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Idris Elba on building a wind-powered eco-city, and why he doesn’t watch ‘The Wire’

British actor Idris Elba, best known for roles including Stringer Bell from “The Wire” and John Luther from the eponymous TV show, has ambitions beyond the screen. For his latest role, he wants to build a “smart eco-city” that runs off wind power on an island off the West African country of Sierra Leone.

Sherbro Island is known for its pristine beaches that are a nesting ground for green sea turtles. Sherbro Alliance Partners, co-founded by Elba in 2019, is collaborating with the government to develop a special economic zone on the island to attract people from around the world to live, work, invest and play.

The actor was brought up in London, but his mom is from Ghana and his dad from Sierra Leone. He has acted as a brand ambassador for the latter country and is a strong advocate for building up the African creative arts economy.

Last week, during a talk at the Investopia investment conference in Abu Dhabi, Elba championed the creative industries and called for more investment to support innovation and growth. There, he spoke with CNN’s Becky Anderson about his big ideas for the future, and looked back at some big hits from his past.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CNN: You have a project, Sherbro Island, tell me about it.

Elba: First of all, it’s a beautiful little island off the coast of Sierra Leone. It’s about the same size as Chicago, there’s about 40,000 inhabitants on it in different regions across the island. And Sherbro Island used to historically be the point of no return in the slave trade. It was where England had their capital city of Sierra Leone [when it was a colony], in a city called Bonthe, which is still there. And the relics of the city are still there: the grid system, road system, the old houses, the churches. It’s an incredibly historically rich part of Sierra Leone. There’s 19 miles of beachfront there.

Sherbro Island, off the coast of Sierra Leone. - Sherbro Alliance Partners
Sherbro Island, off the coast of Sierra Leone. - Sherbro Alliance Partners

At some junction, my business partner Siaka Stevens, who is the grandson of the former president [of the same name who served from 1971 to 1985], said: “Look, someone needs to cultivate Sherbro Island for tourism.” That was seven years ago. Where we are now is that we partnered with the government to figure out a plan of how we can bring in tourism. Well, it started as tourism – now we’re building a smart, eco dynamic city.

Obviously, this is Sierra Leone: it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, so investment isn’t rushing through the door. So what we needed to do is understand how to package an investment opportunity around this beautiful island without destroying it, being climate conscious, and being conscious that there is a youth culture across Africa of the average age of about 20, that wants something.

I’ve suddenly found myself in the middle of trying to figure out how to pull this together, and what I did was get the best-in-class thinkers on how to build a robust investment framework for the international players to look at Africa in a different way. And that’s what Sherbro Island is. That’s a very long-winded way of saying it’s my retirement plan.

CNN: What’s the appetite been, as far as interest is concerned, from investors?

Elba: Huge amounts of curiosity, huge amounts of goodwill. There’s no doubt, everyone understands that the opportunity of Africa is incredible. There’s a leapfrog opportunity with Africa when it considers the emerging economies, the emergence of tech, the emergence of the populace: 1.4 billion people across a land span that big, has room and space to grow.

CNN: I know that you are massively eager to better promote the creative industry pillar across Africa. Explain where you see the gaps and where you see the opportunities. 

Elba: The opportunity for Africa is to reframe how not only Africans see themselves via telling stories, but the opportunity is to have the world see Africa in a different way. And that’s where the creative industries can play a pivotal role.

The fulcrum of the creative arts is that every single type of industry falls within it. You and I are speaking from microphones that are manufactured somewhere and based on their use in this industry, the cameras we are being shot on, the makeup that we’re both wearing. This is such a massive intersection of industries that create jobs and create opportunities. If we look at the creative industries as just singing, dancing and telling stories, we’re limiting what it actually is. It is an incredible opportunity for engineering, creativity, storytelling and heritage and propaganda.

We need support from governments saying the creative arts industry does need support and an incentive for it to grow. I’ve made nine films in Africa, nine or eight films. Each time I’m there, I see the opportunity’s growing, I see the quality of the work growing, and I just want to contribute more.

Idris Elba sat down with CNN's Becky Anderson in Abu Dhabi. - CNN
Idris Elba sat down with CNN's Becky Anderson in Abu Dhabi. - CNN

CNN: Take me back through your career to date. What are the standout moments?

Elba: I was on “Absolutely Fabulous” when I was a wee lad and that was definitely a standout moment because it was my first bit of comedy, but it was with the legends.

CNN: How did you get the job in “The Wire”?

Elba: I auditioned extensively over four weeks. I auditioned in New York. It was a tough gig to do. Alexa Fogel is an amazing casting director. She always has an eye for an amazing talent and she gave me an opportunity to audition for it, but she told me: “Whatever you do, don’t walk in there with your English accent. This is about Baltimore, they’re not interested in East London.” And that was it, I auditioned amongst some amazing young actors, and on my last audition, I got the job.

CNN: Do you look back on “The Wire”? It’s one of the original box series, it’s going to go down in history for a whole load of reasons – first of all, it was epic.

Elba: No, I haven’t watched most of “The Wire.” It’s just because it’s an incredible time of my life. I can’t watch it through that lens.

I’ve racked up some box sets. I’ve got “The Wire” to get through. I’ve got “Luther” season one to five to get to.

CNN: What was your experience of living in the United States and is it somewhere you go back to? 

Elba: My experience has been positive. I mean, moving to the States as a young actor was like, “You’re doing what? You’re going to Hollywood?” It’s more commonplace now. For the most part, when I got there, it was really tough. That was a struggle. But it was positive. I grew in confidence. I went through a very tough time; at one point I was homeless. In my early years, “The Wire” changed my life completely, and my daughter was born at the same time. So that really changed my life. I’m always in and out of America. I live in England now, closer to my mum. My dad’s passed and so I’m home in England now, but I’m always there.

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