Joseph Samuel Nye, an American political scientist and faculty at Harvard University, first came up with the concept of soft power in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.
According to him, soft power refers not to military might, but to the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. It is cultural power. And it is what Kenya’s exemplary performance at the just completed World Athletics Championships in Beijing brought to our nation.
Every time we won a medal, Kenya’s name was splashed across all major news organisations around the world. The victory culminated in the topping of medal ranking, with all the concomitant coverage and prestige.
The question we must ask ourselves now is: how do we exploit this rare moment while the rod is still hot? There are many things that we can do to take advantage of this emergent opportunity.
First, we must leverage on the goodwill abroad to turn the tide from negative publicity following recent terrorist attacks to a positive narrative of a free state that is focused on the development of its people, with world-beaters practising in an environment of safety and tranquility – a paradise of tourism.
By now we should have started marketing Eldoret as a land of the ultimate investment opportunity, where the secrets of athletics success lie. The world capital of fitness and healthy living.
A call for investors to put up an international athletics resort complete with a championship stadium is not a far-fetched idea.
There is a strong case for commercialising mursik, the curdled dairy cuisine of the Kalenjin, and begin its mass production. Of course, mursik would not be authentic if not served in a special gourd, which can also be mass-produced for that purpose.
If Eldoret were so marketed, the tourists would certainly arrive. The Tourism ministry would then recruit hundreds of anthropology students to be tour guides in and around Eldoret and through a Hall of Fame facility with biographies of athletics who have won medals for the country.
Who wouldn’t want to be photographed next to lifelike wax images of Kip Keino, Ben Jipcho, Henry Rono, Tecla Lorupe and Douglas Wakiihuri?
Sportsmen in other disciplines would be motivated to achieve even greater feats. It would be a matter of time before we built a Hall of Fame facility for the country’s sportsmen and women.
Kenya Airways, as it struggles to get out of the red, should rebrand and change its slogan to “The Pride of Africa: Airline of the Champions” with the picture of Ezekiel Kemboi (due to his domineering image in steeplechase) emblazoned on the planes.
We want to hear all air hostesses saying, “Welcome to the home of champions” at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. We have a big marketing window to exploit this opportunity until 2017 when the next championships will be held in London.
It is for this reason that the government should put aside a digital marketing budget for this purpose.
We lost to South Africa in marketing Kenya as the cradle of mankind when the South Africans were quick off the block in marketing their semi-arid region of Maropeng as the cradle of mankind.
Now, every time you search for the word, the first 10 pages are dominated by results linked to South Africa. Such key words mean lots of money in tourism. We should occupy at least one page of the World Athletics Championships for the next two years.
Yasushi and McConnell in their book Soft Power: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States, argue that the “the oft-seen failure of governments to take advantage of their countries’ soft power may be attributed to insufficient awareness of the importance of this sort of power and to the confusion caused by their inability to get a proper handle on the qualitative differences between hard power and soft power and between public diplomacy and propaganda.”
Kenya must overcome these challenges and see the opportunity as God-sent to get us out of the persistent negativity that has impacted economic growth.
We have a real opportunity to use athletics as a turning point and move from a potentially successful country to simply a successful country. We may never get the opportunity again but by the time we cede it, everybody in the world should know Kenya in a different way.
Jesse Owens, an American athlete and four-time Olympic gold medallist, once said, “We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.