A few years ago, I found myself at a policy event which involved national officials of a particular geopolitical region meeting to ratify a legal instrument. After two long days of rancorous debate, the host minister invited the delegates of the two main opposing nations into a small anteroom where they were brought an array of colourful culinary delicacies. By the end of dinner, there was laughter for the first time in three days. The next day, the legal instrument was ratified. 

This is but one example of the use of food as soft power. Food as a way of influencing attitudes, opinions and beliefs about a country has found vivid expression in nations from Jamaica to Japan – from jerk chicken to sushi. Food as an intrinsic part of culture is a key way of telling different stories about a nation or people. Indeed, there is nothing new about this – from time immemorial, people have used food as a means of communication, to break barriers, and demonstrate goodwill. Where this simple cultural exchange has become an elevated strand of diplomacy is in the way that it has been juxtaposed against the more familiar hard power in a way that utilises intrinsic value to connect with and influence people. 

Widely accepted as the originator of the concept of Soft Power, a former diplomat, Jonathan Nye realised that the nature of power had changed substantially and critically in the 21st century. He believed that “the traditional ‘elements of national power’ (population, economy, military) approach was misleading and inferior to the behavioral or relational approach that has become dominant”. The elements that resulted in these sets of behaviours or relations were in his opinion, more powerful, as when deployed, they invited targets to experiences that could challenge and change long-held assumptions. In Nye’s words, “…hard power is like brandishing carrots or sticks; soft power is more like a magnet.”

Such mind-altering attraction is more persuasive and has found expression in some of the 21st century’s most seminal moments – the Berlin Wall was despite a 50-year long Cold War, brought down not by military power of either the USA or USSR, but by the power of ideas that had generated a different sense of possibility amongst the youth populace. This found practical expression in pop music and Hollywood films. Soon thereafter, the most vivid expression of the opening-up of Eastern Bloc countries was whether they allowed McDonalds’s to open a restaurant. 

As the concept of soft power as a means of projecting influence has developed over the past few decades, countries have utilised various elements of their national culture to position or reposition themselves. This has been done by using various means to achieve different ends – from promoting film, music, theatre and dance via national troupes, to sport and health promotion initiatives. Increasingly, food is also being recognised as being an important tool for soft power mobilisation and engagement. There is an incredible benign power that resonates deeply and can even result in hard power outcomes – hence the coining of the term gastro-diplomacy. We have seen this in how Thailand deliberately focused on a policy of supporting their home entrepreneurs to open Thai food eateries across USA, to France elevating French haute cuisine to become synonymous with gastronomic excellence. 

One can therefor legitimately ask the question of where Africa is in this? While there is the complexity and sheer undesirability of treating the behemoth of 54 nations as a singularity, it is striking to note that no African nation has so far used its gastronomic cultural heritage to project itself on a global stage to the extent that a food or set of dishes results in automatic word association with a country or region. To this extent, the Jollof wars in the UK that emanated from the Ghanaian and Nigerian Twitterati may be seen as a watershed moment, as it was the mainstreaming of an aspect of culture that was simple yet sophisticated and served as a Trojan Horse to other elements of culture – it is no coincidence that in the past 15 years we have seen a renaissance of Ghanaian and Nigerian culture manifest itself in music, fashion, dance and theatre. A further link can be made from that strand to the successful Year of Return that Ghana launched a couple of years ago (to attract African-Americans displaced by the enslavement of their ancestors). This initiative has contributed billions to the Ghana economy. 

It is a missed opportunity that few African nations have recognised the need to harness food as soft power for developmental purposes. Given the heartsmile that a good plate of food can engender and how this can contribute to a different sense of perspective by outsiders and source of immense pride, confidence and esteem as citizen, it is not unreasonable that one would expect that more of an enabling environment for promotion of African gastronomy would have been forthcoming from African governments. 

It is understandable that many are still intent on the pursuit of hard power, as academic studies on the value of food as soft power remain sparse and preference is therefore given to other forms of power that have greater political visibility and are easier to understand. This is in spite of the fact that UNESCO has recognised several African nations’ recipes and dishes as intangible cultural heritage e.g. Couscous (North Africa), Thieboudiene (Senegal) and Nsima (Malawi). Apart from sporadic incursions by a select few national governments, the heavy lifting here has largely been left to entrepreneurial citizens and some cultural institutions to make the case for supporting African food as heritage and as a lever for growth. 

It is in recognition of this important under-appreciation of African food in the global narrative that food entrepreneur Yasmine Fofana from Cote D’Ivoire has launched several initiatives all aimed at raising the profile of African cuisine and promoting various African cultures – these include her delectable Instagram page @Afrofoodie, Abidjan Restaurant Week and Abidjan Cocktail Week. Fofana explains that “Afrofoodie was launched 12 years ago as the first culinary and digital platform exploring the local food scene of the country made by an Ivorian for Ivorians living in Côte d'Ivoire or in the diaspora”. It has since become a portal through which Fofana has introduced the world to not just Ivorien, but other African cuisines. 

Fofana is keen that there is more of an ‘inside-out’ recognition of the value of our diverse food excellence –“WE as Africans need to reclaim our own narratives and become the first ambassadors of our culinary heritages and richness”. There are again parallels here with the African music revolution we have recently seen, where the rest of the world has jumped on to what was appreciated and promoted by Africans. 

It is with this critical role in mind that The Africa Centre is this month proud to be a strategic partner on two important initiatives – one is the London Africa Food Week, coming up on the 25th – 31st May; and the second is the Africa Soft Power summit, being held this year in Kigali, Rwanda, May 27th – 31st. Both of these events will be directly addressing the opportunities immanent in understanding and harnessing African countries’ individual and collective soft power. These are the kind of events that could help Africa re-present itself to the world. Tokunbo Koiki, Founder of London Africa Food Week, states “Cuisine is a universal language and an important introduction to new cultures. How many of us have wanted to visit different parts of Asia just because of how much we like the dishes from there? By centring African food in the London culinary scene, we are hoping to share and celebrate a key part of various African cultures”.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the devastating famine in Ethiopia that spawned the hit singles ‘Feed the World’ and ‘We are the World’ in the UK and USA respectively. The associated Live Aid concerts beamed devastating images of starving African children across the world, searing this image into the consciousness of everyone who saw it and directly contributing to a narrative of Africa being poverty-stricken, helpless and in need of Western salvation. This has had massive repercussions on how the continent has been able to ‘market’ itself since. By shining more light on the culinary delights and gastronomic wonders across Africa, with other elements of soft power, this narrative may be shifting – one bite at a time. 

Olu Alake

May 2024.