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