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

The continent’s political leaders also appear to have arms open to receive the returning Africans. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the African Union’s economic development organ, even created an African diaspora programme that it says is strategically important to Africa. In May of last year, NEPAD organised an African Diaspora Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, to encourage Africans in the diaspora to support economic integration and development on the continent. That was a thinly veiled invitation to skilled Africans abroad to return to help their countries.

Apart from the improving African economy and the decrease in civil conflicts, the going-back-home phenomenon appears to be driven, at least in part, by family reasons. “To migrate or not to migrate remains an intimately personal decision,” writes Chofamba Innocent Sithole, a Zimbabwean journalist and political analyst who lives in the U.K. For Michael Asiimwe, a Tanzanian and global service manager for Vodacom, a mobile phone company, a yearning to be with his family forced him to return. He had spent six years in the UK and the US before moving back to Tanzania.

“It became too much for me to take,” Asiimwe told Africa Renewal. “So many big occasions were missed, weddings, funerals, birthdays of family members, just because it was too far and too expensive to travel back and forth.”

Tough working conditions abroad also force Africans to consider going back home. Koné now works only six hours a day, down from the 11 hours she used to work in Canada. “In the West, you work a lot and life is highly material. It’s all about buying material stuff,” she says, adding that in Mali she has struck a better balance between work and leisure.

It’s not all rosy

Entrepreneurs like Koné may feel welcomed back, but those who hope to get into public service are confronted by the harsh realities on the ground. Government salaries can be a fraction of what they used to make abroad, and working conditions can be poor. Many face drastic changes in their lifestyles: constant power outages, bad roads, poor healthcare systems, lack of safe drinking water, corruption, crime and the high cost of doing business.

Koné told Africa Renewal that it took about five years to get her business to its current level. The bureaucracy in Mali makes it difficult to make quick decisions, she says. “I wasn’t used to this in Canada.” Those who return are often equipped with innovative ideas but soon discover that they have to deal with the daily challenges of doing business in a harsh environment.

No turning back

Despite such daunting challenges, many of those who have made the journey back home feel they made the right decision. “Those who are on the ground now will snatch the best opportunities first,” says Koné. “I cannot predict the future of Mali, I am still here and I have invested so much already.” Not even the current conflict in her country has weakened her resolve to continue business there.

Across Africa, from Mali to Tanzania, from Senegal and Somalia to South Africa, the story is the same: Africans are coming home from abroad – for patriotic or family reasons, or simply because of the continent’s increasing opportunities.

Brendah Nyakudya, editor of The Afropolitan, a South African magazine, says, “These young lions returning have been dubbed the ‘repatriation generation’ and are a fast-growing subculture of African émigrés.” Their return is now Africa’s gain after the earlier pains of brain drain.

This article was first published in Africa Renewal.