Op-Ed: Including the diaspora in African innovation

PUBLISHED: Wed, 26 Apr 2017 15:34:05 GMT

Africans in the diaspora want to contribute and we need their input. So why don’t we look for ways to connect?

Many of those in the African diaspora are longing to make a difference for our continent, but they often don’t know exactly how they can do it without physically being here. I think we need to think better about this and find better solutions for them, and for us.

In my continued journey with promoting African innovation, including recently having gone on a tour connecting with innovators, I’ve noticed an interesting trend. It seems to me that foreign innovators who have identified an issue on our continent and discovered a solution, and come here to implement the solution, tend to garner a bit more respect than many of our home-grown innovators. This respect comes in the form of general perception, how we speak about them, and how we fund them. Home-grown innovators tend to need to work a little bit harder to get the same sort of response and respect from us.

Home-grown innovators

Perhaps some say that there aren’t enough credible home-grown innovators on the continent, which may be true in some instances but not in all. Plus innovation, at least of the kind we’re seeing across the world today, is relatively new for us. But I think part of why we give foreign innovators the respect we do is because they come from a background of experience and knowledge, whereas we’re still trying to find out way through things.

But we can use this general trend in a positive way to tap into the diaspora, because in many instances they are garnering the background knowledge and experience overseas that we seem to respect so highly. So why not make use of that? The diaspora can contribute so much to the development of our continent and within innovation – but the problem is we are sometimes just not creating opportunity, or talking to them, or finding them and feeding them the knowledge they need to see how exciting Africa has become, and the potential. In general, we don’t seem to include those in the diaspora as part of our narrative, as part of the change.

I think many diaspora Africans would love to participate in creating a new narrative for Africa, and in innovation more specifically. Some probably think that the only way they can do that is to move here, take a massive risk, set up shop, and get involved. But I don’t think so. I think what’s lacking is other alternatives. We have to think more remotely. For example, why not invite those who are working for Facebook or Amazon to work on something we are doing even while they are there? With the Internet, they don’t always have to be here. It doesn’t even have to be some high-level person, but even a simple coder in the diaspora could contribute to an innovation we are working on here.

We ought to be head-hunting them and creating opportunities for them to participate in our ecosystem – opportunities where they don’t need to necessarily move back (but may in the long run). We ought to be finding them, educating them, and showing them what our innovators are doing. And then asking them: Well, how do you think you can contribute to these innovations? How do you think the experience you’ve gained can help us here?

Brain drain is a real problem

The ‘brain drain’ is a very real problem and instead of just lamenting it we have to work at reversing it or even taking advantage of it by tapping into those garnering experience overseas. Most people who are part of the ‘brain drain’ assume they don’t really have options — especially if they specialise in something niche or have a unique skillset. But this does not need to be so.

I myself know the tugging at the heart that occurs when you’re out there. I spent ten years in Australia creating jobs. One day it suddenly dawned on me that if I could do that in Australia why couldn’t I do it at home? That made me finally begin to work out my own views of Africa, to where I am today where I believe our innovation can really change everything about our continent in a hugely positive way. So I came back.

But when you’re not on our shores there is a sense that you have to figure out life for yourself, and you end up living in something of a bubble. I found this same sense with many of my African friends in the diaspora. Without being involved in the community that is Africa we lose not only a sense of our own identity, but that connectedness we need to see how we form part of our story – past, present and future. And we don’t pass our story down to the next generation, creating a disconnectedness from who we actually are.

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