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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.

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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.

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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."

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