Connect to share and comment

Special Reports

Africa's ambitious go overseas

Many of Africa's most talented go to US, Europe to further educations and pursue careers.

(Photo by Reuters)

NEW YORK — John Mumo and Al-Amin Kheraj sit in a bustling cafe in lower Manhattan talking about their futures. As recent college graduates, their excitement is tempered by the slow economy.

“I want a legit gig at home but in order to do that I need more school,” said Kheraj, a witty 23-year-old from Tanzania.

Kheraj is going home to Dar es Salaam soon but only for a short respite. This fall he will go to London, where he’ll begin working towards a master’s degree in Islamic studies and diplomacy.
Mumo, 25, has a job with a bank in New York that he got right out of college.

“I need as much capital as I can get before I can go back home to Kenya,” he said during his lunch break, one eye constantly trained on his BlackBerry.

If Kheraj and Mumo were to get “legit” jobs in East Africa, they would join the ranks of Africa’s growing middle class. The World Bank estimates that sub-Saharan Africa’s middle class will more than triple before the first half of the century is over, reaching 43 million by 2030.

“This Africa is not the same Africa as we know it,” said Vijay Mahajan, author of “Africa Rising: How 900 Million African Consumers Offer More Than You Think.”

“If Africa were the United States of Africa, the GDP would be bigger than India.”

After graduating from Lafayette College in May, Mumo and Kheraj were confronted by the difficult decision so many graduates from under-developed countries face each year: whether to maximize the value of their degrees in the West or go home and risk a smaller salary with less mobility.

Kheraj and Mumo are budding members of Africa's middle class yet they are not in Africa. The two are examples of the African middle class diaspora in which thousands of the continent's brightest and best educated professionals seek careers in the United States and Europe. Although not in Africa, many in the diaspora contribute by sending money back to their families. Also many eventually return to Africa, bringing new skills and important contact with the First World.

More on Africa's middle class:

Kheraj and Mumo are both innately entrepreneurial. Among other ventures, Kheraj wants to create an East African radio network. Mumo dreams of working as an agent for Kenyan soccer players. While recognizing the many pitfalls of doing business in Africa, endemic corruption among them, they believe the continent is full of markets on the upswing.

“If there are new ideas, there are endless possibilities,” Kheraj said.

Their optimism isn’t baseless. Seven of the top 10 countries predicted to have the fastest growing gross domestic products in 2009 by the Economist Intelligence Unit, were in Africa.

Students who leave Africa to study in the West are an important part of its burgeoning middle class, says John A. Arthur, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and co-author of “The New African Diaspora in North America.”

“A growing number of African immigrants are beginning to repatriate because of changing economies and growing opportunities,” he said.