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From London To Africa In The Brain Gain Game

The harsh winds of world recession have set African professionals running for the warmth and possibilities of home.

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At the Careers in Africa Summit in London this May, the queues alongside recruiting stands wound around the Hilton Canary Wharf within minutes of opening, as 1,500 pre-selected, high-quality African candidates gathered for a matchmaking event with global companies looking to source African talent from the Diaspora.

Over the road, the Wharf itself was unusually busy for a Saturday afternoon, as global banks desperately worked through their scenario planning after the carnage on European markets. Once, the UK financial services industry in Canary Wharf and the Square Mile would have hoovered up many of these candidates. The city has been a magnet for global talent for decades, picking up not only the best from British universities, but those in Asia and Africa as well.

Now, that seems to be changing as resurgent African markets attract global businesses desperate to find new sources of growth, and as entrepreneurial members of the Diaspora look to return to capitalize on opportunities back home.

“The general atmosphere [in Africa] is much more optimistic,” says Wynand Smit who left a risk management job in a UK bank to return to South Africa to work for Rand Merchant Bank earlier this year.

“This is in stark contrast to the gloomy atmosphere in the UK where the focus, in my experience, was much more on the uncertain EU situation and potential future impacts,” he says.

The opportunities on the continent, as well as family considerations, led him to return after a successful few years in London and the Netherlands. However, for others the conditions in developed markets are a compelling reason to head back home. London’s slide—and the slowdowns across the rest of Europe and the United States—has come at a time when African economies have proved their resilience in the face of global economic turmoil.

The UK banking boom in the early part of the new millennium saw the sector expand from just over 5% of the country’s GDPin 2000 to more than 10% in 2009, when the country’s recession began in earnest. A royal flush of new, strict regulations, economic downturns in almost all developed markets and the existential threat to the Eurozone, which makes up the UK’s largest trading bloc, drove many institutions to the wall. The bloodletting that followed has been brutal.

According to figures compiled by Bloomberg, there were 58,000 job cuts in London’s financial services industry in 2011 alone. 2012 has seen that pace maintained, with bank after bank responding to the continuing pressure from regulators to build capital by cutting costs and headcount. Trading firms have seen losses mount as stock indices continue to be battered by the ongoing turmoil in the Eurozone; and corporate finance houses have seen their client base retrench in fear of a second recession. The Royal Bank of Scotland alone has slashed 30,000 jobs since its nationalization in 2008, and more cuts are still to come as the slim hopes of an economic recovery in the near-term fade away.

Hugo Lambrecht, who manages the African finance and banking practice at CA Global Headhunters, says that he has seen both the number and the profile of candidates change over the past few years of recruiting. Whereas before, the company’s focus was on finding expatriates for roles on the continent, the last two years have seen an upsurge in returnees—of the 280 people his team have placed in that period, around half are returnees. With a lack of experts in transaction banking, corporate finance specialists, investment professionals and chartered accountants, it is a good time to be in the executive search space in Africa, Lambrecht says.

It is not just finance that is benefitting. The compelling demographics of the continent continue to underpin growth in the fast-moving consumer goods and the financial services sectors across most economies. One major constraint for these businesses, historically, has been their ability to source executive talent with the financial and management skills required to operate in global companies, and the understanding of the complexities of relatively unstructured African markets.

The economic downturn in the West, combined with a growing understanding amongst multinationals and businesspeople that African markets are now a far cry from their mid-90s gloom, has created what Richard Putley, managing director of Executives in Africa, calls “a perfect storm”.

Putley’s company specializes in sourcing executive talent for international companies operating in Africa, particularly the retail sector, where knowledge of local market conditions is of paramount importance. What most companies are looking for, he says, is somebody that you would call ‘business bilingual’.

“This is a person who has the ability to work for an international company to ensure that the global policies and procedures that are in place for an emerged market are translated into a language that can be understood and delivered on a local level.”

