The lack of qualified professionals working in Africa presents one of the biggest development challenges facing the continent. Doctors, nurses, teachers, academics and businessmen have been streaming out of Africa in recent years, in search of better opportunities in the West. But from Paris, Lisa Bryant has the story about one man, 36-year-old Didier Acoutey, who runs a company that is dedicated to luring African professionals back home.
New university graduates and young professionals packed the stands of the AfricTalents job fair in Paris last week, eager to schedule interviews with several dozen multinational companies and banks scouting for new talent. It could be any job fair in any European city, with two exceptions:
Most of the jobs promoted at the fair are based in Africa. And just about everybody looking for employment is African -- like 25-year-old Marie-Elisabeth Ndaye, from Senegal.
Ms. Ndaye has a Master's degree in computer applications from a French university. She says she is not looking for a job back in Africa -- just yet. But she wants to see what opportunities are available.
This annual job fair is hosted by AfricSearch, an international employment agency headquartered in Paris. The head of AfricSearch is Didier Acouetey, a native of Togo. He says he founded his company almost a decade ago to help address what he considers the main obstacle to African development: A dearth of qualified professionals.
"The main problem is a human resources problem," he says. "That means do we have the right people in the right place. Even the political people aren't the good ones. In terms of economy, do we have good managers?"
Multinationals and other large companies operating in Africa clearly share Mr. Acouetey's assessment. Dozens of them now use AfricSearch to hire talented African professionals for jobs on the continent. Today, AfricSearch has branches in the United States and Africa, along with its headquarters on the elegant Champs Elysees in Paris.
"Ninety-five percent of our clients are international corporations like Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Shell, Citibank, France Telecom," Mr. Acouetey says. "We've been serving between 70 to 120 companies since creating AfricSearch. The others are large African companies or African institutions, like the West African Development Bank or the Central African Development Bank."
These businesses, Mr. Acouetey says, are interested in hiring Africans because they consider them more able to adapt to the way of doing business and of living in Africa. And African professionals may be more likely to remain their home continent, instead of moving on to a posting elsewhere.
At the Paris job fair, Alain Ebobisse is a recruiter for the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector branch of the World Bank. His organization was searching for lawyers, investment officers and communications specialists at the fair. He agrees it's getting easier to find qualified Africans to fill those jobs back in Africa.
"My sense it's because the living conditions have improved in Africa," Mr. Ebobisse says. "And also companies are making extra efforts to try to attract this talent. Also, I believe that with the movement toward democracy, people are no longer scared to go back and speak out, if they want to speak out. All these create the conditions for a safe return.
Not all those scouting for jobs at the fair were Africans, however. Twenty-nine-year-old Bertrand Lotteau is a Belgian who lives in Gambia with his Senegalese wife. He says the couple prefers to live in Africa than in Europe.
But Mr. Lotteau acknowledges it's difficult finding work in Africa. Senegal is one of the few countries, he says, where there are still good employment opportunities. He's hoping the job fair will give him new contacts among European companies doing business in Africa.
Twenty-seven-year-old Aissatou Diallo also wants to work in Africa. Like Mr. Lotteau, Ms. Diallo is European -- she was born in France, although her family is originally from Guinea Bissau. She says that she faces discrimination in finding work in France.
Ms. Diallo says she has a Master's degree in human resources. But she's one of the few people in her graduating class who has yet to find a job. She does not know what it will be like living and working in Africa, but she says she is willing to accept the challenge.
Agencies like AfricSearch are only part of the answer to Africa's human resources woes. Mr. Acouetey's firm works exclusively with the private sector -- and so, for example, it is unable to address the enormous dearth of doctors and nurses in public-sector hospitals and clinics across Africa.
But Mr. Acouetey believes that creating a vibrant private sector, run by Africans, is one of the keys to Africa's development. And so in a small way, he believes, his agency is improving the lives of Africans.