by Renard Teipelke
An amazing landscape, wild animals, beautiful sunsets, white beaches, traditional tribe villages, mountains and valleys…one could easily continue the list of things for which Kenya is famous for. This country in East Africa is one of the prime tourist destinations in Africa and equally depends on the revenues from this large economic sector (678 mio. Euro revenue earnings in 2010). The country is well branded internationally and has established very clear pictures as images of Kenya in many people’s minds (see another article on this blog here).
If one lives in the Kenya and goes beyond this tourism bubble, one can also easily make up a completely different list: post-election clashes, political corruption, high slum prevalence, border conflicts with neighbors, anti-terrorism war in Somalia, rising ethnic (and maybe even religious) strives, elitism and clientelism, dysfunctional infrastructure, rising food prices…
Kenya’s image worldwide is surprisingly good considering these contrasting images. While international actors such as the European Union touch the country with relatively soft hands, it is no secret that many things are going wrong in Kenya – and its people are increasingly standing up against these deficiencies in the sociopolitical system.
As a tourist, you will hardly encounter Kenya’s, or better to say, Kenyans’ everyday problems. Though, from time to time the two sides of the country, the tourism world and the everyday world, are coinciding. Then, stakeholders (and even more: shareholders) are fearing the negative impacts sub-national ruptures can and have had on the tourism revenues that are the backbone of the country’s economy and the livelihood of thousands of people (tourism accounts for close to two thirds of the country’s GDP).
The question that bothered me since I have moved to Kenya is the following: Is it good that Kenya’s image around the world is so perfect and well primed?
From a simple marketing standpoint, one could argue: yes, because a perfect image is the ideal outcome of a branding campaign. From a critical geography standpoint, I would argue: not in the long term. The idea of branding – as discussed several times in many articles on this blog – is that the good sides, i.e. the strengths, of a place (or a thing) are identified and advertised. At the same time, a vision is developed that outlines where stakeholders want to go with their place. This includes also a discussion on what are not only the strengths, but also the weaknesses of the place. Once negative/weak/challenging aspects are identified, a strategy needs to be drafted in order to address these issues and to aim at an improvement. A successful branding process will be ongoing and has a sustainable positive priming as well as a constant improvement of a place as its objectives.
In the case of Kenya, this means that the decision makers and designers behind the country’s branding campaign would have to deal transparently with the country’s weaknesses and challenges. They would need to do so in a participatory manner. And this is the point where it becomes critical: Once you are opening up a branding process, you will have to deal with and react to what your people are saying. This is currently not very often the case in Kenya. There are multiple facets of strives that exist between various ethnic, political, economic, social groups. Seen from a realpolitik standpoint, one can understand why hardly any decision maker wants to take up this task.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Kenya’s weak spots need to be addressed through transparent and accountable politics. If not, tourism and the country’s brand will be hurt anyway – as the dropping tourism revenues following the post-election violence in 2007/2008 have shown.
At the same time, outsiders are bearing a moral responsibility to some degree: foreign media, governments, and tourists need to have an interest to open their eyes in face of a country’s challenges and negative sides. As long as these stakeholder groups are turning their back on Kenya’s multiple problems, they will indirectly support the country’s elite that – unfortunately – shows no sign of caring about (all) its people or its country in general. Eventually, this case underscores again that branding as well as tourism have moral everyday life elements in themselves that cannot be ignored in the long term.
Note: The links to Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper articles as well as the images provided in the above text are just examples that hint on underlying aspects. One can discuss about every single example chosen for this article and the examples are not meant to be representative of the whole situation in Kenya which is far too complex. But I nevertheless find it relevant to touch on this sensitive issue of Kenya’s image and Kenyans’ everyday life.