The otherwise quiet café in the tranquil Washington suburb of Rockville, Maryland is animated on a late September afternoon as Akunna Cook shares her plans for an African media company.
I’m catching up with the Nigerian-American former diplomat just weeks after she left a high-level job at the State Department for her own venture.
The busy businesswoman is just back from New York, following speaking engagements at the Concordia Annual Summit and the Africa Soft Power Project on the margins of the UN General Assembly.
Now she’s getting ready to jet off to Lagos to meet with producers, writers, and a potential funder for her new venture, Next Narrative Africa.
“I have a healthy amount of impatience with, like, a lot of institutions,” Cook says matter-of-factly to describe her entrepreneurial drive.
For the next 45 minutes, she expounds on her experience growing up between Nigeria and New Jersey, her passion for Nollywood movies and her lifelong fight for black representation – the flow of words regularly punctuated by bouts of passionate laughter.
We’re halfway through our iced teas when a customer stops by our table on her way out the door.
“I’m sorry,” she tells Cook, “but I’ve just got to say – you have the best laugh.”
It could have been an awkward exchange, but Cook just smiles graciously at the compliment.
After the woman leaves, Cook leans in and recounts how a school teacher once complained that her mirth was disrupting the class.
“What do you want me to do?” Cook remembers her mother asking. “Ask her to stop laughing?”
Dreams of Nollywood
Cook’s outlook and approach to life were shaped by the confluence of Africa and America.
Although born in the United States, she grew up in Nigeria until the age of six. Upon their return to the US, the family’s connections to the Nigerian-American community exposed Cook to the world of African moviemaking.
“I’ve long been a fan of Nollywood – probably since I was a teenager when the industry really started to take off,” she says.
Thirty years later, she still remembers the 1992 release of Chris Obi Rapu’s Living in Bondage as a “seminal” moment. The drama thriller was the first straight-to-video Nigerian movie to achieve blockbuster success.
“I remember when it came out and everybody was passing around the VHS tapes,” Cook says. “I just remember being like, wow, there’s a Nigerian movie, and people are really excited about it.”
To this day, she says, as many times as she has been to Africa, there’s “still something” about seeing families that look like hers on Nigerian billboards or toothpaste tubes – something she’s only become more keenly aware of as the mother of a 15-year-old teenager.
It’s hard not to see that African TV and film have boarded a rocket ship, just like music.
“When I had my daughter and she got to be a little bit older, I noticed what a lot of people, particularly black women, notice when they have children, which is that there’s not a lot of representation,” Cook says.
“I’ve just started consuming more [African media]. Because even though the production quality may not be great, and the storylines aren’t always good, at least the actors and actresses look like you.”
Cook’s early brush with Nollywood sparked a lifelong desire to get into the entertainment field. But it would not be a straight route.
“Probably right around high school, my parents dissuaded me away from that,” she says. “But it was always there.”
Instead of a career in the arts, she studied Economics and Business Administration at Howard University, the historically Black research university in Washington, DC, before earning a Master’s degree from Harvard and a law degree from Yale.
In between, she served her first stint in the State Department from 2004 to 2013, with postings in China, South Africa and Iraq as well as the Bureau of African Affairs in Washington.
Cook’s post-diplomatic career saw her practising law, working with former Attorney General Eric Holder on redistricting in support of Democratic candidates and heading the Black Economic Alliance, a coalition of business leaders who came together after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election to support economic progress and prosperity in the Black community.
Asked about her career, Cook describes it as “interesting opportunities to promote the welfare and well-being of people of African descent.”
Bureaucracy and the media
When Joe Biden won the 2020 election and the new Democratic administration came calling, Cook says she thought her diplomatic career was over and that she’d work for the Small Business Administration or a similar agency.
Instead, she was tapped to head US policy toward southern Africa as well as economic and regional issues including trade, investment, climate, health, multilateral engagement, democracy and human rights.
Cook says she was grateful for the 18 months on the job but felt frustrated by aspects of the bureaucracy and the media that tend to focus on crises in Africa rather than opportunities, which often puts the US at a disadvantage with competitors such as China.
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his latest trip to Africa, she pointed out, much of the attention was on US efforts to defuse tensions in eastern Congo rather than deal-making in South Africa.
“We’re not doing such a good job of making it easy for our private sector to diversif conversations that we have about Africa – it is still overwhelmingly focused on the negative, and not enough on the opportunities,” Cook says.
“When you’re a casual observer, hedge fund or VC (venture capital) fund, and you’re thinking about Africa, that’s what you see. And it reinforces this idea that there’s not a whole lot on the trade and investment front happening,” she adds. “That’s why I made it my business to focus exclusively on the trade and investment stories on the continent.”
New African stories
Cook’s State Department portfolio led her to take a close look at the creative industries sector, which is now the second-largest employer in Nigeria behind agriculture, with the potential to employ 4.2 million people by 2025, according to Nigerian career platform Jobberman.
“You’re starting to see that the industry is taking off, particularly in Nigeria, but also in Kenya and South Africa,” Cook says.
Just as West Africa’s Afrobeats music has taken the world by storm in recent years, Cook sees a huge potential for the region’s visual media to gain a huge following in the African diaspora, notably in the Americas.
“It’s hard not to see that African TV and film have boarded a rocket ship, just like music,” she says.
But first, Cook says, the quality of African television – both in terms of content and production – could use some improvement. While the tried-and-true romantic comedy formula attracts most of the funding, she says, the continent is rife with original stories just waiting to be told.
While leading a delegation of the US government’s intra-agency Prosper Africa initiative to Nigeria in February, she met Emmanuel Uduma, a media professional who previously served as executive producer of the hit television drama series MTV Shuga.
The show starring Black Panther star Lupita Nyong’o and singer Tiwa Savage played a key role in teaching young Africans about HIV prevention and family planning.
Together, Cook and Uduma launched Next Narrative Africa in September with the goal of producing TV shows and films “that have a social impact lens.”
“They’re definitely entertaining, but they are meant to sort of grapple with social challenges, including governance, climate, health, and gender. Those are the areas that we’re particularly focused on,” she says.
For starters, Cook and Uduma are developing pitches for two television series.
You’re starting to see that the industry is taking off, particularly in Nigeria, but also in Kenya and South Africa.
The first, about a young musician who decides to run for office, explores the theme of democracy and how it is and isn’t working for young people in Africa.
“It’s really about what I think is the sort of tension everybody faces about doing things because it’s good for me personally, or for my family, my group, versus doing things because it’s better for the whole society,” Cook says.
The second show is about a soccer coach who returns to Nigeria to train a team of young men after playing abroad.
“The show is about how gender stereotypes and norms are evolving,” she says, “and particularly stereotypes of African masculinity.”
Cook’s next stop: The American Film Market in Santa Monica in early November, an eight-day annual networking and buying event where she hopes to get some solid leads for new platforms to partner with.