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As Senegal hosts key meeting, Africa’s brain drain numbers show Rwanda, Zambia, Ethiopia holding on to their best talents

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Science in Africa has not had many takers, while those skilled enough often leave for greener pastures abroad.
Science in Africa has not had many takers, while those skilled enough often leave for greener pastures abroad.

AS Africa’s top scientists, policymakers and start-ups meet in Dakar this week for a landmark conference, one of the more notable quotes was by Thierry Zomahoun, the CEO of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

“There are more African engineers working in the United States than in Africa,” the organiser of the first Next Einstein Forum (NEF) held near Senegal’s capital, Dakar, said.

The conference is hoping to reverse a situation in which Africa’s brightest talent feels compelled to move abroad to work at the cutting edge of research—and earn a decent salary.

Leaders have been queuing to emphasise the need to retain the continent’s top talent.

“The pressure is on to catch up and keep pace so Africa is not left in the wake of technological progress,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said at the opening ceremony.

“This starts with a change in our mindset. We really cannot be satisfied with just ending extreme poverty. Our aim is shared and sustainable prosperity. And the key to that is science and innovation, bound by research,” he added.

With more than half of the continent now aged under 30, its fast population growth means they will either be a demographic dividend that will turbo-charge new growth, or there will be social unrest as tens of millions of Africans find jobs and opportunities hard to come by.

Skills loss

The problem of underinvestment in higher education to create the skilled force needed to allow Africa achieve its growth targets is worsened by the loss of those to other regions of those who are already skilled.

The World Economic Forum, which holds its annual African edition in Rwanda in May, every year publishes an annual Global Competitiveness Report that among other indicators tots up data on brain drain.

It assigns a maximum score of 7 to the country that is best able to retain its best and brightest talent, and 1 to that which is not at all able to retain its talents.

Perhaps it is fitting Kagame spoke of the continent’s frustrations: his country is ranked as the top ranking African country in retaining talent. The increasingly dynamic East African country also comes in at a respectable 23rd position globally.

Notably, as other African nations have seen their rating slide, Rwanda’s score of 4.5 is higher than that in the previous edition of the ranking.

It is a listing full of continental surprises—fellow post-conflict nations Ivory Coast and Liberia round out the top three, while The Gambia and Lesotho pip sliding South Africa, which has the continent’s most developed economy.

Regionall giants Morocco and Kenya also lost their competitiveness over one year from 2014.

Tunisia and Algeria despite being predominantly middle class, are in the bottom seven of the 34 African countries that are ranked, while troubled Burundi props up the table, as it did in 2014-2015.

Globally, Switzerland, the US and Qatar are the best at holding onto their best workers.

Rwanda, which has some of the friendliest terms for foreign workers, also tops the continental list of the countries that best attract talent—essentially where everyone wants to work.

It is at 15th position globally in a list headed by Switzerland, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Despite their economic troubles Zambia and Ghana are also magnets for talent, while Burundi and Zimbabwe again prop up the table as those most losing their best brains.

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