Most African migrants head for Africa, not Europe, and they support economic growth

guest column: Jay Naidoo

The story of African migration conjures up the spectre of Europe being overrun by millions of poor, desperate, vulnerable refugees fleeing conflict and war, arriving in precarious, leaking and overloaded boats, ripping up the established social fabric, threatening the way of life and foundations of Western civilisation.

It is based on fear. The first step is changing the narrative around migration

The facts are very different.

“African migrants account for only 14% of the global migrant population: significantly less than migrants from Asia, which account for 41%, or Europe, which accounts for 24%.

In fact, in 2017, the top 10 migration flows from Africa accounted for less than the single migration flow from Mexico to the US. Most African migrations begin and end on the continent,” says Mo Ibrahim, at the Mo Ibrahim Foundation annual conference in Côte d’Ivoire held over the weekend of April 5-7 2019.

The foundation focuses on promoting good governance and excellence in leadership on the continent and says the data underpins the story of Africa not as a “basket case” and a continent of massive exodus. The story of migration in Africa needs to be reset. The reality is that when we talk about African migrations, we are really talking about Africa’s young people.

African migrants are predominantly young, educated people seeking better jobs and opportunities. Data show that most migrants are professionals and entrepreneurs whose economic activities support economic growth in host countries, provide much-needed services and products and whose skills are valuable assets.

Migrants’ contribution to GDP is estimated at 19% in Côte d’Ivoire, 13% in Rwanda and 9% in South Africa. Moreover, close to 70% of African migration is intra-African.

Africa’s greatest challenge is that its dynamic and ever-growing youth population is mostly devoid of prospects. Economic growth of the past decade has not
created many jobs and has been mainly commodity-led. Between 2000 and 2014 employment in Africa increased by less than 1.8%, far below the nearly 3% growth in the labour force.

Yet, Africa has 60% of the remaining uncultivated arable land in the world. More than 90% of our food is grown by women subsistence farmers. Yet, sub-Saharan Africa is one of the epicentres of hunger in the world. If we break down the barriers that prevent women from becoming successful smallholder farmers we could formalise jobs for millions of women entrepreneurs.

What we need are policy changes that ensure women have land title, financial support to set up their community seed banks, irrigation, access to water and energy and access to markets that will pay them a fair price for what they don’t need for their families. We would eradicate hunger given that women use much of their incomes to improve the nutrition, education and health of their children.

And with climate change a daily reality, we can build an ecological approach to agriculture that respects our planetary boundaries, our soil, our rivers and our health.

The same could apply to harnessing solar energy on a continent blessed with more than 300 days of sunshine a year when more than 700 million people are energy insecure.

How would we build an industry that benefits not just large companies, but also includes community-owned grids that can feed into national grids? With the right regulatory environment and industrial policies, we could build an African manufacturing sector employing thousands of workers.

We are living in a globalised and increasingly fragmented and volatile world. People have lost trust in institutions and leaders. In Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa, at least 75% of the youth think that their governments do not care about their needs. I think this is the norm across the world.

“I don’t think we have a glass ceiling. We have a concrete one and we have to chisel away at it until it crumbles,” United Nations deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed tells Mo Ibrahim when talking about advancing gender equity in her work. Natasha Kimani, from Kenya, struck a chord at the conference:

“Entrepreneurship is not a magic pill.”

I caught up with her:

“We can’t all be millionaires and billionaires. What is our African model? Why are we always trying to copy a Silicon Valley model? What are our assets? What are the skills, knowledge and business models we need in Africa? We need plumbers, electricians and more vocational training,” she said.I love the fact that so many younger leaders are challenging our notions of success that have brought us as humanity close to the edge of self-destruction.

“Government is an enabler,” says Nanjala Nyabola, another Kenyan activist and writer of a thoughtful book, Digital Democracy, Analogue Government.

“Given the next technological revolution, we should be driving digital democracy. Government services going online; technical training hubs driving a massive digital literacy. Business registration taken online. Fibre-optic broadband at affordable prices made universally available,” she says. Improvements in information technology and digital infrastructure will allow ever more young Africans to grow up using technology, which will prepare them for future jobs. As they become globally connected, this raises their expectations and exposes them to different realities, new opportunities and ideas which can bring innovation and motivation for change.

Nanjala continues:

“Nearly half of entrepreneurs in Kenya are women. Why do we have tax breaks for technology, but not for women innovators meeting basic needs and holding families together in sectors such as agriculture.”

These are complex challenges, but with the right leadership, Africa can realise its extraordinary potential and cultivate its greatest asset — its young people.

Sixty percent of Africa’s population is under 25. By 2030, 30 million young people are expected to enter the African labour market each year. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, while 18 million new jobs would be needed annually to absorb new entries in the labour market, only three million are currently being created.

In South Africa, the second-largest economy on the continent, 55% of young people are jobless. By 2100, Africa’s youth population could be equivalent to twice Europe’s entire population and half of the world’s youth will be from Africa.

While Africa’s youth are better educated, healthier and more connected than previous generations, they are still lagging far behind other regions. Only half of those who would qualify for lower secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled. In Africa, there is a weak link between higher education levels and better job prospects.

They are dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities and the fact that they are not seen, heard or involved in decisions that threaten their future and which they have many ideas on solving. It is not insecurity and conflict that is driving migration. It’s about economic prospects.

The African Union’s recent protocol on free movement, adopted in 2018, is a key step. It expresses a commitment to removing some of the barriers to migration and will support economic development across Africa. When migration is poorly managed, we all lose out.

“In 2016, illegal smuggling of migrants generated $7-billion in income, equivalent to the amount spent by the United States or European Union countries on global humanitarian aid in the same year. These are sobering numbers,” Mo Ibrahim reiterates.

South Africa receives the largest share of African migrants, followed by Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda.

We need a more comprehensive political debate on migration, both its advantages and disadvantages.

We need to remember that our country has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of the sweat, blood and tears of migrant workers from Africa in sectors such as mining.

The Frontline States hosted tens of thousands of our political refugees and faced devastating military and economic attacks because of this. Many of these migrant workers were a valuable part of our freedom struggle.

Today, migration is about managing mobility, whether in relation to geography, education or jobs. The question is whether we have the political will to embrace this emotive debate and have a rational conversation on what the most appropriate policies are.

The alternative is that our reputation in Africa suffers a heavy body blow every time another violent xenophobic attack takes place. And given that our economic and political fortunes lie in integrating our economy into the broader African development trajectory, we need to replace the current narrative that our country is one of the most hostile to African migration on the continent.

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