African countries are seeing a “brain gain” as young elite graduates give up on the West

Obinna Ukwuani moved to Nigeria from the US
Obinna Ukwuani moved to Nigeria from the US
Image: Ukwuani
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In July 2017, Alexandra Ndiwalana, 28, moved back to Johannesburg, South Africa after ten months of pursuing her MBA at the IE Business School in Madrid. By returning home right after completing her studies abroad, Ndiwalana joined an emerging crop of African graduates that seem to be reversing the continent’s long-running brain drain problem. It’s a trend that offers some hope of bridging the continent’s huge skills gap.

Nearly 70% of African MBA students at the top 10 US and European schools planned to return home and work after graduation, found a survey by Jacana Partners, a pan-African private equity firm. Another study shows nine in ten African PhD students studying abroad plan to work on the continent.

Motivations behind the trend are understandable given the once promising “Africa rising” narrative and the continent being home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Today, however, that narrative has grown increasingly doubtful due to a downturn in the commodities boom that had driven it in the decade running up to 2015. With slowing economic growth, the longstanding lack of infrastructure, corruption and high unemployment challenges, it would be difficult to make an impact—even if you’re an expensively trained graduate from a top American or European university.

Alexandra Ndiwalana returned home to Johannesburg with an MBA from Madrid.
Alexandra Ndiwalana returned home to Johannesburg with an MBA from Madrid.

When Ndiwalana left her job as a management trainee at a multinational brewery and beverage company in South Africa, she went to Spain with plans to “do everything she could to stay.” She applied for jobs long before graduation, but hiring preferences foiled her overseas ambitions. Reactions to job interviews betrayed the same sentiment: “You’re a great candidate; if only you were European.”

Disappointed and disillusioned, Ndiwalana set her sights on returning home partly because she didn’t want to become like many of her peers who settled for positions for which they were clearly overqualified. She says many sacrificed career advancement simply for the chance to remain in the Europe or North America.

“In the West, it seems like there’s a glass ceiling—le plafond de verre—that cannot be broken,” says Chams Diagne, founder of Talent2Africa, a Dakar-based recruitment agency that specializes in bringing African talent home. “People are moving back to grow their careers faster.”

Ndiwalana became one such example. Soon after coming back to South Africa, she landed a senior marketing analytics role at Uber’s Sub-Saharan Africa division.

The reverse-migration trend has led to the rise of professional matchmaking and networking services, like Talent2Africa and others such as Movemeback and MBTN Global—both based in the UK—that pair diaspora talent with opportunities in Africa.

Regardless of talk of economic downturn, the international corporations—beyond traditional energy and commodity players—opening up in fast-growing African cities suggest a different reality on the ground. “Most western organizations are investing more in Africa because Africa is the next frontier,” Diagne says.

This has led to a notable trend where multinationals on the continent are contributing to the brain gain movement. Several of these corporates are now replacing expatriates with top talent from the diaspora, says Diagne. The companies and international NGOs usually cite reasons such as cost (paying salaries midway between a local’s and an expatriate’s), cultural ties, and securitywhere “repat” executives might “blend in” and speak the local language.

“There’s typically a pay cut some people need to come to terms with,” Diagne says, comparing it with what a manager or an executive might be paid in dollars or euros in New York or Paris. But while it might seem unfair, he says employers make great efforts to sweeten their offers to returnees by providing free or discounted housing, transportation, education or assistance with student loans.

One such returnee who accepted a pay cut on relocating to South Africa is Guy Kamguia, a Cameroonian-American and Harvard Business School alum. Prior to moving to South Africa in 2016, Kamguia, 32, worked as an associate with the global markets management team at Credit Suisse in New York. “I took a 20% to 30% pay cut from what I was making,” Kamguia says.

But he didn’t mind earning less because in the US he wasn’t making the kind of impact to which he aspired. Now, as as strategic business manager for Africa growth and strategy at Philafrica Foods, Kamguia is finally realizing his dream of developing manufacturing on the continent by acquiring and building food processing plants throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

“If you have an MBA, a law or medical degree, yes you’ll take a pay cut, but if you factor in the cost of living and do the math, you’re actually saving more,” he says.

Kamguia says more of his friends who were African students at business school are going back home. “There’s a genuine sense that if you’re not going back to fix Africa, who is going to do it? There is a sense of responsibility.”

