Embracing ‘brain circulation’ is a huge opportunity for Africa’s development


    Dr Ephias Ruhode, lecturer and researcher at University of the West of Scotland’s School of Business and Creative Industries and researcher at the Centre for African Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (CAREED)

    The “brain drain” narrative misses the opportunities that a highly educated and dynamic diaspora can bring to Africa, writes Ephias Ruhode.

    African countries have collectively exported intellectual capital to the world, especially to countries in the global north. While un-skilled and semi-skilled labour moves within the continent, western nations like the UK, France, Australia, Canada, and the US are frequent destinations for highly skilled, highly educated human capital from Africa. This human capital flight, traditionally referred to as brain drain, has had a devastating effect on the African continent, while receiving nations have benefitted from innovations, patents and profits by African scholars, experts, and intellectuals. In today’s knowledge-based and globalised economy, how can African countries benefit from their human talent scattered across the diaspora?

    Knowledge-based economies are agile, well educated, and can rely on their citizens to drive innovation, entrepreneurship, and dynamism in that society’s economy. In the contemporary world, intellectual capital, more than savings or investments, is key to achieving the developmental goals of nations. Development and modernisation through the application of human knowledge and creativity are steadily overtaking the extraction and processing of natural resources as drivers of wealth creation in Africa. Zimbabwe is experiencing a rebirth of agriculture (more than 40 per cent of GDP), owing to modern approaches to knowledge exchange, learning and innovation in the sector. The Smart Africa Continental AgriTech Blueprint which was developed by Zimbabwe, foregrounds agricultural innovation and creativity as the backbone of success in agricultural output. The Knowledge Hub for Organic Agriculture and Agroecology in Eastern Africa is another example of a centre of excellence where agricultural knowledge and innovation systems have made Kenya’s agricultural sector the main contributor to the economy.

    In our globalised society, humans and systems can operate at an international scale under the facilitation of enabling technology. After centuries of technological progress, our world has become connected, home and office devices are now wired intelligently, and there are phenomenal advances in international cooperation. It no longer matters where the individual is based, they can contribute to any economy in the world.

    From drain to circulation

    There is increasing recognition that members of the African diaspora, regardless of their physical location, can contribute to innovation and competitiveness in Africa. The willingness of experts in the diaspora to serve their countries of origin has given rise to the term ‘brain circulation’.

    Brain circulation can take the form of transfer of resources, finance, technology, knowledge, and ideas, without physical movement of the diaspora communities.

    The Covid-19 pandemic taught us that work is not a place that we go to, but it is what we do. To a knowledge worker, physical location is no longer a factor in productivity due to digital connectivity. Teleworking is a reality that African institutions should innovate around (notwithstanding the existing infrastructural challenges). Globalisation and internationalisation are now opportunities for African institutions to take advantage of.

    The democratisation of knowledge brought about by the internet has bolstered knowledge interchange and collaboration. However, Africa needs to give more attention to organisational transformation underpinned by knowledge sharing and collaboration. Once this is in place, they can utilise digital tools to collaborate with the diaspora and benefit from their skills regardless of their location.

    A digitally engaged diaspora

    Traditionally, the economic contribution of the diaspora has only been spoken about in terms of financial remittances. Less is mentioned about diasporans as facilitators of global knowledge and expertise and how this can contribute to innovations in Africa.

    A step forward would be to appoint African diaspora experts to company boards and university councils. This is low hanging fruit in the process of globalising African institutions that can be grabbed to harness free and available expert knowledge.

    There is a direct benefit of accessing diverse global knowledge and practices which prepare people for the competitive global economy. It is on this basis that appointments to company boards and university councils would be hugely beneficial to knowledge creation, innovation, and sustainable development.

    China and India have developed their high-tech industry through the brain circulation model. It is recorded in AnnaLee Saxenian’s book The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy, that the Chinese and the Indians, after establishing their IT innovations in America, replicated the same technologies in their home countries. In our globalised environment, it is much easier for the African diaspora community to participate virtually in the developmental projects of their country. A fertile ground for such participation must be cultivated deliberately by institutions and companies in Africa to gain the advantage that this opportunity presents.

    Main photo by DC Studio on Freepik

    Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s). 


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