easy decision to make.
James Kimer: Looking back at our past clients and areas of practice, Africa had always featured quite heavily. But of course, Africa is not a homogeneous; running a comprehensive media campaign in Nigeria does not automatically give one the means to successfully operate in Kenya, for example. Among the three of us, however, we have over the years developed experience and relevant contacts to effectively provide high quality services across most nations on the continent. As for our decision to work together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and we believe that by consolidating our various strengths into a dedicated Africa-focused enterprise, we will have a valuable advantage in servicing our clients.
Richard Elsen: In essence, it came down to priority. Africa’s rapidly developing and diversifying economies mean the continent is no longer an afterthought. All the resources that went into forming Afrikea are an investment in our clients and a vote of confidence in Africa itself. Through this new enterprise, we are much better poised to provide proactive, holistic public relations services than we would be through our individual companies.
All too often in this industry, we see firms overpromising and under-delivering, and for outsiders operating in Africa, in particular, this seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Renowned international communications firms tend to falter when expanding on to the continent, as the intricacies of doing business in Africa make their standard models effectively obsolete. Communicating successfully in Africa means an enormous commitment to research and constant re-evaluation.
Sam Amsterdam: The continent is not for beginners.
Richard Elsen: Through this joint venture, we bring together a long history of experience in challenging cases, advising both foreign and indigenous entities to solve problems and deepen engagement among their target audiences. Many clients are too busy to always be giving instructions – PR consultants should accordingly and always be the ones bringing new ideas and initiatives.
What would you say are some of the challenges you’d mentioned with regard to building an effective business on the continent?
Richard Elsen: The biggest challenge we’ve seen is the myriad of unique regulatory environments throughout Africa. There is no one-size-fits-all model when doing business on the continent, and perhaps more than anywhere else, corporate and political communications in Africa requires a deep understanding of the legal system. Our global network includes international law firms with decades of experience on the continent, innovative mobile banking providers and infrastructural titans of industry, and our work with them gives us valuable insight into the distinct administrative frameworks that our present and future clients will need to navigate.
Sam Amsterdam: Another challenge is the nature of media outreach. Access to traditional media and degrees of media freedom vary considerably throughout the continent, meaning campaigns need to be far more carefully thought out and targeted than in Western countries. Social media has become a prime vehicle for strategic outreach, though again, consumers use social networks quite differently from country to country. And in some markets, the absence of trusted news establishments leads to problems of misinformation – sometimes intentional and harmful to reputations – which require strategic responses.
James Kimer: Right. And so, through meticulous use of analytics and research, our team develops strategies to cultivate engagement with online audiences, which can deeply strengthen the reach of our traditional media approach. Africa’s online presence is still growing, but levels of engagement with online content are far higher than one might expect. The challenge is ensuring that this engagement is beneficial to each client, a task requiring considerably more attention than in other markets.
In which markets do you see the greatest opportunities, and which markets pose the greatest risks?
Richard Elsen: The three of us have been present in Nigeria for years, and the country’s impressive economic growth and diversification of its industries make it absolutely rife with opportunity. A stronger regulatory environment in Nigeria eliminates many of the risks that accompany the general atmosphere of uncertainty in some other African nations, and greater media freedoms allow for more robust consumer outreach. West Africa in general is becoming increasingly attractive for foreign and African firms.
Sam Amsterdam: Southern Africa likewise has made strides in ensuring political and administrative stability, with South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Mozambique offering favorable environments for investment. One of our clients has notably quipped that “the best time to climb on the back of an elephant is when it is on its knees; when it rises, you should be safely on its back”. Peaceful transitions of power are also becoming less of a rarity and more of a way of life, allowing clients to rest assured that their operations in the South won’t be jeopardized by unpredictability in politics.
James Kimer: Despite improvements in some areas, the Horn of Africa remains challenging due to lasting security concerns, weaker institutions, and a relatively unfavorable environment for foreign investment. The region also presents a considerable language barrier, making it more difficult to conduct business and communications in a common language and requiring additional resources to ensure effective outreach in Amharic, Oromo, or Tigrinya.
There are dozens of global PR shops with affiliate offices across Africa. What is different about your approach from these service providers?
Richard Elsen: Our principals have worked with clients at the highest levels of government and business in critical and historic moments in Africa. We understand what it takes to operate both during moments of crisis and moments of opportunity. In contrast to global firms that maintain operations in Africa, Afrikea is an aggregation of three boutique firms with a history of providing low volume, high engagement service on the continent. We bring a level of understanding of Africa’s complexities that is without parallel, allowing us to devise effective strategies instead of merely executing them.
James Kimer: We believe our attention to detail sets us apart. It’s something that larger PR firms have let fall by the wayside, and in Africa, detail is everything. The cultural, political, and social idiosyncrasies on the continent present an insurmountable obstacle to those who don’t devote the necessary resources to spending sufficient time on the group, cultivating relationships with stakeholders, understanding and navigating the challenges.
Sam Amsterdam: The ‘Afrikea Agenda’ is among the most flexible and responsive out there, as we don’t adapt a set model to each client, but rather build from scratch each time after careful and thoughtful planning with the client.