The four main barriers to talent mobility in Africa

Flexible immigration procedures are essential for skilled workers to move easily between countries and businesses. However, all around the world, there’s a certain tension between the needs of governments seeking to manage immigration, and businesses wanting to hire the most talented people. As the global competition for talent intensifies, new policies for resolving this tension have emerged, including preferential visa regimes for certain types of workers and quotas.

One region that lags behind in tackling these issues is Africa. While the free movement of labour is a principle enshrined in certain sub-regional agreements, it is often either not ratified or not effectively implemented. In many parts of Africa, there are prohibitive, time-consuming and costly obstacles to the mobility of people, including talented Africans. Not only does this thwart innovation and competitiveness, it risks exacerbating the “brain drain” that takes skilled Africans away from their own continent.

For many businesses in Africa, it is easier to employ a skilled non-African expatriate than a skilled African expatriate. Overall, barriers to African talent mobility are a drag on the continent’s growth and economic performance. As African countries pursue policies designed to encourage economic growth, freer movement of talented people is becoming an increasingly important issue.

So what are the main barriers to talent mobility in Africa? A recent pilot survey of several multinational businesses operating in 17 African countries, conducted by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Migration, identified four issues:

Visa requirements: Surveyed companies identified a range of visa-related obstacles across numerous African countries. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, the number of different visas required (entry, exit, working establishment) was considered burdensome. In Nigeria, the eligibility criteria for a visa for a skilled worker were considered to be too demanding, focusing on formal education level rather than experience gained through work. In the case of one specific visa in Senegal, it was unclear what sort of work permit could subsequently be issued.

Quotas: A number of African countries covered by the survey promote a national preference system by imposing a quota on the number of foreign workers – no more than 10% of a company’s workforce in Gabon, for example – or their sectors – “network and support professionals” in South Africa. Quotas are often used to protect the national labour force, but several companies surveyed for this report were concerned either that they were unnecessarily prohibitive, or that they were not applied consistently. In both cases quotas risk reducing the supply of talent to business rather than promoting local employment, especially where they are not regularly revised.

Procedures: In the majority of countries covered by the survey, procedural obstacles to applying for, processing and renewing visas and work permits were reported. At the application stage, problems included a lack of published information on visa requirements (Algeria, Uganda), no uniformity in visa requirements between different embassies and high commissions (Nigeria, South Africa), and inconsistency in instructions for supporting documentation such as education certificates (Egypt, Uganda). An inordinate processing time was reported in Algeria, Chad, Tanzania and Uganda, for various reasons. In the case of Uganda, for example, decisions can only be made when the immigration board meets to consider work permit applications, and it does so on an irregular basis. In Ghana the processing fee was considered too high; and in two other cases concerns were expressed about the discretionary power of immigration officers. In Madagascar and Swaziland, responding companies had experienced difficulties in having work permits renewed.

Lack of staff or skills: In a number of countries, these and other obstacles arose not necessarily because there was no legal or policy framework, but because there was a lack of capacity to implement the framework. Across several responses and countries, businesses worried about a shortage of staff, a lack of trained staff, misunderstanding of the procedures, and too much individual discretionary power.

We asked companies what the consequences of these obstacles were. Responses ranged from the practical – dealing with them was time-consuming and costly; to business impacts – inability to attract talented workers and even intra-corporate transferees; to impacts on the national economy – for example where quotas are resulting in skills gaps in the labour market that cannot immediately be filled locally.

For these and more reasons, lifting barriers to the mobility of talented Africans should be a priority. In addition to a range of country-specific observations, our project has identified the following preliminary recommendations:

  • Development of online systems to make processes accessible and transparent
  • Where quota systems exist, ensuring that they respond more accurately to labour market requirements
  • Simplification of visa and work permit application and renewal procedures
  • Cross-government coordination, in particular between labour, economic affairs, foreign affairs and immigration ministries
  • More effective consultation between governments and the business sector
  • Country-level training of immigration officials and consular agents

None of these recommendations is easy to achieve. The African Talent Mobility Project will form the focus for the work of the Global Agenda Council over the next two years. We will continue to survey both large multinationals and medium-to-large African companies, and also expand the survey to African governments, focusing on cooperative solutions.

For Africa’s economies to thrive, the continent will need to unlock the potential of its most important asset: its people.

Khalid Koser is chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Migration.

This article was first published on the World Economic Forum blog.