These are individuals like Olu Kolawole. After spending the bulk of his career in the US, Kolawole had risen to become director of construction at Pathmark Stores, a supermarket chain. But just over a year ago he decided to abandon the relative sanity of the West Coast to head back to his native Nigeria and the chaos of Lagos. He admits that he was driven in part by a “nationalist instinct” and a feeling that “it was time to give back”, but equally the strong and visible opportunities in his home country were an attraction.

“You also see the challenges of being back in Nigeria—challenges in terms of constant utilities, challenges in terms of security, both of life and property. But then you decide that at some point, with the growing uncertainties in the economy and job security in the US, you start to really consider the opportunities in Africa,” he told FORBES AFRICA.

“When the opportunity came to come back, I really sat down and thought about it, but you know, you look at my career path over the last 10 years, which was rapid in the States, and you see that you’ve kind of peaked.”

With mergers and acquisitions trimming workforces in the US retail sector and growth in the industry slumping from 7-10% pre-crisis to just 2-3% in recent years, the chance to reboot his career with a move to a fast-moving market was too much to turn down.

“You realize a lot of these global brands see the African continent as the next frontier and you want to take a pioneer role. You know the lay of the land, you know what modern retail is supposed to be like,” he says.

Kolawole is now chief operating officer of CoolWorld Electrical Retail Stores, a subsidiary of international consumer goods giant PZ Cussons. It has not been all plain sailing. Business processes can be frustratingly slow or nonexistent and corruption “is at a level that you’ve never understood before”. The city has its inconveniences including interrupted power and security concerns. But even so, Kolawole has no regrets—yet. His role allows him to make changes to the way things are done and bring in his own best practices, and his remuneration package allows for a good quality of life, despite Lagos’ reputation for exorbitant prices.

“You have to negotiate your terms properly before you take the plunge. Nigeria is an expensive place but there are companies here willing to pay top dollar for talent. When you are negotiating a salary, you have to really negotiate properly and make sure you have everything taken care of. If you miss your utility payments or something, and you miscalculate, it really affects your overall income,” he says.

After three months, he brought his family over, including his two children, aged 10 and 12.

“It’s probably been tougher on the kids because they’ve lived their whole lives in the States. They still ask me when we’re going to go back,” he says.

The answer is: no time soon.

For some returnees, however, the motive is altogether more altruistic. OB Sisay spent 15 years in London working as an analyst in political risk consultancies and investment funds until September last year when he left his job and began the process of moving back to Sierra Leone.

Currently flitting back and forth between the UK and the country of his birth, Sisay is setting up a number of small enterprises, including a farm and a transport business and taking over his family’s holdings. Salaried jobs are hard to come by but once he has established a domestic cash flow he and his wife will up sticks and head to Freetown. Most of his family fled the country during Sierra Leone’s civil war but after years of stability and a new government that has put development top of its agenda, they are beginning to come home.

“We have a country to develop. You can’t all sit in the UK, earn huge wages and come on holiday for three weeks. The country has a huge shortage of human capital and so a few of us kind of think that the pocket has to take second place to the country. One of my cousins has quit his post as a gynaecologist at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and he’s back here, he’s got a clinic. Another one is back here to work for the procurement department. The attitude is that we want to develop our country.”

The move is proving incredibly rewarding.

“Every morning before I get out to do my running, I’ve made a difference to one to three people’s lives, whether that’s someone who has come to me with a problem with their children’s education, somebody comes in sick, they’re in hospital and they need money. It’s not that much money, but I feel as if I’m making a difference. Whereas in the UK I get up, put my suit on, make big speeches, get congratulated, get paid very well and come back home. Meanwhile, Africa is still where it is. Somebody needs to fix it,” he says.

There is commercial opportunity, he acknowledges, as Sierra Leone builds from scratch during its post-war reconstruction and as international money finds its way into the country. But being a part of that development is far more compelling and exciting.

“Everything means a lot more. The elections mean a lot more; policymakers’ decisions mean a lot more. I don’t want to come back here in 10 years with kids who barely speak the local language, who only claim they’re Sierra Leonean because their parents are and I find myself a stranger in my own country,” says Sisay.

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