More than ever, Africa’s secret weapon: The diaspora

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By Amini Kajunju

Each year, bright, optimistic Africans leave home to earn an education or seek a better economic life abroad for themselves and their families. With fewer opportunities in their home country, many never return home.

The African Diaspora is broadly defined by the African Union Commission as “peoples of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union.”

Globally, Africans in the diaspora are spread out across the continents. In North America, there are 39 million from the African Diaspora; 113 million in Latin America; 13.6 million in the Caribbean; and 3.5 million in Europe, the World Bank estimates.

The African Diaspora is not a monolithic group—some were born and reared outside of their home country; many migrated to Europe, the United States and other parts of the world at a young age; while others arrived to attend college.

No matter how they arrived in their current country of residence, people in the Diaspora bring a distinct perspective to the discourse on Africa: they have experienced both worlds and can serve as a bridge in fostering greater understanding between the continent and their adopted country.

My personal story is that I have lived most of my life as an African diasporan. I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In my father’s pursuit to attain a higher education and better career opportunities, my family moved to Japan, the United States, and then Liberia. I returned to the United States for my undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, and remained in the States to build my career.

We live in an interconnected world. My life embodies this interconnection. I love my adopted country of America and all that it has to offer; and Africa is where my roots are and where my heart and passion live. With this duality, I try to bridge these two worlds in my professional life.

The organization that I led from 2012 to 2016, The Africa-America Institute (AAI) served as a bridge between continents for 60 years. As African nations were gaining independence from colonial rule in 1953, AAI was founded to build human capacity on the continent by providing opportunities for African students to pursue academic degrees at top universities in the United States. After receiving their degrees, more than 90% of our alumni returned home to become leaders in the public, non-profit, and private sectors in Africa, where they contributed to strengthening the foundation for African development.

In my current role in the private sector, I am working to harness resources and bring new partners to African universities and educational institutions. Essentially, my career has been focused on using my talents to move the African continent forward.

By leveraging the skills, ingenuity and resources that the African Diaspora possesses, diasporans are uniquely positioned to contribute to boosting economic growth and prosperity in Africa.

Firstly, diasporans can help dispel myths and stereotypes about Africa to change the narrative about the continent. I try to do this every day. All diasporans can serve as “brand ambassadors” to bring a new vision and inspiring ideas for Africa. By and large, the three “Ds” about Africa—death, despair and disease—still prevail in the minds of many people in the Western world. African diasporans, especially young people, can become the face of a “new Africa”: educated, optimistic, and actively working to transform and shape Africa’s future.

Secondly, diasporans can help shape foreign policy. Since many in the African Diaspora still maintain strong connections to the continent, diasporans can help influence foreign policy priorities by offering informative analysis of on-the-ground realities in African nations and sharing under-reported success stories of progress taking place, as well as solutions to development challenges. Diasporans, especially those who are American citizens, can help to ensure that U.S.-Africa policy is mutually beneficial for both the U.S. and Africa. Africa is looking for mutually-beneficial partnerships.

Thirdly, diasporans can bring their talent, energy, skills and technological know-how to furthering economic progress in Africa. Many Africans in the diaspora want to eventually go back home after living abroad. However, one of their biggest challenges is finding suitable employment once they return.

The demand for talent is high in Africa, yet the wide skills gap is a sobering reality. A McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that 122 million people will be added to Africa’s labor force between 2010 and 2020, creating a burgeoning labor force of more than 500 million across the continent. Unfortunately, Africa, as a continent, is not creating enough jobs to absorb these new entrants into the labor market. Massive job creation activities such manufacturing, industrialization, the service industry and the creation of SMEs have not been robust due to reliance on commodities, ineffective government policies and poor infrastructure development.

In the meantime, skilled professionals from the African Diaspora are recognizing the tremendous opportunities that exist in Africa and are repatriating home in greater numbers to fill top positions at multinational corporations and organizations on the continent. Africans in the Diaspora are not just going back to work for the big multinationals, but some are working for or launching small- and middle-sized businesses.

Yet, the return home to work in home countries may not initially be a smooth ride for many diaspora Africans. The work culture may seem unfamiliar from what we, as expatriates are used to. The lack of access to technology typically used in your field may be frustrating. But don’t be discouraged or give up. It is important for us to learn, understand and adapt to our new work environment and gradually introduce new approaches and skills. Working with our colleagues on the ground should not be an adversarial relationship, but instead a true partnership. Collectively, leveraging our strengths, we will build up our respective nations.

As home to some of the world’s fastest economies, diasporans are also investing in Africa’s emerging markets and launching African-led businesses and enterprises to create well-needed jobs and spur economic growth. Global investors are always looking for the next investment frontier to achieve the highest returns on their investments. Indeed, the continent of Africa is a solid investment destination for potential investors. Armed with a deep understanding of how deals are structured in industrialized nations, Africans in the Diaspora can play a pivotal role in negotiating deals on behalf of African companies and institutions to ensure the African entity is getting a fair deal.

Mobilizing the full participation of Africans in the Diaspora while recognizing and using the wealth of knowledge of our local colleagues, is a win-win for Africa; and it can foster stronger connections between continents to accelerate Africa’s social and economic development.

Amini Kajunju is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Africa Integras and was the President and CEO of the Africa-America Institute from 2012 to 2016.

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