A lot of young Africans in New York tell me that they want to move back to their respective home countries in Africa, or that they are thinking about it. They are often in awe that I moved now, at this age. But the truth is that I am not the only one.
Since moving to Ghana in 2016, I have met at least 20 other young Ghanaians who have moved from the U.S. or U.K. to the country in just the last 2 years alone. I am also a part of a group, Ahaspora, which boasts hundreds more.
Visiting or moving to the continent appears to be of great interest to the young Diaspora of late. While there has always been pockets of individuals in the Diaspora who have moved to the continent at various stages of their lives, I see that younger Africans are moving back at an increasing rate.
This wave of recent return migrants to Ghana and other parts of Africa is challenging the traditional brain drain phenomenon: that Africans want to move and only live in the West.
Many young Africans who are interested in economics, development, or sociology on the continent know this phenomenon well. At a basic level, brain drain refers to the net cost of a country loosing a large percentage of its skilled labor force to another country.
This problem is especially acute in Africa, where research suggests that the tremendous loss of highly-skilled human capital has kept certain countries from being able to climb out of poverty.
Ghana's health care industry provides a stunning example of the impact of brain drain: "Ghana currently has about 3,600 doctors—one for every 6,700 inhabitants. This compares with one doctor per 430 people in the United States. Many of the country's trained doctors and nurses leave to work in countries such as Britain, the United States, Jamaica and Canada. It is estimated that up to 68% of the country's trained medical staff left between 1993 and 2000, and according to Ghana's official statistics institute, in the period 1999 to 2004, 448 doctors, or 54% of those trained in the period, left to work abroad."
Still, the phenomenon that most of us do not learn about in the African economics literature, and perhaps the one that has tremendous potential to help change the continent is return migration.
Although I studied African history and economic development in universities in both the U.S. and in Ghana, the concept never came up. Yet, it exists and is true.
Return migration refers to the phenomenon of migrants going back to their home country after living in another country for a number of years. Studies show that there are four types of people who return: retirees, conservatives, failures, and innovators. My focus is on the later, those who move "when they are convinced that the decision to move improves their prospects", whatever those prospects are.
But Does Moving Back Even Make Sense For The Innovators?
The question is always this: when are the prospects right?
The average person will tell you that returning home from the U.S. or U.K. does not make sense; in fact, your friends and family will tell you likewise if you attempt it. Neoclassical economists would agree. Economists say that people move voluntarily due to wage differentials, where most of the voluntary migration in the world is either North to North (high income to high income) and South to South (low income to low income) at around 43%, or South to North (low income to high income) at about 57%.
The numbers of North to South (high income to low income) migration is negligent, and with reason. Asking someone with the opportunity to make dollars to take cedis (Ghana currency) at a $1 to 4 cedi rate is not a trade off many of us would make. So if wages do not explain the movement, what does? Why are young Diasporans moving back at an increasing rate?
The New African Renaissance
In my personal observations, there are a number of factors, a few listed here:
- Millennials generally want meaningful work and want to lead more meaningful lives, and for a number of young people in the Diaspora, that work ties back to the African continent.
- The anti-immigration/xenophobic/racist rhetoric in many countries around the world, especially the U.S., U.K., has younger people ready to see and/or work in a place where their contributions would be genuinely valued. The story of Larry Mitchell's Send Me Back to Africa campaign is illuminating and down right hilarious.
- With technology, especially social media, many young Africans and returnees are producing content about the continent which is not only re-inspiring travel to the continent, but helping younger Africans think differently about what living there could look like.
- The barriers to entering business on the continent are beginning to disintegrate. Where doing business on the continent used to be highly contingent on who you know, who your family is, and how much money you have, technology is making it easier for young Africans to contribute innovative solutions in the private sector, and without government aid or interference.
My reason for moving to Ghana falls primarily under observation # 1. I write about the experiences which led me to that work in this post: The Future Has An Ancient Heart.
Is This The Last Frontier?
People often ask if they are missing out, or if they would be too late if they move in 5-10 years. Although this is certainly a historic time in Africa’s development, where more people now have more opportunities to contribute than before, it is important to remember that it is like the gold rush of any time period.
There is tremendous opportunity to capitalize on a growing middle class with innovative products and services, yet there is also tremendous risk. Lack of frameworks, infrastructure, undying bureaucracies create inefficiencies, making it imperative to move and invest strategically. I have written about some of these strategic plays here, and I hope to unearth more together through this platform.
It’s A New Day
Excitingly, there are also new and more innovative ways to contribute to the continent without being physically present or making a permanent move.
Through social media and with technology, Africans and members of the Diaspora and larger global community are engaging with the continent in ways we have never done so before. Besides remittances and exports, there are more creative ways to start Africa forward initiatives in the Diaspora. I am excited that I get to chronicle and share the journey of those who are doing so as well. If that is you, what is your contribution? I would love to hear about it in the comments or via my email. If not, what will your contribution be?