Foreign Correspondents

Why Branding Africa Is the Design Goal


Editor’s Note: Martin Miruka is the founder, CEO and lead strategist of ATOM, the first indigenous brand strategy design firm in Kenya. Based in Nairobi, Miruka is also chairman of the Diversity Africa Foundation and KenyaOne, a nonprofit organization founded by ATOM to champion issues of diversity and the creation of a value-based national brand for Kenya. He is the author of The Passion of the Brand, a handbook distributed free to business leaders by ATOM to increase awareness and action around the fundamental role of brand strategy in building African businesses into global African brands. This interview continues our Foreign Correspondent series on the state of design in nations around the world.

How long has the design profession existed in Kenya?
Design has been around since 1967. It started with the creation of Kenyatta University, which was hived off the University of Nairobi (UON) to become a constituent college for training teachers. At that point, Design and Fine Art were created as Bachelor of Arts courses. Fine Art went to Kenyatta and Design remained at UON.

How large is the Kenyan design community?
The total design community could be estimated at about 3,000. UON has produced about 900 design graduates with another 300 coming from more recent universities such as Moi University and Maseno University (specializing in interior design). The remaining numbers have been produced by diploma colleges such as Nairobi Polytechnic and BIFA. The main design professions are graphic (the majority), interior, fashion and web.


What are typical design assignments?
Most design assignments are related to identity and communication briefs. This demand is serviced by specialized graphic design firms like Mojo ( brand strategy firms like ATOM ( and Interbrand East Africa ( also offer design as an integral part of their strategic brand work. All advertising agencies, e.g. Scanad (, Ogilvy (, AY&R (, also offer design as a package with their advertising and marketing communication service.

Does the work come mainly from Kenyan companies?
The work comes both from Kenyan businesses and multinational companies doing business in Kenya. Kenya is a vibrant economy and the hub of economic activity in East and Central Africa. (Kenya is to East and Central Africa what South Africa is to Southern Africa, Nigeria is to West Africa, and Egypt is to Northern Africa.) East African countries – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi – have nearly completed the formation of an economic bloc – East African Community, or EAC – of which Kenya is and will be the de facto capital.

Does the EAC represent a sizable market?
The EAC has a population of over 100 million. As an indicator of its economic potential, mobile phone penetration in the EAC stands at well over 35 million subscribers, with Kenya alone having over 16 million of these. Multinational companies with offices/operations in Kenya include Google, Coca Cola (regional office for 27 African countries), Virgin, GE, Microsoft (African regional office), Unilever, Barclays Bank, Standard Chartered, to mention a few big names. Design firms in Kenya also tend to service many companies in neighboring countries, and many have offices in those countries as well. A significant amount of design in Kenya is also consumed by small and medium enterprises, or SMEs. SMEs currently number between 1.6 million and 2 million companies in Kenya. Even though this segment does not spend much on design per project, the need is there, and they will invest in identity and communication materials for their companies as a matter of course.

You have passionately advocated the need to create exportable “Made in Africa” brands rather than simply exporting unbranded commodities and raw materials. Why is this so important?
Africa’s socioeconomic future has, in my opinion, one key pillar: the sustainable socioeconomic empowerment of her people. This empowerment depends almost solely on the ability to create jobs and industry (i.e., stable, lasting institutions), since this is the only way that economic income, hence power, for the average African can be sustainable.


The ability to create jobs and industry ceases to exist in a scenario where we export raw material and someone else in a recipient country sets up industries to add value to those materials and create jobs out of that for themselves. Of course, they also generate an exponential multiple in revenue per measure from the same material after adding value. Hence, if Africa is to create sustainable socioeconomic growth, she has no choice but to start adding value internally to her raw material and creating brands around these that can attract the same premium in supermarket and shop shelves in the West. Failure to do this will guarantee a continuous cycle of poverty and exploitation. This, in turn, has all sorts of side effects, including bad politics, since poor people care about their next meal, not democracy, and for as long as that is the situation and the poor are the majority, bad politics shall survive on the backs of the poor. Bad politics, in turn, nurture bad economic policies and on and on the cycle continues.

So, if Africa is to gain prominence in the global economy, it needs to build its own brands? Instead of exporting coffee beans, it needs to build a global preference for Kenyan coffee. It needs to develop its own labels rather than be an unnamed supplier to others.


Beyond adding value to raw materials, we must have Made-in-Africa brands from all other sectors so as to increase our ability to have sustainable institutions across sectors for reasons I stated above. This would have a double benefit of “rebranding” Africa’s image from that of a place to be only exploited and which has nothing to offer the world, to a continent that competes in and with the world on her own terms. We, Africans, have much more than raw materials to offer the world. The entrepreneurial spirit and capacity of the African people (of which there is much more than you may imagine) will never be fully unleashed without these opportunities to build institutions and compete in the world market, while sharing with and teaching the world those great innovations that can only be borne of adversity. The world probably has much more to gain than Africa herself, from a fired-up, brand-driven African economic engine.