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Culinary diplomacy as Nigeria’s global reputation strategy

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As a Nigerian abroad, the reaction you’ll likely get when you introduce yourself is an excited reel out of names of Nigerian superstars who have adorned the country’s Green-White-Green and played for the national football team, the Super Eagles. “Finidi George”, “Amokachi”, “Jay Jay Okocha”, an elated Albanian screamed on learning about my nationality during my last trip to Tirane, Albania.

If they don’t mention these football heroes, they will dazzle you with their familiarity of our creatives: Fela Anikulapo Kuti (Fela, otherwise known as Abami Eda); David Adeleke (Davido) and Ayodeji Balogun (Wizkid) among others. The situation is almost the same everywhere.

Interestingly, fast-gaining international reputations are Nigerian delicacies. This is not a mistake: Nigerians love and don’t joke with their dishes. A simple check on YouTube or other streaming platforms will show how cross-culturally married couples introduce their spouses: their first attempt and ratings will melt your hearts. A Spanish air hostess once mentioned how much she enjoys Nigerian food, thanks to the introduction by her friends.

For those who do not know, Nigeria is a homogenous nation of hundreds of tribes/languages. As you would expect, she has diverse culinary traditions. It is unbrand for the country not to have properly owned the popular Nigerian jollof rice, pounded pam and egusi, banga soup and starch, tuwo shinkafa and miyan taushe.

As many countries have done in the past, Nigeria has a golden opportunity to harness the power of food diplomacy to drive tourism and enhance its global reputation. This article explores how countries in Asia, the Middle East and the Americas have successfully utilised their food to create a strong brand identity and public diplomacy. It will also delve into steps the Nigerian government and potentially Nigerian brands can take to support this power brand approach.

One, Culinary Diplomacy, or Gastrodiplomacy, has a positive impact on tourism. Countries such as Thailand and Japan have strategically employed food diplomacy to attract visitors from across the globe. Promoting their unique culinary offerings has enticed travellers seeking authentic gastronomic experiences and stimulated curiosity about their culture, history, and traditions. The Thai government, for example, launched the “Global Thai” campaign in 2002, giving citizens $3 million to start restaurants worldwide. The evidence is in the number of Thai restaurants globally. According to a 2023 report from Statista, South East Asia, between 2012 and 2021, made an average of 282.3 billion USD annually from travel and tourism, compared to Africa’s US$166 billion between 2011-2014, according toUnited Nations Conference on Trade and Investment report.

To leverage culinary diplomacy effectively, the Nigerian government can take several proactive steps. First, it should establish dedicated food festivals and events highlighting the country’s diverse culinary heritage, bringing together local chefs, food enthusiasts, and international culinary experts. These events could serve as platforms for cultural exchange, culinary workshops, and cooking demonstrations, showcasing the depth and flavours of Nigerian cuisine. Willing private sector players can have a play here.

In fact, existing annual festivals such as the colourful Ojude-Oba, Osun Osogbo, the Obi of Onitsha’s Iri Ji, Calabar carnival, and the Northern states’ Dubar are a few examples of fertile grounds to amplify the many Nigerian delicacies. Those events themselves need better global posturing.

Furthermore, partnering with reputable chefs, domestically and internationally, can significantly boost the visibility of Nigerian cuisines. The government can collaborate with culinary artists to develop innovative menus that fuse traditional Nigerian ingredients and techniques with contemporary trends. By featuring Nigerian dishes in reputable restaurants worldwide, Nigeria can generate curiosity and demand for its dishes, attracting tourists eager to explore the country’s foods firsthand.

Social media and online platforms are vital in promoting destinations and experiences. The Nigerian government should invest in a comprehensive digital marketing campaign highlighting the country’s food treasures. Engaging content, including visually enticing images, videos, and authentic stories about local food culture, can generate buzz and attract food enthusiasts worldwide. A relevant example is the buzz the recently held Ojude-Oba festival is generating on the internet.

Besides, Nigeria’s music industry, particularly the globally popular Afrobeats genre, can catalyse the promotion of the country’s culinary diplomacy.

Collaborating with popular Afrobeat artists to curate food and music events, both domestically and internationally, can create a unique cultural experience that showcases Nigerian cuisine alongside the infectious rhythms of Afrobeat. This fusion of music and food can amplify Nigeria’s global visibility, attract a diverse audience, and generate interest in visiting the country to indulge in its rich cultural offerings.

Afronation’s global festivals are another testament to this possibility. To say Afrobeat is Nigeria’s current biggest export is not an understatement. If you are in doubt, look at the numbers Nigerian artists are pulling globally; the tours, the tens of thousands of attendees and venue shutdowns. Wizkid, after winning Grammys, mentioned in an interview that though at the peak of their careers, they (he and others) are merely “scratching the surface.” And this holds true. Look at Grammy Awards winning Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu (Burna Boy) and Temilade Openiyi (Tems) and the Divine Ikubor (Rema)’s Calm Down its global explosion. Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, during a recent visit to Nigeria, espoused the creative geniuses of Wizkid’s and Davido’s performances he once saw.

Beyond driving tourism, and the country’s global reputation, the government will be creating job opportunities for its teeming youth population. The successful delivery could open new possibilities for other critical verticals. Nigeria has the potential to become a must-visit destination for food enthusiasts worldwide seeking a tantalising blend of flavours, music, and vibrant cultural experiences.

Promoting Nigeria’s delicacies is a great first step towards cultural expression at a global stage. This is an opportunity to rally the contemporary marketplace and sell our national brand beyond the now global Afrobeats, a long list of football superstars and other well-meaning Nigerians who have flown the national flags proudly.

As the Taiwanese put it, food diplomacy is rooted in the premise that “the easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach.” Let’s get the world savouring the sumptuous oha, bitter leaf, gbegiri and ewedu soups, amongst others. Globacom Limited, an indigenous player in the telecommunication sector, has been sponsoring the Ojude Oba festival since forever. It is probably time for local technology companies to take advantage of the rave, build their brand and drive commercial advantage. Unlike in the 1980s when Nigeria failed to take full advantage of its very popular Nollywood brand, this again is an opportunity that must not be squandered. Embracing the concept of gastrodiplomacy and leveraging Nigeria’s culinary heritage will go beyond geopolitical and international power; it offers local and international economic and social opportunities.

If truly Naija no dey carry last, it’s time to show it. The country should leverage these cultural assets for socio-economic and political gains. The clock is ticking!

Moshood writes from London. Follow him on Twitter or other socials @themoshoodm

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