News / Africa

Better Prospects Result in Brain Gain for Africa

Cars stream underneath a gantry on a road to Pretoria, South Africa, May 4, 2012.
Cars stream underneath a gantry on a road to Pretoria, South Africa, May 4, 2012.
— African leaders have long sought a solution to the so-called brain drain - losing their best young minds to jobs in the West or in Asia. But recent studies indicate that is changing. Many African students who study abroad now find opportunities to use their training at home.

Nineteen-year-old Moroccan student Reda Merdi is finishing up school at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. In August, he will head to the prestigious University of Pennsylvania in the United States, where he will study international relations and business.

Merdi says despite the opportunity to study in the United States, his long term ambition is to use his educational training in Africa.

"It is more exciting to work in Africa these days," he said. "There are way more opportunities, a lot of space for you to work, a lot of space to prove yourself. Also because there are a lot of exciting things going on in the African continent."

Fast growing economies

According to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, seven of the world's top 10 fastest growing economies are now in Africa. 

Statistics compiled by the World Economic Forum indicate many of Africa's growing economies have significantly increased the retention of educated workers.

Nigeria was ranked 112 in the world in 2008 for retaining educated workers.  It is now ranked 48th. South Africa has risen from 72nd place to 48th place in the world rankings and Ghana has risen from 125th to 53rd place.

A recent survey from the Johannesburg private equity firm Jacana found that 70 percent of African students pursuing Master of Business Administration degrees at leading American and European schools planned to return to Africa after graduation.

That does not surprise Rebecca Harrison, Project Director at the African Management Initiative, which helps to educate managers on the continent.

"Anecdotally, my sense is that there's a real shift," she said. "We are starting to establish some links with a lot of the top business schools, particularly in the States and in Europe, to have Africa clubs. So people who are interested in working in Africa in the future. Some are from Africa, some are just from elsewhere, but are interested in the continent. We hear from them that their membership is growing quite dramatically. They all want to come over here and do internships here, consulting projects here. They're interested in exploring working here."

Training future African leaders

The African Leadership Academy, or ALA, was established with the goal of producing the next generation of African leaders. The school is very selective, only admitting 3 percent of applicants.

Fred Swaniker, one of the academy’s founders,  developed the curriculum and program to encourage ALA students to return to the continent after studying abroad.

He says it was important to give students as many opportunities as possible to network and work on the continent.

"Our raw philosophy is that the main reason why people should come back to Africa is not out of any sense of obligation, or because we are forcing them to, but because they really see the tremendous opportunities that exist here for them. And because they see a wonderful future and a real opportunity for them to make a difference," said Swaniker.

Financial incentive to return

There is also a financial incentive. Most students’ tuition is covered through forgivable loans. If the student returns to Africa by age 25 and stays for 10 years, their loans are forgiven. If not, they pay them off, with interest.

But opportunity appears to be the main draw.

"If you think like an entrepreneur then Africa is really your paradise… You can really be the next African Sam Walton or the African Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. No one has done that yet. You can be that person," said Swaniker.

That idea resonated with Merdi, whose plans have changed because of the message.

"At the beginning when [I] started to develop an interest in business and economics in general. I thought that if you wanted to be influential in banking you had to work in New York or London. ALA made me realize that wasn't the case," he said.

While economics have helped to ease Africa's brain drain problem, The African Management Initiative's Rebecca Harrison says African leaders need to focus on helping distribute the resources and support needed for the next educated African generation.

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