For years, Africa has been beset by its educated and expertly skilled leaving the continent in droves to pursue careers in the developed world in search of a better quality of life. In what is commonly referred to as the flight of human capital or brain drain the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that since 1990, Africa has been losing 20 000 professionals annually.

 Pushed to Leave

For years, Africa has been beset by its educated and expertly skilled leaving the continent in droves to pursue careers in the developed world in search of a better quality of life.

This trend became a phenomenon as over the last decade the continent fell apart. For as long as history can recall famine, human rights violations and war have been the order of the day in many African countries while others have had to contend with never-ending political unrest as ageing dictators sacrificed their subjects and their livelihood in a bid to hold onto power for the duration of their lifetimes. Investor confidence dropped and many large corporates pulled their operations from these countries leaving a high rate of unemployment in their wake. Those who were fortunate to still be employed struggled to negotiate decent working conditions and market related salaries. Inflation led to severe poverty and many qualified people started looking elsewhere for employment to be able to feed their families, immediate and extended.

During the same period the economic boom experienced in the developed countries created a demand for certain forms of labour from the brightest and smartest that was found readily available and affordable in Africa. Accountants, teachers, engineers, scientists and medical professionals were quickly snapped up and plugged into stronger and more stable economies. The mass exodus of human capital resulted in a severe decreased level of much-needed technical skill. Several sectors of industry vital for country advancement either faced lowered productivity or remained largely undeveloped as largely seen in areas like Science and Technology. Essential and emergency services were hard hit as doctors and nurses made their way abroad. In his document; Reversing the Brain Drain,” Stuart Price estimates that up to 68% of Ghana’s trained medical staff left between 1993 and 2000 and 54% of those trained in the period, 1999 to 2004, left to work abroad. This has resulted in there being one doctor for every 6 700 citizens! The brain drain has been of much benefit to the developing world, but the cost to the continent has been seismic.

Reasons to Return

Recent years, however, have seen a recorded uptick in the number of diasporans bucking the trend and returning home in what can only be seen as the next great black migration. This momentum has been spurred on by improved political climates and economic prospects in their home countries with the global perception of Africa shifting from one of gloom and doom to it being viewed as a continent of hope and opportunity.

Internationally the global economic crisis of 2008 had far more reaching consequences in the already developed countries than third world countries. As a result of the economic uncertainty, millions of jobs were lost and similarly large numbers of companies shut down. While the West was struggling, the opposite was happening in Africa.According to a report presented by George Abed, head of the Institute of International Finance’s Africa and Middle East Department, Africa is the fastest-growing region in today's world after emerging Asia. This growth has been attributed to a number of the countries on the continent “stabilizing their economies and consolidating their rates of growth.” To note, according to Abed, "is that it (progress) has been achieved during a period of unprecedented global financial turbulence.”

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Africa’s overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has risen steadily from 3.5% in 1997 to a 5.5% projection in 2010. In countries such as Somalia the war has subsided and the capital Mogadishu is seeing the boom that comes with after-war investment. Ethiopia was named by The Economist as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The discovery of good quality oil reserves in Ghana gave the country immediate potential to become one of the big players in the continent with regards to natural resources and the availability of land in Zimbabwe has attracted many young Africans back to its shores.

Potential

These young lions returning have been dubbed the “repatriation generation” and are a fast growing subculture of African émigrés who have been living, working or studying abroad and have returned to their home countries with a wealth of knowledge and experience, seeking to capitalise on economic opportunities created by urgent needs. They are steadily gaining traction and becoming a formidable force on the continent with their potential impact far outweighing their numbers. As Africa starts to turn the corner in its operations, with less wars and political unrest there is a new excitement and focus on what it has to offer potential investors. Unlike the colonisation of the past, there is a new outlook to investing with the resource-rich countries, thereby increasing the value and possible effectiveness of the returning generation.

With the return of the diasporans there has been growth in the much-touted African middle class, which is synonymous with the creation of certain specific needs. Not only has this middle class attracted a fresh wave of investors looking for new markets with disposable cash; it has opened up opportunities for entrepreneurship for the repatriation generation who are waking up to the realisation that opportunities on the continent are like low hanging fruit-ripe for the picking. The favourable entrepreneurial milieu has seen a meteoric rise in entrepreneurial pursuits in the African technology sector although returnees have also ventured into such areas as manufacturing, hospitality and education.

Challenges

It stands to reason that the concept of leaving their comfortable lifestyles and the creature comforts that come with it, is daunting for many diasporan Africans. Time Magazine reported several young Africans at the 2011 African Development Bank’s annual meeting as citing lack of financial capital, infrastructure and basic middle class conveniences as deterrents to moving back home.

Due to bad governance, corruption and the effects of war and unrest many African countries still lack basic services such as constant running water and reliable electricity. Many returning after an extended stint abroad are faced with the harsh reality of an unpredictable African lifestyle. Due to the fact that most who return are often equipped with more skills, education, money and innovative ideas they often have to contend with the resentment doled out by those that chose to stay in the country. Options lean in favour of Africans educated abroad as the existing skills vacuum created by the brain drain phenomenon has created a rather voracious appetite for talented Africans with work experience from places such as the West. This results in an unspoken friction and competition between the two parties that makes rebuilding a challenge.

Despite this report however, a considerable number of expatriates are biting the bullet with some even leaving rewarding positions in Fortune Five Hundred companies to return home. Several initiatives, such as the Homecoming Revolution - a non-profit organisation that aims to facilitate the return of South African professionals living abroad, exist in order to lure expatriates back home. According to the article; Talent Grab: How Top Companies Are Managing Africa’s Skills Shortage, “It is estimated there will be a 75% increase in the use of expatriate staff over the next three years, and the strategic use of these resources will be a critical success factor to help establish and grow business across Africa.”

Included in this migration are powerhouses such as current Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who previously held the position of Managing Director for the World Bank; South Africa’s head of Emerging Capital Partners, Alex Handrah-Aime who attended Harvard College and received joint degrees from Stanford Law School and an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Ken Ofori-Atta, a Columbia university graduate who spent time working for Morgan Stanley and Salomon Brothers, formed Ghana’s Databank Financial Services Limited, a leading investment banking and asset management firm.

Each Can Play A Part

Interestingly enough, it has become quite apparent that the Africans living in the Diaspora don’t need to return to the continent in order to aid in its development. Virtual participation or participation in development projects without physical relocation is known as “brain circulation” and several projects directed at mitigating the adverse effects of brain drain on Africa have been instituted with the aim of capturing the intellectual capital of the African Diaspora with the sole purpose of knowledge development on the continent. The World Bank’s African Diaspora Program is one such effort. Its Database of Professional Skills in the African Diaspora captures the diverse talents, skills and experiences of professionals throughout the global African Diaspora, so that they may be utilized to further Africa’s development agenda.

Another initiative is the Sikaman Association of Ghana based in the Netherlands. Some of its activities are geared to facilitating initiatives that link Holland with Ghana in several development sectors at different levels. A study; Semantics Aside: the Role of the African Diaspora in Africa’s Capacity Building Efforts by the Association for Higher Education and Development (AHEAD), a Diaspora group based in Canada and funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) revealed that virtual participation had enormous potential to harness otherwise untapped intellectual and material input from the African Diaspora. The study also revealed a growing awareness among the Diaspora of its moral and social responsibility to contribute to Africa’s development efforts.

What is becoming ever more apparent is that Africa is now, more than ever well placed to benefit in a tremendous way from the exodus of its professionals be it through their repatriation or from where they stand on foreign shores. The future looks bright for the dark continent!