In October 2021, when the Sudanese government shut down the internet for a month, Ahmed Mujtaba, the CEO of healthtech startup Doctorbase, was disconnected from 14 engineering and operations team members working in the country.
The sudden internet disconnection put so much strain on the startup’s activities that Mujtaba considered whether building a startup in Sudan was worth it.
“At that time I regretted my decision. I considered shutting down the whole project,” Mujtaba told TechCabal over a phone call. But he persevered, relocating his team members outside Sudan temporarily until the internet was restored.
Mujtaba, who grew up in Sudan, relocated to Canada with his family in 2012 because his father got a new job there.
Nearly 41 million Africans emigrated out of Africa in 2020, about twice the 22 million that emigrated in 2000. The reason for the increase in emigration is apparent due to a number of factors. About 60% of the youth population across Africa is unemployed. 10 – 12 million youth enter the workforce in Africa each year, but only 3 million formal jobs are created annually, according to an African Development Bank report.
Many employed Africans are underemployed or remain in poverty despite working due to low wages and the lack of a social safety net. Surveys of African migrants in or heading toward Europe conducted by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies revealed that the majority were either employed or in school at the time of their departure. The major driver behind their migration was the despair over their economic prospects in Africa.
Before Mujtaba left for Canada, he ran a distribution/logistics company in Sudan. After an unsuccessful attempt at building a wireless earpiece company in Canada, and a few stints as a product manager, he decided to look back home and solve the problem of access to healthcare in Sudan.
Despite the appeal of emigration, many Africans choose to stay back or return to contribute to the development of the continent. The reason for this? Passion for Africa and an ardent belief that the work they do matters.
“When I worked in the Oil and Gas industry, I did a lot of good work but I didn’t really see an impact. The same happened at the Water Board Corporation,” Peter Bamkole, Director of the Enterprise Development Centre (EDC) of Pan-Atlantic University told TechCabal at the 2022 Acumen West Africa Fellows gathering. “But when I started the Enterprise Development Centre which helps SMEs in Nigeria, it was different because the impact has a multiplier effect.”
Bamkole, who schooled in the UK and worked there for a few years, explained that his decision to return to Nigeria wasn’t made with reckless abandon. His savings and his wife’s steady source of income helped make the transition easier.
A common theme at the Acumen West Africa Fellows gathering was the shared desire to stay back and build Africa, a different take amid a wave of young people leaving the continent.
Startup funding boom and opportunities
Every year, hundreds of thousands of young Africans living in the diaspora choose to leave their “comforts” in the West to return to Africa.
Ghana declared 2019 ‘The Year of the Return’,’ the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in the United States of America. This opened the floodgates for African-Americans and Africans in the diaspora to move back not just to Ghana, but to Africa. The celebration came at a time when African-Americans and Africans in the West were facing increased racial discrimination, police brutality, as well as social alienation through poor housing and health amenities.
“I grew up in a white neighborhood, so I’m glad I no longer need to have uncomfortable moments or conversations related to race,” Therese Jones, Head of Growth at Float told TechCabal over a call. “I felt a sense of peace as soon as I moved to Ghana and figured out my life faster.”
Jones, a Ghanaian who was born and raised in America, moved back to Ghana in 2018.
“Everyone always asks me, why I returned and stayed this long,” Jones said. “My response to them is that you just have to not think that you have another home. This has to be your home.”
The Africans staying back or returning to build businesses are doing so during the boom of the funding and founding of startups on the continent.
From 2015 to 2020, the number of African tech startups that received funding grew at 46% annually—six times faster than the global average—according to venture capital firm, Partech. This rapid growth happened in spite of the deplorable state of the economy in many African countries.
“Interestingly, almost everything that people complain about today in Nigeria, like the government not doing well, we used to complain about them as far back as in primary school,” Wole Odetayo, Co-founder and Managing Director of Wennovation Hub and Managing Partner at LoftyInc Allied Partners told TechCabal.
His foray into entrepreneurship started when he was a student at Igbinedion University in 2003, where he ran call centres and sold laptops. After a while, his businesses in school were generating a monthly net profit of at least 5 times his monthly allowance.
There have been many opportunities for Odetayo to leave Nigeria over the years, but he remains uninterested.
“I’ve always seen entrepreneurship as a way to liberate Africa from its numerous challenges,” Odetayo, an Acumen Fellow, said. “I wasn’t going to run away from what gave me joy and a sense of purpose.”
Odetayo also shared that his other partners at Lofty Inc — Michael Oluwagbemi, Idris Bello, and Damilola Agboola — had earlier lived in the US and every time the group held meetings, they always talked about how to relocate back to Nigeria.
In 2012, Odetayo and his partners started the Wennovation hub, Nigeria’s first technology incubator to support tech companies, with support from the Nigerian CBN-Entrepreneurship Development Centre.
Odetayo and his partners, who were all in their late 20s and early 30s when they launched the company, pooled together their resources, with some of them leaving their lucrative jobs in the US and using their pension funds to invest in startups across Africa. A risky move considering that 80% of businesses in Africa fail within five years of existence.
“The fact that I made money as a student entrepreneur didn’t make me see money as a do-or-die affair,” Odetayo said.
Since 2012, Wennovation Hub and Lofty Inc have invested in about 220 startups, out of which 2 unicorns have emerged, and several others have gone on to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
“Money will always come to you when you live a purposeful life,” Odetayo said. “That’s one of the reasons for my continued drive.”
Making a conscious choice to stay
The decision to stay in Africa is not without moments of doubt for the many Africans staying in or returning to the continent.
“Generally with entrepreneurship, there’re lots of ups and downs and I sometimes have mixed feelings about what we’re building,” Mujtaba said.
For Regina Honu, a Ghanaian software developer teaching thousands of girls to code, the decision to remain in Ghana hasn’t been without moments of reconsideration.
Honu, who passed on a job opportunity at Microsoft in Seattle, shared that there’ve been times when people ask her why she’s still running her academy, as well as recruiters who reach out to her offering her senior management roles in other countries.
“I still choose every day to be here. If I don’t make that conscious choice every day, I don’t know what will happen, because sometimes it can get really frustrating,” Honu said.
Africa’s brain drain phenomenon is a great cause for concern but the young people returning or staying back signify that there’s hope for the continent.