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Brain gain: Skilled diaspora return to Africa

17th September 2010

By: In On Africa IOA


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After Tomi Adegoke completed a Master's degree in Public Health from a university in the United States of America (USA), she decided to move to Nigeria, the country from which her parents had emigrated one generation earlier.(2) She accepted a position as a program management officer for the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Abuja, Nigeria. Tomi's story echoes Michael Akindele's, who left his financially rewarding position as a consultant within a Fortune Five Hundred company in the USA to set up his own business in media and entertainment in Nigeria. He cited the readily available investment opportunities created by Nigeria's growing economy as the main incentive for the return to the continent.(3)



These stories highlight a growing trend on the African continent which suggests that skilled African citizens, who have been living as expats, are returning to the continent in what can be termed Africa's brain gain. This can be viewed as a reversal of the brain drain phenomenon which beset many African countries in the latter half of the twentieth century. This brief focuses on the African brain drain and the return of skilled Africans to the continent.



Brain drain trends


Brain drain typically results in African countries experiencing skills shortage when citizens with necessary expertise opt to, or are forced to emigrate. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the African brain drain is particularly noticeable in the health sector.(4) For example, in the 1980's, Kenya reportedly had 20 medical doctors leaving each month, whilst Ghana reportedly lost 60% of its medical doctors.(5) In 1993, the UNDP's Human Development Report stated that close to 21,000 Nigerian doctors were practicing in the United States alone,(6) despite the fact that Nigeria suffers from a chronic shortage of doctors.


Ethiopia similarly lost a third of its medical doctors to the West. Between 1978 and 1990, Zambian statistics showed that only 50 of the 600 doctors who received training remained in Zambia, whilst the rest emigrated to the West.(7) Numerous factors drive the movement of professionals from the African continent, including socio-economic and political matters. A regularly cited reason is that 22 African nations were ruled by military juntas in 1982 and that by 1985, post independent Africa had witnessed at least 60 military coups.(8) This period was characterised by regimes that severely repressed human rights such as academic freedom and free speech. Attempts to garner better working conditions were often met with harsh reprisals, including imprisonment and sometimes death. The Africa described here appears to be undergoing transformation, however, in which good governance, respect for human rights and growing economies are becoming more respected, sought-after principles.


Changing times


In 2001, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) adopted the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU) which replaced the Charter of the Organisation of African Unity. Barely a year after its adoption, 40 member states had ratified the treaty and their actions were heralded "an expression of the political commitment of our leaders to regional integration, and beyond this, to a united Africa."(9)


A new era started for Africa, far removed from what had typified the continent in its recent past. Importantly, the AU treaty acknowledges aspects such as the continents' political economy, socio-cultural issues as well as human rights. The AU has fourteen objectives ultimately aimed at boosting political cooperation and economic integration and including the protection of human rights. The AU treaty represents a departure from the OAU Charter because it prioritises human rights and democracy. The central theme of the AU treaty is a continent with a unified approach to important issues like politics, human rights and economics. Arguably, the adoption of the treaty has resulted in increased respect for human rights in Africa. The AU's objectives imply that African states see the value of improved living standards for its citizens alongside the importance of promoting investment in science and technology research.


Today, the African continent is witnessing a significant drop in the number of armed conflicts. The AU and other regional actors have been active in peacekeeping missions and pacifying tense political crises. On the economic front, Africa appears to be gaining some ground, mostly due to well performing agro-industries.(10) The overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the continent has risen steadily from 3.5% in 1997 to a 5.5% projection in 2010 by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).(11) These changing circumstances are the reason why many professionals, thought to be long lost to the West in successive waves of emigration, are returning to the continent.


Kayode Akindele returned to Nigeria in order to work as an investment banker with the United Bank for Africa (UBA). Akindele is Oxford educated and lived in Britain for more than 16 years.(12) Prior to his departure, he held an investment banking position with Lloyds TSB in London. He stated that "There was a sense of patriotism. I have always regarded myself as Nigerian and planned to return to Nigeria eventually." Kofi Ansah, a fashion designer from Ghana, studied fashion at the Chelsea School of Art in England.(13) He lived and worked in Europe for 20 years before returning to Ghana. Ansah has since established a growing fashion empire, based in Accra. He is also creating jobs in the local fashion industry for designers, tailors and models. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) recently released a report which indicated that Ghana's relative peace and political stability had a positive impact on return migration.(14) Emigrants now return sooner, usually after acquiring a skill or trade.


South Africa has seen its fair share of professionals leaving during the post apartheid era. Most cited factors like the high levels of crime and unfair employment equity policies in the labour market. Alana Bailey of the ‘Kom Huis Toe Veldtog' (Come Home Campaign) founded an organisation that promotes the return of migrated professionals to South Africa.(15) As many as 6,000 people moved back to South Africa within 6 years after the campaign started.


Skilled and patriotic Africans


It seems most expats return to the continent once they regard their homelands as politically and economically stable. In order to find a lasting solution to the African brain drain, the factors that force African professionals to leave for the West need to be addressed. The development of Africa's human resources, as well as the reversal of the brain drain, are significant concerns of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). It is vital that NEPAD recognises the importance of luring African professionals back home. Although Africa still has some way to go with regard to providing a lasting fix to the brain drain phenomenon, the introduction of human rights based regimes, improved economies and relative stability are key catalysts in the brain drain reversal.

Written by: Phephelaphi Dube (1)


(1) Contact Phephelaphi Dube through Consultancy Africa's Eyes on Africa series (
(2) Olley, D.L. ‘More Africans returning to homeland in reverse brain drain,' Medhill Reports.
(3) Ibid.
(4) UNDP Human Development Report (1993).
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Dei Sefa, G.J. & Asgharzadeh, A. 2002. "What is to be done? A look at some causes and consequences of the African brain drain." in African Issues 30:31-36.
(9) Magliveras, D.K. & Naldi, G.J. 2002. "The African Union: A new dawn for Africa?" in The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 51:415-425.
(10) International Monetary Fund (IMF). 2009. Regional economic outlook: Sub Saharan Africa.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Tattersall, N, ‘Reverse brain drain as Nigerians come home,' Reuters, 5 August 2008.
(13) Dimbely, J, ‘African Migrants Returning Home,' BBC News, 27 May 2010,
(14) International Organisation for Migration (IOM). 2009. Migration in Ghana: A country profile.




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