THERE is an emerging trend in the branding industry called “underdog brand biography”. Rwanda and other post-conflict states could benefit from this approach in re-branding themselves as viable and sustainable investment destinations. Underdog narratives appeal to people because of many people’s need to be inspired by stories of people who have, despite humble beginnings and many challenges, succeed above and beyond the expected norm. It makes many people want to become achievers in their own right.
Underdog brand biographies can be used to market a product, concept and even country with a disadvantaged position. In contrast to countries like Ghana or Mauritius, negative circumstances in the past, lack of resources, and a general lack of international credibility has impelled countries like Rwanda to struggle to stand out among the ‘greats’.
Highlighting tremendous foresight, determination and tenacity to succeed despite the odds, underdogs are able to overcome negative associations and hardships, thus instilling confidence and providing inspiration to people. President Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama, and even President Paul Kagame are examples of underdogs who many locally and internationally respect because their stories inspire others and prove that they too, can achieve goals previously seen as unrealistic and unattainable.
The above characteristics shared by these individuals can also be found in countries such as South Africa and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) that have continued to prosper despite all odds. There is no reason why Rwanda should not be on this list.
Africa is moving from the “Dark Continent” plagued with extreme poverty, political instability and poor governance, and “basket case” macroeconomics to the “final investment frontier” with a fledgling, over 4% economic growth while other continents are facing a decline.
Still, even with this positive spotlight and the quickly emerging “Africa open for business” brand, there is still plenty of work to be done in uprooting negative myths and debunking stereotypes often perpetrated by out-of-context analysis that is propagated through media and the internet at large. Underdog branding will help to rewrite these stories from the first-person account showcasing the unique voice of the teller-protagonist and the challenging context overcome.
Now is the right time for Rwanda to express its underdog narrative. Rwanda has moved from war to peace. It is moving from rags to riches with an average economic growth of 7.8% between 2003 and 2008.
The country is a shining example of development at least in terms of reforms in doing business, as recognized by the 2009 World Bank’s Doing Business Report; enforcing universal primary education targets by demanding parents’ participation and achieving growth in student enrolment of 6% annually (in fact, since 2000 the majority of the students being girls); ensuring safety of the people as the only “Landmine Free” country in the world according to UNICEF; and empowering women by being the first country in the world to have a majority female government.
The list of achievements is endless and is supported by measurable indicators in health, education, and general socioeconomics.
With increasing competition for direct investment within Africa and the world, Rwanda will have to tell its own compelling story in order to stand out against traditional powerhouses such as South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. Such findings as those in the recent World Bank Doing Business Report, Action Aid’s Hunger Score Card Report, World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Index and the two Millennium Development Goals nominations are strong backing for Rwanda’s underdog narrative.
Furthermore, Gacaca, Ubudehe, Umuganda, Mutuelle de Senté and the National Dialogue are indications of engaged and innovative citizens. Combined, innovation and achievements are powerful tools to instill confidence in a country previously ridden with poor governance and divisionism and which is now characterized by determination, cohesion and efficiency.
Underdog branding is a good way to attract foreign direct investment as well as promoting greater Diaspora investment and local direct investment. Not only will a strong Rwanda Brand be an asset to the Africa Brand, it will serve as a lesson to other African states.
When using underdog branding, it is important to be conscious of the audience. For instance, when informing investors about Rwanda, it is essential to focus on the ease of doing business and the lack of corruption, Rwanda’s generally sound economic management - as compared to other emerging economies vying for the same investment and positive economic developments as Rwanda. When informing donor countries, multilateral organizations and non-governmental organizations, the narrative might change to focus on improved social indicators, the role of civic engagement and civil society in promoting economic growth. However, solely focusing on the disadvantaged position should not be the focus of this strategy.
Rwanda has the power to recreate its image internally and to the rest of the world in a manner that focuses on Rwanda having found a solution to its problems, its dedication to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, Rwanda Vision 2020 and other macroeconomic benchmarks. As per H.E. Paul Kagame, “The people of this country have increasingly come together as one, to determine and shape their destiny.
They demonstrated their willingness to put national interests above all else, through a clear vote for unity, reconciliation and socio-economic transformation.”
Rwanda needs to continuously find ways to remain competitive in the international economy.
There are many ways to re-brand a country, and underdog branding is just one. Since Rwanda fits the basic criteria of a country that could benefit from underdog branding, Rwanda should consider this as one of the ways of strengthening its image.
The author runs Hoja Law Group, a boutique law firm in New York that represents investors operating in Africa and advises on cross border legal matters between Africa and the United States. She is currently based in Kigali, advising the Minister of Justice on legal matters in investment and trade.
Additionally, she is the founder of Transitional Trade, a non-profit organisation promoting social trade, investment and entrepreneurship in post-conflict countries. She can be contacted at the following address: