Reverse brain drain: 'African Lion' economies vs West’s fast track

One Kenyan – like tens of thousands of fellow Africans in a new reverse brain drain – leaves a career in a foreign country for a sunny future back home. Developing nations are experiencing a 'brain gain' as the global recession makes their best and brightest see opportunity in places they once fled.

By , Correspondent

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    Sitati Kituyi, a Kenyan computer software developer, in his office in Nairobi, where he works after leaving a career in Britain to return home earlier in 2012. This is part of the "Great Brain Gain" cover-story project in the Oct. 22 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly magazine.
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It was the daily four-hour round-trip commute, in a series of cramped and silent trains from one side of London to the other, that got to Sitati Kituyi in the end.

By all measures, the Kenyan was on what he describes as "a set path" to success. The computer-engineering graduate from the University of Manchester, in northern England, had left his family when he was 18 to seek training and the career he'd always dreamed about in the West. Within 18 months of leaving university, he was on the fast track to a position as a senior analyst in a respected information technology consultancy with a clutch of blue-chip clients.

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But then one day late last year, he realized that wasn't the path he wanted. Sure, he missed his family, and his girlfriend, and the energy of Nairobi, his home city on the plains beneath the endless skies. But more than that, he had the nagging feeling that he was missing out; that back in Kenya, classmates and peers were forging ahead, running their own firms by their mid-20s, making money, breaking new ground with the new tech tools just seeping into Nairobi's nascent information technology industry.

Mr. Kituyi wanted to go home. And this year he became one of tens of thousands of Africans returning home to booming economies. Six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies between 2001 and 2010 were in Africa, according to the International Monetary Fund. Between 2011 and 2015, average African economic growth is expected to outpace Asia's.

The opportunities in "African Lion" economies are pulling savvy staff back to the continent in a trend that is a neat reverse of the "brain drain" of the last part of the 20th century that saw so many of Africa's brightest and best-schooled leave for developed countries where career chances were better.

Exact numbers in the new "brain gain" are impossible to pin down, say analysts. But the director of a recruitment consultancy with offices in six African countries estimates that "probably more than a quarter" of résumés crossing his desk in Nairobi now are those of returnees who have spent significant time overseas.

Tech game changer

New technology, driven by faster Internet, cheaper mobile phones, and a better-educated population, are breaking down barriers here and accelerating economic growth and development. The environment for business success driven by tech start-ups is causing expatriates like Kituyi to desert careers in the West to come home.

That environment can be seen on the top floor of a nondescript office block near Nairobi's center where, on a recent afternoon, two dozen men and women, their accents molded in Europe and the United States, sit at desks or cross-legged on the floor, hunched over laptops. This is the iHub, a privately run, open-plan office hooked up to superfast Internet. It offers low-rate membership and shared workspace to dozens of young entrepreneurs, designers, and programmers focused mostly on mobile-phone and computer applications. Not so different from techy gathering spots in the West, there's a foosball table, floor cushions, a balcony for more private Skype conference calls or break-out meetings, and a coffee bar.

The folks quietly murmuring with each other and tapping on keyboards are an equal mix of men and women in garish Converse knockoffs and baseball caps, as well as sober white shirts and dress pants.

"From being cut off from the world, we are now as hooked up to broadband network, to affordable phone calls, handsets, to all the technological inventions, as anywhere else," says Aly-Khan Satchu, one of Nairobi's leading financial analysts and a former trader for Swiss, German, Japanese, and US banks in London. "It's catapulted us into the 21st century, at precisely the moment when markets in other parts of the world just look tapped out in their entirety. Here, we're at the beginning of so much, and banking and IT are at the forefront."

Indeed, says Kituyi, sweeping his eyes around the iHub: "Just look around and you'll see it happening right here."

The comparison with his past life, Kituyi says, is stark: "In the UK, you'd find that there were very set ways to develop your career: You're out of uni, you do a graduate scheme, then you go to the next level, and the next, and it's a trap. You're a very small part of a very big thing in the UK's IT industry ... it's hard to do anything but follow in others' tracks. Here in Kenya, you can be part of something in its formative stages, and that is really exciting. There's a lot more flexibility, a lot more opportunity to find gaps in the market that you can take advantage of."

Kituyi is in on the ground floor of a new company, FrontlineSMS, that is spearheading clever new ways to use cellphone text messages to connect charities working in developing countries with people they aim to help. It's cutting-edge stuff, with a moral dividend: one of a raft of smart computer- and mobile phone-based programs being created in Nairobi by both locally educated and international developers.

"At the time when I was leaving university, in 2009, there was a thought that there was not much of an IT industry to come home to," says Kituyi, who is 25 and the son of a doctor and a former government minister. "But then I started ... realizing that if you look at any recent class of computer science graduates from [Nairobi's] Jomo Kenyatta University, half of them are already starting up their own firms. That's just not the case with my classmates from Manchester.... Nairobi is uniquely placed for what I want to get out of my career."

Nonetheless, there are "frustrations aplenty," says Barbara Muriungi, a graphic designer who recently returned to Kenya from having spent eight years in Boston and New York City.

Corruption frustrates, but not a deal-breaker

"There's no one place you can go, no one office, to set up your company," she says, sighing. "It takes a very, very long time. The bureaucracy is more complicated; it's more expensive. There are a lot of boxes to check."

Almost a year and $1,000 out of pocket after beginning the process of registering her firm, paperwork is still being delayed.

Kituyi recognizes the frustration, too: "You can get tied up in government regulation here, especially if you are doing stuff that no one's done before, and they struggle actually to come up with the regulations and the rules. Then there's the other side of it, that even when there are well-defined rules, sometimes people want a bit of money here and there."

Corruption, then, is something that can hold back even Nairobi's most headstrong young entrepreneurs. Antiquated bureaucracies invented and perpetuated to line the pockets of the old-guard elite are hard to shift.

"It has taken a lot of adjustments," Ms. Muriungi continues. "Africa is not a place that works for you, if you are from a Western mind-set.... But one of the things that I've found most rewarding is that not having a regular job has pushed me to be more resourceful than I ever imagined I could be. You have to bring your experience from the States, or wherever, but you have to be ready to be flexible with it. It can be frustrating, having to switch gears, but it opens up truly new opportunities that I would never have found back there."

"In New York, I was beyond broke," Muriungi says. Having worked from the bottom up in the US she was working overlong hours and wanted to "kick back a bit, slow down," but not let her career progress slip.

"The financial crisis hit; my firm in the States laid off a lot of people. Those of us who were left were under a lot more pressure. It became pretty miserable," she says. "I knew life was a lot more social back home, and that was a sharp contrast to my work-life balance, or nonbalance, in the States. But it felt like a huge risk to throw away a salaried job and come here...."

But, both Muriungi and Kituyi say, the risks and occasional frustrations of coming home are no reason to give up. Both clearly feel that they are in the vanguard of a new Kenya, driven by meritocracy, opportunity, and hard work.

Asked how it compares with the rat race in London, Kituyi pauses a long moment and says that perhaps institutional training is better in the West, and the wages are higher. "But," he notes, "the cost of living here, of getting a two-bedroom apartment, of moving about on public transport, of hanging out with friends, it's all lower."

The cross-London commute set Kituyi back more than $200 a week. In Nairobi, his 30-minute drive to work costs him less that one-sixth of that in gas. His rent, meanwhile, is less than half what it was in London – although a movie ticket or upscale restaurant meal costs about the same.

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"I have found that since I moved back, I have more expendable income that I did in the UK even though I'm not on the same salary," he says. And being closer to his family, and his girlfriend, whom he met at university in Manchester, helps, as does the lifestyle in Nairobi. "[I]t's still an easygoing place where people make time to enjoy themselves more than they do in the UK. Here there is the opportunity to do as much, if not more, with your career, and to enjoy the ride a bit more."

And he's here to stay, he says: "Would I leave Kenya now? No, not unless something too good to be true dropped into my lap. But I'm definitely not looking for it."

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