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Talent gain vs. brain drain

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The Nigerian economic boom of the 70s and 80s fueled by the discovery of oil made Nigeria a choice destination for many including the most prominent global technology companies at that time. The Nigerian currency was stable, and of high value, the country became a lucrative destination for economic migrants. We had an influx of Indian or Ghanaian teachers and lecturers in public secondary schools and universities. Our government could afford to pay them, and they helped us build our skills base.

The expatriate arrangement worked well until things started to change with the currency being devalued as part of the IMF mandated structural adjustment program during our economic downturn. Austerity measures were imposed by the government which led to a reduction in subsidies and funding of educational institutions. The result was not only massive student upheavals but an exodus of expatriates as Nigeria became economically unattractive.

The expatriates were not the only ones to leave as a devalued Naira also made expatriate employment outside the country attractive to skilled Nigerians. We became a net exporter of skilled labour as more emigration started happening than immigration. Political instability also didn’t help matters.

The effects of emigration

Science education was the first casualty of the mass migration of skilled Nigerians. Things got so bad in Nigeria in the late 80s and 90s that there were no longer enough teachers in secondary schools and even universities. I remember that in my 4th year in secondary school, we had no Mathematics teacher as the school couldn’t find one to hire. This development had considerable implications for the career choices of most of my classmates. I don’t think many of the people in my set became engineers.

The indigenous technology sector was still very young during the oil boom era and had not gained enough momentum to withstand the effects of the emigration of skilled professionals. The result was disastrous as it became more lucrative for local developers and other software professionals to work elsewhere.

Emigration killed off a lot of promising startups of that era and even led to the large scale adoption of foreign-built enterprise software in sectors like banking. This development was in stark contrast to the previous situation where Nigeria’s TaraSystems was once an exporter of its banking software “MicroBanker” to several American banks.

Drain vs. Gain

There are arguments for and against emigration of skilled resources. One of those arguments is that it has a net adverse effect on local industries as all the investments made in building the human resource base over time becomes lost. There is also another school of thought that debunks this as emigration is believed to create external opportunities to help people reach full potential and make valuable contributions to their home countries — increased remittances or going back to help build new talent are believed to be potential benefits.

One of the most prominent research exercises performed on the topic of emigration of skilled resources and the after effect was carried out by Chand and Clemens on the impact of mass worker emigrations on the Island nation of Fiji. According to “Harvard Politics” the experiment found that “an increase in the rate of emigration of tertiary-educated Fijians caused an increase in the stock of tertiary-educated people in Fiji.”

The Fiji example is a great scenario and could happen in Nigeria, but the problem we have is that we still have not fully recovered from the first shock to our educational sector. There are also no government policies to proactively address the demise of higher education. There is a high risk that what happened previously to the tech sector will happen again as skilled resources become scarce because of external demand.

I will want to think that the effect of mass emigration was adverse to our tech sector because we didn’t have depth at that time as there was little long term investment. We didn’t prepare for how rapid it was for talent to disappear and products replaced by imports. I was a casualty of those imports as we lost our largest client at that time to an Indian company.

A few professionals like Dr. Aloy Chife the founder of Socketworks, however, saw the opportunity in replicating what Indians in Diaspora had done for their country, so he returned home to help rebuild the decimated technology ecosystem. SocketWorks was most likely the first venture-funded startup in this part of the world with their multimillion-dollar investment by the IFC. Most of the founding team members of SocketWorks have gone on to play critical roles in the current Nigerian technology ecosystem as it is today.

Venture funding over time has increased “talent gain” as talented Nigerians who have honed their skills abroad have been encouraged to return and build new ventures. Venture-funded companies like Andela are now even providing skilled resources to work remotely with companies outside Nigeria.

The Naira has recently lost value against other currencies and things are changing rapidly once again, there is huge external demand, and even well-funded entrepreneurship ventures are already finding it difficult to employ and retain new talent. The industry has grown in depth, but the supply of quality talent from educational institutions remains a challenge.

It is hard to fault people for leaving in search of a better life, but if we don’t address the supply problem now with improved education and policies favoring technology ventures, the effect of external demand may prove to be once again disastrous.


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Brain-drainTalent gain
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