In order to grow their economies, nations across Africa have long been trying to figure out how to stop the brain drain—the best and the brightest African students going to school in the U.S. and the U.K. and not bringing their talents back to Africa.
But recent studies indicate that the brain drain may finally be coming to an end. Many African students studying abroad are now finding opportunities to use their training back at home. With seven of the world’s ten fastest economies in Africa, young people are noticing that their home may be the place where they have the best chance of quickly establishing a career.
Though Reda Merdi, 19, of Morocco, is heading to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall after finishing up at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, he has no plans to stay in the U.S. when he has completed his Ivy League education.
“It is more exciting to work in Africa these days,” he told Voice of America. “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.”
The African Leadership Academy was created to train the next generation of leaders on the continent, admitting just 3 percent of its applicants with the goal of convincing them to keep their talents at home.
“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 Fred Swaniker, one of the academy’s founders.
“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,” Swaniker said.
The numbers show the continent’s transformation in the past few years. Whereas Nigeria was ranked 112 in the world in 2008 for retaining educated workers, it is now ranked 48th. South Africa moved from 72nd place to 48th place in the world rankings, while Ghana rose from 125th to 53rd place.
When the Johannesburg private equity firm Jacana surveyed African students pursuing master of business administration degrees at leading American and European schools, they found that 70 percent planned to return to Africa after graduation.
“Anecdotally, my sense is that there’s a real shift,” said Rebecca Harrison, project director at the African Management Initiative, which helps to educate managers on the continent. “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, for 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.”
Another program trying to help promising science and engineering students is the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (Rise). The program is trying to boost higher education in engineering and science across the continent, using international networks that connect universities, students, civil society and industry.
“The rationale behind the program,” said Arlen Hastings, executive director of the Science Initiative Group, which launched Rise, “was that there are many pockets of excellence around Africa, but there aren’t that many African universities, outside of South Africa, that have the capacity to provide comprehensive Ph.D. programs in science and engineering. However, if you take the elements, pieces from each of a bunch, you can put together a pretty strong education.”