That sense that there’s more to your work experience than simply earning the fattest paycheck has been well covered with millennials in western countries and it’s no different for young Africans, particularly those that seem to have the world at their feet, thanks to their world-class degrees.

“Something’s happening more generally where young people are looking for something better aligned with their internal compass,” says Oyin Solebo, co-founder of London-based Movemeback

Since Movemeback’s launch in 2014, the company has grown to over 10,000 members, the biggest concentration of which fall between ages of 28 and 35. They have partnerships with elite internationals schools including Harvard, Columbia, Cambridge and Oxford.

Chatter about moving to Africa grows louder around graduation time, says Bradley Mensah, president of Columbia University’s African Students Association. Africans used to believe prosperity was only possible by leaving Africa for the Western countries, he says. Now, there is a “perception that prosperity is possible on the continent as well.”

For Adabara Abdullahi, founder of MBTN Global, the returnee’s motives for relocating are more nuanced depending on whether or not the returnee was born on the continent and the financial status of African-born migrants. While first-generation Western citizens of African descent are often driven by Sankofa ideals of reconnecting with their roots and elevating the continent, the story isn’t quite the same for those born on the continent.

“Most people who come to the UK or to the US from [Africa] to go to university, upon graduation, what they want to do is stay. They want to stay and they want to get some work experience here.

“The people who upon graduating want to move back are either people from really wealthy families who upon graduating, return home and join the family business,” he says, “or people who upon graduation, their student visas have run out and they’re not able to find a job that will sponsor a work visa for them, so they have no choice but to move back.”

Maudo Jallow, a recent MS graduate at the London School of Economics, falls in the former group. After spending nine years abroad attending university and boarding school, the 23-year-old is happy to be back on the continent. He says his parents sent him abroad with the desire to get the “best education” and return to Gambia—not to take over the family business as such but to continue in the footsteps of his father, a UN official in Uganda.

Maudo Jallow. Happy to be back on the continent.
Maudo Jallow. Happy to be back on the continent.

“Unfortunately, our institutions aren’t valued globally so to get the best education, you need to go to elite universities abroad. It’s almost fashionable,” Jallow says. But realistically, “we don’t need everybody to move back. “Move back if you have money to fall back on, an idea to implement or a tangible way to contribute.”

With Brexit, the Trump presidency and increasingly restrictive immigration policies, the trend is likely to increase, says Tomiwa Igun, founder of the Young African MBAs, a voluntary membership group. More undergrads talk about heading home after their visa work permit expires, says Igun.

“People are not willing to go through the hustle to stay in the US,” adds Zainab Raji, YAM’s Communications Lead. In recent months, Raji has also noticed more of her peers in the UK moving back. “It’s a combination of Brexit and it’s hard to get jobs.”

More people are taking the plunge knowing it’s not going to be rosy when you land. This has consequently spurred entrepreneurship and a startup culture.

Some of those entrepreneurs are returnees like Obinna Ukwuani, a Nigerian-American and MIT graduate who moved to Nigeria two years ago with the vision of building a secondary school that would give young Nigerians the technical skills to trigger a “technological and industrial revolution” in the country. Instead, he founded NESA by Makers, a Lagos-based coding academy that trains novice coders in their mid to late twenties to be employable web developers.

Ukwuani also says returnees need to a “soft landing” before moving back, which means having a variety of financial and social safety nets to cushion the impact of  relocating to Africa and ease acclimatization.

Nigeria’s recession has affected the return-migration trend there. There was a migration boom up until around 2015, Ukwuani noticed. Now, the economic decline has stemmed the flow, the crash of the naira versus the dollar was particularly harmful to those who still had obligations to meet back in the US or Europe.

“I had friends who left immediately because they had student loans to pay,” Ukwuani says. “You can imagine you go from making $5000 a month to $500 a month, almost overnight.”

But even with those hurdles, he doesn’t see himself returning to the US any time soon.

“In Nigeria, I’m home. America is meant to be a paragon of democracy but it couldn’t be farther away from it,” he says referencing president Trump. “And with Brexit, people are becoming more protectionist and more xenophobic around the world. Part of me recognizes it as human nature. Now the diaspora really needs to think hard about where home is and why they are not here.”