Africans in diaspora returning to the continent, but it’s not all rosy back home

Mariam Koné left Canada five years ago to start a business consulting firm in Bamako, the capital of Mali. As her client base grew steadily, earnings from her company, Koné Conseil, also increased. Business has been great, she says. Although her previous job as an industrial engineer at a consulting firm in Montreal, Canada, was stable and the pay was good, Koné wanted a new challenge in her home country. Her return to Mali was risky and audacious, but it has paid off. “I used to work for others, but now I am working for myself and also hiring people,” she says. “And I have no regrets.”

Koné is one of many young and skilled African immigrants who have gone or are going back to their homelands, mainly from North America and Western Europe. If the 1980s and 1990s were characterised by the brain drain phenomenon – when skilled Africans went abroad in search of greener pastures – these days they are going back home. The new term is “reverse migration,” or “reverse brain drain,” explains Elizabeth Chacko in an article, From Brain Drain to Brain Gain. It happens when professionals return to “their home country to take advantage of new growth and employment opportunities”.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental body that provides services and advice to migrants and governments, acknowledges the trend. Tauhid Pasha, an IOM senior specialist on migration and human development based in London, told Africa Renewal in an interview that his organisation has helped 150 doctors and nurses return to different countries in Africa. These professionals have in turn trained more than 15,000 local health workers under IOM’s Migration for Development in Africa programme, which started in 2001.

According to Pasha, post-conflict countries like Somalia have been the biggest beneficiaries of IOM’s diaspora return programmes. “With their skills, they are being placed in government to restructure the civil service and even enter into high levels of government,” he said.

In addition, IOM has assisted about 2,000 skilled people from 41 African countries in returning to their homelands under its Return and Reintegration of Qualified African Nationals (RQAN) programme, which began in 1983. While IOM’s repatriation programmes have served only a small fraction of the African migrants living in the West, an increasing number of Africans are finding their way back home without official assistance.

The tide is slowly turning

Analysts believe that most of those returning to Africa do not get into the IOM’s repatriation programmes, and Pasha acknowledged that figures on those returning on their own are difficult to quantify. However, with Africa’s rising economy and decreasing conflicts, African immigrants have found incentives. A 2010 IOM report found that about 70% of East African migrants, mainly Ugandans, Kenyans and Tanzanians in the United Kingdom, were willing to return home permanently.

A survey by Jacana Partners, a pan-African private equity firm, of African students at the top 10 American and European business schools, showed similar results, that more than three in four hope to work in Africa upon graduation.

Many South African professionals who emigrated because of rising crime rates, bad labour policies and employment practices that favoured particular groups in a post-apartheid South Africa have now started returning. Kom Huis Toe-veldtog (Come Home Campaign), an organisation that assists skilled South Africans in returning home, says it has so far helped about 6,000 people. “Life abroad is not necessarily moonshine and roses. People who leave the country, unfortunately, often only realise this when they have already paid the huge emotional and financial price attached to emigration,” the organisation writes on its website.