Africa’s Skills Gap: Are the Diaspora the Answer? – Kiran Yoliswa


“While [the diaspora] may have a short term role in bridging the gap in management skills, companies playing the long game are rightly focusing on the development of local talent.”

 Africa’s economies are booming, but alongside the consistent growth, a new problem seems to be emerging; one which many hope the diaspora can be the solution for. A shortage of talent is putting a strain on investment in Africa as education institutions fail to produce the quantity of high level skills required to meet growing business needs. Rapid growth in Africa’s key economic hubs is driving the search for talent to fill critical roles, but a limited number of local staff with management and specialist skills means that a growing number of companies are citing skills scarcity as a barrier to doing business in African countries. Seventy-five percent of CEOs operating in African countries surveyed by PWC outlined a lack of available talent as a threat to their growth. New foreign direct investment in Africa is projected to reach $150 billion by 2015, creating 350,000 capital intensive jobs a year (according to an Ernst & Young report) resulting in demand for talent outstripping supply.

“The skills missing in Africa are senior managerial skills that the diaspora have an opportunity to fill”, argued Frances Williams CEO of Interims for Development Ltd., an HR consultancy focusing on Africa,  and editor of Reconnect Africa, an online career and business platform for African professionals. Speaking at the recent Business Council for Africa’s “˜Diaspora Initiative’ she pointed out that many diaspora professionals are willing to move back home for the right opportunity to play a part in Africa’s growth story and are attractive to companies because they know how to deliver the standards international business needs.

Diageo’s Talent & Organisation Effectiveness Director for Africa, Clare Reilly, comments that Diageo currently have to buy in 70% of talent into their Africa-based operations, with only 30% coming from the internal development of local talent. Already present in 40 African countries, Diageo are looking to double their business which makes sourcing good management talent a priority. While they look locally first and into their satellite offices second, the skilled diaspora are their next port of call because they are highly educated, have developed market experience and many have maintained some local networks and understanding of local culture.

Reconnect Africa found that in the US, 3 out of 4 diaspora graduates want to return “˜home’, driven in some cases by better opportunities to progress but also by social and cultural ties, quality of life, extended family and the opportunity to go “˜home’. At the same time they are put off by a lack of access to information about jobs, the hiring process, job level and level of reward. After the challenge of attracting diaspora professionals comes the challenge of getting them to stay, especially once the rose-tinted glasses have worn off.

Remuneration proves to be a contentious topic, as opinions differ on how salaries should be structured for returning diaspora. Few would disagree that there is a role for the diaspora in plugging this high level skills gap, but there is less agreement in what this role should look like and the practicalities of bridging this gap. Should returning diaspora be paid the same as the local market, as expats or should they have their own package?

“If you don’t need a visa you shouldn’t expect to be treated like an expat”, argues Karl Craven of Spiral HR. However, diaspora professionals say that their international education and work experience adds value compared to the local market, and they deserve internationally comparable salaries as a return on their investment. Outside of South Africa, most African countries are still regarded as hardship postings justifying expat claims for more expensive packages adding to the frustration felt by many returnees with similar education and work experience as their Western counterparts. Reconnect Africa’s Frances Williams states that 72% of skilled diaspora have dual nationality, giving them more choices as to where they develop their careers.

“I took a pay cut moving back to South Africa after working for Saatchi & Saatchi in London but I haven’t looked back since.” says Angel Jones from Homecoming Revolution. “We’ve found that successful returnees move home firstly to be closer to friends and family, second for a sense of belonging and only third for career. If salary is your biggest motivator, stay where you are.”

It’s important to note that this conversation speaks only to and about a very specific minority of the African diaspora, the Western educated African elite. Most of the African diaspora in the West are not heading up international corporations or MBA candidates in prestigious universities, but instead are looking after the elderly in care homes or cleaning offices. Moreover, the majority of African migrants don’t actually leave the continent, with over 60% of African migration being intra-Africa.

While foreign direct investment tends to be driven into non-labour intensive sectors, perhaps where highly skilled diaspora professionals can make the most impact is in SMEs. While the big multinationals and development finance institutions are willing and able to pay whatever it takes to secure the people they need, SMEs face the challenge of hiring someone below par but affordable, and risk commercial failure, or be priced out by the big corporations.

“The development of Africa is not going to happen based on global brands alone. The African development Bank estimates that SMEs contribute more than 45% to employment and 33% to GDP. In addition to attracting the diaspora to large multi-nationals or pan-African companies, we need to encourage them to take their skills into SMEs,” says Kevin Korgba, CEO of ETK Group which aims to achieve this with its executive work placement scheme.

While this group of Africa’s skilled diaspora may have a short term role in bridging the gap in management skills, companies playing the long game are rightly focusing on the development of local talent. Governments that have been focusing on infrastructure and transport bottlenecks to support investment into trade growth also need to invest similarly in their education infrastructure to have any chance at developing the talent to build its industries.

Kiran Yoliswa is Communications Co-ordinator, Business Council for Africa. She tweets @BCAfrica & @KiranYoliswa

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3 thoughts on “Africa’s Skills Gap: Are the Diaspora the Answer? – Kiran Yoliswa

  1. This is really interesting, and what I regard as a vital issue for Africa’s development. Similarly I worked with Saatchi & Saatchi in Uganda for a short spell. I would also take a pay cut for an opportunity to bring development and innovation back to Africa.

    This is something international policy makers need to start addressing, but in the meantime, we should be encouraging employers to look towards bringing those who are living abroad and who have an invested interest to come back home. I know many that would, for less salaries that they are on.

    Sounds like a huge opportunity for Africa. I guess I’m just thinking about where we would start.

  2. Thanks Kiran for starting this important discussion.

    There’s no doubt the education system in many African Countries has failed to produce high performing talents to match the present growth rate in Africa’s economy.

    While the rush for African diaspora seems attractive for bridging the skills gap in the interim, businesses can stem the tide by developing the culture that identifies, attracts, nurtures, and retains the best talents locally for their companies.

    Although money can be an important factor for attracting some good African diaspora talents; I have learned from my business of developing high performance talents across UK and Africa that the very best talents are no longer motivated by money than they are for long-term growth opportunities and fulfilment.

    As African economy rises, the challenge facing business of all kinds – SMES and large Corporates, is to strive to become “The Best Company to Work” by relentlessly living their core values and implementing the strategy that catches people doing things right.

  3. Making the decision to go back home would be easier if I witnessed our governments tackling rampant corruption, mind boggling bureaucracy, nepotism and tribalism. As things stand, it is a big risk to return if on sacrificing huge potential financial and career rewards, one goes home and finds they cannot progress because they are perceived to be politically “incorrect” or “too smart” for their own good. Meritocracy is something that African politicians are proving too shy to embrace, with the result that they then have to turn to very expensive foreign,often non-African expats to run big projects. For all the good intentions of African professionals in the diaspora, the continent will not experience the full benefit of the diaspora’s brains and finances if African politics continue to drag on progress. It is important to create the necessary political,professional and investment climate before asking those that have escaped the effects of poor leadership to return and build the continent.

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