Funding strategic communications is key for social change in Africa


Stan Getui


Young Africans, armed with unfettered creativity, mobile data, and keyboards, are pushing powerful groups to overhaul unjust practices.

The Fees Must Fall campaign in South Africa, as well as the deCOALONIZE movement in Kenya, are strong recent examples that public support is central to challenging entrenched inequity. Storytelling and strategic communications are crucial in kindling and sustaining people-led movements during these times, offering a glimmer of hope that all voices in society can count. But there is space for more success if change agents, such as civil society organisations and frontline activists, are supported to institutionalise strategic communications in their organisations. Contemporary funding practices can provide the necessary flexibility to cater to emerging needs to address the glaring gaps.

In 2022, Luminate commissioned Winning Hearts and Minds, a study to understand why change agents and strategic communications firms in Kenya miss logical, mutually beneficial opportunities for cooperation. The study, conducted by Botho Emerging Markets Group and Asphalt Ink Co examined how the existing disconnect between funders, change agents, and strategic communications firms hampers the success of important initiatives.

According to the report, many changemakers rely on social media as a single communications tactic because it is relatively affordable, and with the assumption, or hope, that anyone can cause significant buzz online. Betting on online virality leaves many social campaigns flailing, missing the mark, which could further discourage disenfranchised communities who have little space to make their voices heard.

One of the main findings of the report is summed up by a change agent working in women’s empowerment who said, ‘[W]e really struggle with the capacity in terms of personnel. And I feel at times there is more information that can go out. If we had someone else who supports digital advocacy in this kind of work, we could then be having more impact and more numbers and more impressions.’

Strategic communications firms in Kenya have built solid reputations on their exemplary execution of state and corporate public relations, branding, and marketing. Kenya is a media and digital innovation hub, and these firms are well poised to tell exceptional stories and move masses, enabled by the expansive budgets of private and public institutions. The report notes that communications, as a service, has grown into an essential industry that remains largely inaccessible to non-profits who largely operate on minimal budgets. If anything, strategic communications firms reportedly believe that non-profits can be ‘too stingy’ to allocate sufficient resourcing for current, innovative communications trends. The research concurrently underscored the immeasurable impact achieved when strategic communications firms collaborate with change agents and other groups to push for social justice.

The report analysed a 2017 campaign in Kenya, led by Save Lamu. This is a coalition of 40 civil society organizations who banded together with the dogged resolve to challenge a behemoth – a coal company that sought to set up a power plant in town. The plant’s existence would pollute the small coastal town and devastate historical sites, harming residents’ health, and livelihoods. The resultant ‘deCOALonize’ legal campaign resounded locally, but public pressure was needed to influence decision-makers to rescind their plans. Enter strategic communications: matching Save Lamu’s tenacity, a communications company provided strategies and support that ensured the campaign reached Lamu residents, Kenyans, and environmentalists globally. This included countering sponsored disinformation against Save Lamu’s leadership, and multimedia messaging that ensured that residents, and international parties were motivated to lay sufficient pressure against the coal power plant.

Save Lamu’s well-deserved success is a lesson – and an exception. Opportunity, public pressure, leadership, and storytelling are key enablers of social change in Africa. Funders support the ideation and implementation of potentially impactful projects, but clearly, communication is often regarded as peripheral rather than central to the success of these programs. In turn, the methods employed are not always fit-for-purpose.

Resourcing strategic communications may take different shapes including core funding that allows for the hiring of staff, or funding collaborative efforts between change agents and communication professionals. Additionally, there is room for innovations in the way funders direct resources to these efforts including through the establishment of basket funds. However, support for communications need not be purely monetary; it’s important to provide shared learning, as with this report, accessible communications guides, and spaces for peer learning.

Ahead of the 2022 Kenya elections, Luminate supported the Amka! campaign run collaboratively by a change agent, Article 19, and a strategic communications firm, Saracen Media, to increase voter participation, especially among the youth. Preliminary success was driven by the combination of Article 19’s understanding of civic processes with Saracen Media’s expertise in demographic assessment, audience targeting and media usage. The campaign – run with messages that were comprehensible, clear, and relevant – improved our understanding of how youth engage and, more interestingly, disengage with civic processes in Kenya. Early insights that we know can be built on.

Outside of these initiatives, our core funding has enabled partners to build communications teams through recruitment of sourcing external expertise. This ensures that they have an immediate, internal resource to build their messaging, and style.

While funding collaborative programmes and recruitment are low-hanging fruit on the continuum of solutions, longer-term solutions such as basket funds that pool funds from various sources specifically for this cause. This will be necessary in helping change agents to sustainably instil best practices in communications. Continued support through such mechanisms will enable shifts in organisational, and sectoral culture to institutionalise communications in programming.

Where strategic communication and storytelling is raised or jointly identified as a core need, Luminate is keen to enhance our partners’ capabilities. This report provides a roadmap on specific entry points where support can be redoubled by funders. The depth and technical planning injected into various causes fall flat if change agents cannot build connections with their audiences.

Stan Getui is Director, Africa at Luminate.

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