Carpe Diem: Engaging Africans in the Diaspora for development

Diaspora Demo Day

Every year, the Motherland loses some of its most brilliant minds to other parts of the globe. They leave for a number of reasons that include political instability, repression, conflict, and poverty, and do so in the hope of getting better education and job opportunities. They become a part of the diaspora, non-resident Africans who still feel a strong connection to their origins.

According to the World Bank, there are 39 million Africans in North America, 113 million in Latin America, 13.6 million in the Caribbean, and 3.5 million in Europe. They are well-educated professionals and together they send over 40 billion US dollars in remittances to the Africa every year. Per

The power of the diaspora lies in their duality. They identify with both cultures and act as a bridge to communicating the true African experience. Utilizing this duality can help in a number of areas.

Fighting the negative imagery

A number of Diasporans are young, talented and optimistic about the future. They’re also eager to return to help Africa progress. Having achieved success in their respective fields, they defy the perception of despairing poverty, corruption, and repression that often overshadow Africa’s success stories.

The politics

Our global representatives can also make changes in foreign policy. When it comes to negotiating interventions and support, diasporans can provide an authentic African voice to political discourse by communicating the needs, potential and realities of Africans.

Sharing skills

They can also apply their knowledge and talent to close the skills gap, which would help attract foreign investment. After all, the Motherland doesn’t lack intelligence. What Africa lacks are opportunities to apply and develop its talent.

So how do we put this into practice?

Almaz Negash, a respected business executive and non-profit leader, has a feasible solution. Negash was born and raised in Eritrea, and went on to study in the US. She now works to connect Africans on the continent with those in the Diaspora.

Negash suggests using the African Diaspora Network (ADN), an online platform, to convert the $40 billion remittances into investments.

This is easier said than done. The ADN solution requires reliable infrastructure and policies that are conducive to conducting functional businesses. These include enforcement of property rights and political stability. There are concerns over whether or not African governments have the capacity to enforce such policies or even comply with them themselves. The ADN must also figure out the best way to engage with the diaspora. Not all diasporans are Pan-Africans so some may focus more on their own countries than the entire continent.

But, if successful, the creation of a diaspora database could work as a platform for the Diaspora to share their entrepreneurial capacity with those at home, and be a forum for Africans to seek investors and donors. This will allow Diasporans and resident Africans to form partnerships and invest in each other.

ADN could also function as a space for nonprofits to connect with Africans and share ideas on how to best tackle development problems and create sustainable solutions. Over half a trillion dollars has been spent on aid to Africa since independence, and almost nothing has come of it. The ADN could be the missing link.

Proof of Concept

A similar model has worked in India. As a country that is dependent on remittances, the Indian government has made a conscious effort to engage with the Indian diaspora. Through liberalizing their trade policies, India has been able to attract its diaspora’s investment. They have also established the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs that connects to the diaspora through youth teaching, cultural education, and annual awards to revered Indians living abroad.

So…what are we waiting for?

Sadly, African governments aren’t doing the best they can to connect with Africans abroad. At least 32 African countries have set up specialized units or ministries to engage with diaspora, but these units tend to be under financed and understaffed. As a result, African governments are not engaged with their diasporans.

But Ethiopia is making moves

The country established an Ethiopian Diaspora Directorate in 2002. It now has a web portal with information for the diaspora about potential investment and trade opportunities, on-going development projects, and the Ethiopian diaspora policy. Ethiopians born outside of the country can get “yellow cards” allowing them to travel without a work permit or visa. The Ministry of Health also attracts professional diasporan doctors to work in their health sector. Ethiopia now has its first emergency response residency program.

SLA also knows what’s up

We too have recognized the need to harness diasporan potential. In November 2014,  SLA co-produced and co-hosted Diaspora Demo Day, a social impact pitch competition. Diaspora Demo Day is the largest convention of African startups, entrepreneurs, and angel investors outside of the continent. SLA took seven African startups to the showcase where growing tech companies and social enterprises focused on Africa and the diaspora were presented.

Demo Day took place in Washington DC and was attended by policymakers, impact investors, journalists, development professionals, and leaders of African enterprises. Participants gained media exposure from multiple outlets like Washington Post, BET.com, and AllAfrica.com to name a few.

Carpe Diem

6 out of the 10 fastest emerging markets are in sub-Saharan Africa: Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone. So now is time better to invest in Africa’s future. 

