‘The diaspora has a chance to be part of something big in Africa’

“I love it here. There is a tangible buzz being back in Africa. There is evidence everywhere you look that this is really Africa’s time. It’s really happening on the ground. You see it in everything.”

Sneha Shah, head of finance and risk for Africa at Thomson Reuters

Sneha Shah, head of finance and risk for Africa at Thomson Reuters

This is according to Kenyan born Sneha Shah, head of finance and risk for Africa at Thomson Reuters, and a member of the African diaspora who returned to the continent in 2012 to run her company’s African division.

Shah moved to the US with her husband in 2000 after he was offered a job in New York, and soon after she started working at the global media and information firm, Thomson Reuters. During her time there, she witnessed the corporation’s interest turn to emerging markets, and Africa in particular.

“We started really looking at the emerging markets and realising that – with the slowdown in the West, in Europe and America – where is growth really going to come from? We had seen the newsy covers and everything else around the Africa rising [story] and there was a real sense that this might be the time,” she told How we made it in Africa.

However, it was after Thomson Reuters witnessed a growing interest in Africa from its customers in 2011 that the firm decided to intensify its focus and operations on the continent.

“I was very active in the African community within Thomson Reuters in New York and we had been trying to hold ‘investing in Africa’ events just for our customers for several years and we hadn’t really gotten traction… But the event that we did at the end of 2011, we were suddenly inundated with interests from lawyers, private equity, different financial firms… It was quite an eye opener for me and that was [when] I decided that actually it’s time. Something really big is happening in Africa and it’s time to go back and look at opportunities to be a part of that story.”

Western skills with an African understanding

According to Shah there are a number of ways the African diaspora is playing a part in Africa’s growth story.

For starters, many African countries suffer from a local skills shortage, especially in countries where education has not been prioritised or there has been a brain drain. Shah explained that returning members of the African diaspora have gained skills and experience from studying and/or working in developed markets and this, mixed with an understanding of Africa, can be very valuable in the continent’s business environment.

“So they fill that skills gap in the short term. I was at the World Economic Forum in May last year in Cape Town and this was a big theme that kept coming up… that a lot of the multinationals were looking at the diaspora as a way to sort of fill that gap while they trained and grew their own talent over the next several years.”

An article published last week by How we made it in Africa looked at a recent survey by EY that suggested that multinational and indigenous firms in Africa were looking to hire fewer expats, and more from the returning African diaspora.

Among the organisations surveyed, returning diaspora hires are anticipated to rise from the current 18% to 27%.

In addition, Shah added that the amount of money the diaspora is bringing back home and investing in Africa is also fuelling the continent’s economic growth story.

“But also these are people that have been exposed to very sophisticated products and services when they were overseas and coming back here they are demanding those sort of things; whether its consumer goods such as electronics or whether its professional services, financial services… they are demanding that more and more,” she continued.

“So when we talk about the role the diaspora is playing it’s definitely both directly and indirectly.”

Shah said many of the people she went to school with had studied and/or taken up job opportunities abroad. However, she added that she recently noticed that all (expect two) had returned to the continent.

“In Africa people are being faced with these massive opportunities and obviously some of them carry high risk but they are really exciting. So there is a chance to be part of something very big by coming back,” concluded Shah.