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By Dr Jean Cedric Kouam (Download pdf)

African Brain Drain Hampers the Implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area

According to a report published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in World Economic Outlook in October 2016, the brain drain from sub-Saharan Africa to OECD countries could rise from around seven million in 2013 to some 34 million by 2050. These include students and professionals in teaching and research, healthcare, and, more recently, high-tech professions such as IT, telecoms, finance, and biotechnology. This situation dramatically penalizes a region where human capital is already scarce and is counterproductive for implementing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

The AfCFTA project, designed to increase intra-African trade by harmonizing and coordinating trade liberalization and facilitation regimes and instruments on a continental scale, will not succeed without the contribution of well-educated and highly skilled African citizens. However, Africa has continued to experience massive brain drains over the past few decades.

Central to this process is the search for better working conditions in the diaspora. The first consequence of brain drain is the loss of the workforce that can boost the continent’s participation in world trade. Brain drain also affects the continent’s economic development. It consists of a discrete pull-out of intellectuals from professional circles, where their contribution to the economy is highly sought after.

In an interview with the Nkafu Policy Institute in December 2022, Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III, who examined pre-colonial trade patterns in Douala-Cameroon, supported the argument that brain drain is hampering the implementation of the AfCFTA. Accordingly, the authorities in charge of implementing the AfCFTA must consider this possibility. Brain drain certainly helps to strengthen the capacity for innovation and development of home countries when these brains decide to return to work at home. Still, its impact on the production, specialization, and marketing patterns of these countries remains limited.

The main reason for this is that decades after colonization, the goods traded by most African countries in world markets are raw materials, notably cocoa, coffee, timber, cotton, fuel, natural gas, minerals, coal, and uranium.

So, while it is true that brain drain offers some citizens more opportunities in terms of education and employment essentials to their well-being, it is also true that the training they receive abroad is based on the real needs of the countries offering such training and on the fundamental (rather than universal) standards and principles of these countries. These programs are, therefore, less likely to influence the production and consumption models and habits in the countries of origin of these people, which could limit the success of the AfCFTA.

Furthermore, when African talents trained abroad decide to return to their home countries to work, they are more likely to reproduce what they learned during their training. In contrast, in many cases, these skills do not fit in with the local realities. As

a result, the production of goods and services at a local or national level is often designed to meet external demand. In addition, consumption patterns are inspired by foreign patterns, which undermines the comparative advantage that some African countries have over their foreign counterparts. Many intellectuals that decide to go abroad for academic or professional reasons choose not to return to their country of origin, which deprives the continent of qualified people capable of contributing to development and progress.

To ensure the effective and successful implementation of the AfCFTA, African countries must be able to produce manufactured goods that satisfy local demand. Currently, most economies are extroverted and depend essentially on imports of goods such as wheat, rice, and vegetable oils, to name but a few. The availability of a workforce capable of transforming raw materials into finished or semi-finished products would not only limit the heavy dependence of African economies on terms of trade, but also their extroverted nature, through the development of local, national, and continental value chains.

With this in mind, African leaders need to prioritize human capital development to make the most of AfCFTA, which represents a market of around 1.3 billion people and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $3.4 trillion. This naturally involves putting in place mechanisms to train and retain the continent’s men and women capable of designing Africa’s development.

Trade liberalization (through the reduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers), as well as the marketing of products that meet the real needs of the population, are all factors that the governments of each member country must consider if they are to seize the opportunities offered by the AfCFTA. Moreover, these factors can undoubtedly enable each country to make the most of its comparative and competitive advantage in the production of certain goods while contributing to the development of national, regional, and continental value chains.

Concrete examples of this approach date back to the pre-colonial era, when each territory or kingdom exchanged what it produced for what it did not produce or had not produced. This approach could help countries easily overcome the structural and logistical problems they constantly encounter. By training Africa’s leaders within the continent, it is more likely to bring about changes in the digital field, in technological and industrial development, and in the development of African medicine, to name but a few.

Moreover, Africa must trade not primarily to satisfy external demand for raw materials, but much more to transform these raw materials into manufactured products to boost the domestic market. The only way to produce goods and services that meet the needs of the local African population is to train local expertise. Without this, Africa will remain a dumping ground for poor foreign products that could contribute to the slow growth of the continental market, which is full of hope and rich in opportunities.

The authorities responsible for setting up the AfCFTA must therefore work to strengthen human capital formation on the continent. In addition to progressively eliminating tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, each country that has ratified the AfCFTA must strive to train competent men and women who are committed to working towards the development of African value chains. This means putting in place the educational innovations needed to boost vocational training, Africa’s economic growth, and the success of the AfCFTA.

Jean Cedric Kouam is the Deputy Director-Economics Affairs Division and the Head of Fiscal and Monetary Policy Sub-section at the Nkafu policy Institute. He holds a doctorate in economic policy and analysis (monetary and financial macroeconomics) from the University of Dschang in Cameroon.