Abai Schulze: Your initial purpose has to be strong

Abai Shulze - ZAAF Collection

Abai Schulze moved to to Addis Ababa in 2013 to start ZAAF – a company that specializes in handcrafted luxury leather handbags and accessories produced by Ethiopian artisans. The Ethiopian-American entrepreneur has been able to combine her background in economic development and love for fine arts and creativity into a successful brand. Through ZAAF, she seeks to create unique products, open up avenues of opportunity for talented local artisans, and promote brand Ethiopia.

Schulze graduated from George Washington University where she majored in Economics and minored in Fine Arts. At the core of her entrepreneurial journey, which she terms as an exciting adventure, is to be able to impact people on an individual level. She spoke to me about how she has been able to grow and market her brand.

Taking advantage of learning opportunities

Schulze, who was born in Ethiopia and adopted by an American family at age 11, remained connected to her culture. She travelled to Ethiopia during her summer breaks to do volunteer work. It was during one of these trips that she interned with USAID where she worked with artisans and designers, and helped them to create websites to market their products internationally.

This enabled her to see how businesses work in Ethiopia. Frequently visiting the country also gave her the opportunity to witness its economic transformation firsthand and ignited the desire to return in her.

Her senior thesis analyzed Ethiopia’s potential for exporting textile. “I wanted to go into that field but it didn’t make sense because the initial capital is huge and you have to have actual hands on experience,” Schulze said.

She later found out that Ethiopia has the finest leather in the world which it exports to European countries to be used as raw material by famous brands.

“I wanted to tap into that,” she said. “Why not make it at home, by our own people, add value to it, export it, and market and rebrand Ethiopia?” “That was my initial take on it,” she added.

245f7c_84bce64e62b54c219c0d9393cc7e3b33Schulze’s plan was to get some work experience in the US and go to business school before starting her own company. After graduation she interned at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and later worked at Ashoka. It was while there that she met many entrepreneurs who inspired her to start her own company.

“I changed the timeline and decided to jump in,” she said. “I told myself, ‘If it fails, I am still young, I can start over.’” She then made the physical move to Ethiopia. “You can’t do this type of business from a distance,” she said. “I had to leave everything behind and focus on ZAAF.”

Branding and marketing ZAAF

In trying to figure out how to brand and market ZAAF, Schulze kept in mind the different connotations that come with products made in Africa. “A lot of it has that NGO feeling,” she said. “The language used is often, ‘It is made by poor people. Buy it otherwise they won’t have a job.”

She wanted to reject this guilt-driven purchase angle. “I wanted to show that we are talented, we just need to invest in our own people and we can produce something beautiful,” said Schulze. “You are buying the product because you like the product, not because you are feeling guilty.”

“Otherwise you are not going to have loyal customers who come back,” she added. “If they feel like they have done their good deed of the day, then they will move on to the next company.”

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Schulze and her team were careful and deliberate about the language that they used in branding the company. Its products are made by talented Ethiopian artisans who went to school to sharpen their craft.

“They are not people who you just tell to piece two items together,” she said. Working with skilled artisans also ensures that the products are high quality. “We are trying to compete with international brands,” she said. “We want people to buy based on that.” The language they use to talk about the brand reflects all this.

“Our products stand out,” said Schulze. “When we produce them, we really want our customers to feel a sense of where the products are made.” ZAAF integrates ageless geometric patterns created on traditional looms with leather.

“Talented weavers meticulously count knots to produce patterns of fantastic combination of color and style,” she said. The unique aspects of the handbags and accessories has attracted media attention. “That organic attraction has helped us grow,” she added.

Abai Schulze - ZAAF CollectionCustomer engagement is critical to the brand. They engage with customers primarily through social media. They are committed to providing excellent customer service. “If a customer is not happy with a product then we will redo it,” Schulze said. They also work to ensure that products are delivered in a timely fashion.

Another way that Schulze keeps her customers happy is by investing in her team. She creates incentives for them based on their desires and needs. “That way they are loyal and create high quality products,” she said. “When you have a high turnover of employees, you can’t be consistent and your customers won’t be happy.”

Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs:

Your initial purpose has to be strong. You have to be passionate about what you are creating because you will face a lot of challenges over time. This passion will help you find a way to solve them. Surround yourself with people who challenge you because sometimes you will be in your own bubble and you won’t know how far you are going.