Middle East & Africa: Innovation Powered by Storytelling

PRESS OFFICE: Djembe Consultants

By: Gilles Ametepe, Head of Innovation – Djembe Consultants

Stories told in the Middle East and the Africa of old, were stories of kings and conquests, stories of warriors and poets. Centuries later, stories are still being told, but the entrepreneur has replaced the warrior and investors have replaced the conquests. This is just reflective of how fundamentally the Middle East and Africa have changed over the centuries. One thing, however, remains untouched and unchanged, storytelling. Built in the very DNA of both regions, storytelling is not just a means for entertainment, it is the very core of knowledge sharing, inter-generational technological transfer, branding, and marketing.

From Amman to Accra, from Beirut to Bangui, this is, and has always been, the reality of the inhabitants of the Middle East and Africa. In a dynamic world, where digital-first is the order of the day, storytelling is a powerful tool in the arsenal of African and Middle Eastern entrepreneurs and innovators. This, they can leverage in the quest to conquer national and regional markets and promote local expertise on the global stage. The question then arises about whether innovators in these regions see value in storytelling, and if they do, how do they utilise it to position their brands, drive sales, break market boundaries and secure funding?

Who is the Customer?

Tech-led ventures in the Middle East and Africa have quite a lot in common – they primarily build solutions to local challenges; they can be scaled across markets with similar profiles, and they are often founded by young talented people. They also have a few shortcomings in common, among which the tendency to downplay communications’ needs or the overreaching focus on the product rather than on the customer. Few, however, do focus on the customer, they are the ones who have seen the light and understand the power of insight. Understanding your customer is the beginning of business knowledge, for the most successful products or services are the ones built on the needs of people. Having a customer persona clearly designed nurtures product-market fit and powers scaling.

Storytelling Lessons in the Souk

In regions where the ‘Souk’ or marketplace is at the very core of socio-economic activities, acquiring, pleasing, and retaining customers is a national sport. From the ‘my friend’ to the ‘my sister’, sellers in markets across the Middle East and Africa are known to have an ‘annoying’ ability to force ‘friendship’ and ‘family ties’ like no other. In a context where the concept of family or community remains truly relevant in those regions, this well-shaped customer attraction strategy has proven to be effective – they always have your attention for a second and that is when they strike. Maybe innovators and tech entrepreneurs should consider taking their next MBA class in the Onitsha market in Nigeria or in the Khan el-khalili souk in Egypt.

Storytelling is a Superpower

Storytelling remains one of the ever-reliable tools in any business communications’ arsenal. It is highly valuable for any entrepreneur to learn the art of storytelling and inculcate it in his company’s culture from the get-go. Everyone likes a good story, and that ‘everyone’ includes your potential investors, your regulators, your potential customers but also your potential employees. No one buys from you if they don’t buy your vision first; and the most effective way to sell your vision is by telling its story. Storytelling is an effective strategy for both startups and scaleups – all that needs to differ is the framing. My mentor, Mitchell Prather, always advises entrepreneurs to tell their story as it is and own it all, both the good and the not-so-good. This, he often says to second or third-time entrepreneurs who may have not been so successful in their previous ventures. To his advice, I add, that ‘failure is also a beautiful story to be told, always look to fail early, fail often but never forget to fail forward.’

Storytelling Humanises Your Brand

Being genuine in your communications puts a human face on your brand. In an era of bots and fake digital profiles, knowing who one is buying from provides a certain sense of assurance. This does not necessarily mean you must have a physical presence in all markets, but it sure does mean your story must be told in all targeted markets. This can be done with billboards, targeted media and digital campaigns and periodic activation events in target areas. For tech-ventures, storytelling is a bridge that connects their innovation to the market. New things are always taken with a pinch of salt across the world, change is often not easy to accept, and innovation is change – change from the old ways of seeing the world, change from the old ways of living in the world. Storytelling eases the marketing process and fast-tracks the adoption process, it sells your potential.

Beyond Storytelling

No matter what you are building or which market you are targeting, more than ever, storytelling is relevant on that journey. Globalisation has made the marketplace more competitive, giving consumers access to options that were until recent years beyond their reach. Whiles this is good for the consumer, it is a challenge for you, the entrepreneur. In the face of that challenge, it is imperative to adopt an approach that projects your unique selling proposition. Did you know that in today’s market, companies are not only competing for consumers, but also for funding, strategic partnerships, and regulatory approval? It is a fierce battle out there, and these factors can make all the difference between success and failure. While there are billions of dollars invested in many innovative businesses in the MEA region, there are also hundreds of brilliant ideas dying in their nest and hundreds of businesses that were never took off because they failed to tell a powerful story that could have won customers or secure that life-saving funding. Entrepreneurs must realise that storytelling is not just an option, but the most important one. There is no need to look for alternatives. When asked about what is beyond storytelling, my answer has always been, “beyond storytelling, there is storytelling.”

Across the Middle East and Africa, one question must be on the mind of every innovator and entrepreneur, a question that can unlock the next growth level of his venture, ‘is my innovation powered by storytelling?’ If the answer to that simple question is ‘Yes,’ then you deserve some flowers, but if it is a ‘No,’ then it is not too late for you to get started with it and develop a compelling narrative around your brand positioning. You have a great appreciation for captivating narratives, and I share that sentiment with you. There are millions of people out there who could benefit from the innovative offering that your business provides. It is important to remember that no matter how successful your business may be at present, crafting a compelling story has the potential to take it to the next level. So, start working on your story and share it with the world today. This is your moment to seize!