Africa's ambitious go overseas

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.

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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.

However, Arthur is not convinced that there will be an overwhelming flight of highly educated Africans back home just yet. “I predict the migration of Africans to the West is actually going to be intensified. African countries still can’t absorb graduates of higher learning. The private sector is not expanding as rapidly as it ought to, neither is the public sector.”

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that at least 20,000 skilled Africans leave the continent for industrialized countries every year.

But those that do return, Arthur says, bring with them experience that could do more than just bolster economies.

“I see African immigrants as agents of change,” said Arthur, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana in 1981. Arthur hopes that Africans returning home bring with them ideas about social processes, good or bad, which they learned in the West.

Rhama Hersi, originally from Kenya, recently finished her law degree at Indiana University. Law firms in Kenya constantly call her asking if she will practice at home. With a law degree, she knows she would be a valuable part of the middle class and might even be able to help stem corruption in Kenya but she wants to advance her career in the U.S., a decision she describes as “selfish.”

“When I left home eight years ago, I thought I was going to achieve my goals so I could do something for myself and my country,” said Hersi. “But as you go and see things, you realize there is a system that is put in place. Corruption has been there; these aren’t problems that happened over night.”

For Paul Filson the need to stay in the U.S. is more practical than ideological. He recently finished his doctorate in nanotechnology at West Virginia University. Filson is looking for work yet he rejected three job offers at home in Ghana, hoping he can get better pay and learn more abroad.

“There are many ways I would like to contribute to my family and my country in Ghana,” said Filson. But he knows his degree is more practical in the U.S. and that means he can help his ailing mother financially. It’s a trade off.

“I can’t give her guidance while I am in the U.S., but I can’t help her financially much if I am in Ghana,” said Filson. Filson describes being caught between. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

Africa's middle class is a GlobalPost series to highlight the continent's key but under-reported population including South Africa's growing class of "black diamonds," education opportunities in Ghana, the challenge to Kenya's middle class, the struggles to rebuild a middle class after years of civil war in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the diaspora of thousands of Africa's ambitious in the U.S. and Europe.