Awelana Akeriwe’s accomplishment is one to which few other Ottawa communicators can lay claim: Starting, from scratch, an annual festival that celebrates African culture.

But founding AfroFest, a Regina-based festival, is more than just a unique line on her resume. She says it’s helped her a lot in her communications career.

“With AfroFest I quickly learned that starting a non-profit and putting on an annual event involves a lot of relationship building,” says Akeriwe. “For me, being authentic and making that human connection always worked.”

Building a festival on African pride

Akeriwe, originally from Ghana, has always found pride in her African heritage.

It was what she wanted to share with the rest of her community when she started Regina AfroFest, which debuted in Saskatchewan on July 5, 2014.

The event brings together live music performance, drum and dance, arts and craft, African food and workshops to celebrate Africa’s diversity.

“I’m proud of my African heritage and I wanted to share this rich culture with my community,” she says.

“Plus, with my communications background and interests in public relations, I felt I had what it took to make this happen.”

The event ran in downtown Regina’s Victoria Park for four years before going on hiatus for 2018.

During that time, the festival grew from having a zero-dollar budget to having multiple sponsorships and a recognized brand.

“Bringing this form of educative entertainment and diversifying the festival landscape in Regina has been one of my proudest achievements,” she says.

From AfroFest to TD (and IABC Ottawa)

In her day job, Akeriwe works as a Communications Analyst with TD. She also is a member of IABC Ottawa. A commitment to collaboration has defined her position, helping to bring together diverse teams spread around different locations.

“Our teams are always communicating, brainstorming, problem solving – together,” she says. “We’re always looking at the bigger picture.”

This constant collaboration encourages a culture of continuous learning, she says.

For example: She’s learned to use Canva, a simple design tool to create professional designs – both for internal and external communications. “I’ve been able to grow beyond my comfort zone,” says Akeriwe.

Lessons from AfroFest

Akeriwe says AfroFest has taught her invaluable lessons in her career.

  • Relationship-building counts: Akeriwe says she’s always had a penchant for networking. Founding AfroFest helped her to build on her commitment to connecting with others. “For me, being authentic and making that human connection always worked,” she says.
  • Build a great team: Akeriwe learned this first-hand as chairman of AfroFest’s Board of Directors. “I’ve had to be flexible but also hold on to my values. Honesty and integrity has been at the core of everything I do.”
  • Don’t discount writing skills: Building AfroFest meant grant proposals – a lot of them. “It goes without saying that good writing and editing skills have been highly essential. Seeking a second opinion on my work has always served me well.”
  • It’s never too early to start planning: Akeriwe attributes much of AfroFest’s success to building a strong brand; however, recognizing your target dates and building in sufficient lead times can make planning less onerous. How did the festival do it? 1) By building a business and marketing plan right from the outset 2) maintaining consistent messaging across all channels and 3) building the right relationships.
  • Trust your gut: Akeriwe says this is perhaps the strongest yet subtle revelation she takes from AfroFest. “There’ve been times where I have not hesitated to offer a differing view if I feel the team was not headed in the right direction. It has more often than not paid off.”

A commitment to diversity

Akeriwe has always championed diversity.

And founding AfroFest has only further affirmed to her its benefits.

“Given that we are presenting the cultures of a continent, which in itself is diverse, we’ve made it a point to create partnerships with other community groups and include both Africans and non-Africans in the planning process ― in Africa there is a saying that ‘Together we stand…’ to mean there is strength in diversity,” she says.

“After all, the festival is open to everyone regardless of age or background and so it makes sense to involve as many from our community.”

It’s an approach that would apply to many organizations in communications.

“You’ll be amazed the amount of creative ideas you can gather from a team of people with diverse backgrounds.”

Building a career with the help of IABC Ottawa

Akeriwe joined IABC Ottawa having relocated, to stay connected with other communicators, broaden her network and enhance her communications knowledge.

“For me, it’s a great opportunity to access (members-only resources) relevant materials and stay informed on industry trends,” she says.

Her advice to young communicators?

Networking is important. But so too is focusing your discipline.

“Having a broad knowledge of the profession is great and valuable, but as you progress in your career and because the Communications discipline is very broad with a wide spectrum of different domains,” says Akeriwe. “If you can nail down a specialty of Communications you’re really good at or have a passion for, then do it.”

Connect with Awelana on LinkedIn and Twitter.