Why foreign students now make Africa a new ‘home’

The author in a selfie with Chinese graduates against the Great Wall. Exposure makes graduates more competitive.

In the last two years, students from these universities - Leeds, Princeton, Oxford, University of California at Berkeley, Delft and Twente have contacted me for their research projects.

I have also delivered two lectures to undergraduates from China’s Tsinghua University while on an exchange visit to Kenya. The students’ research on Africa ranges from politics to why Kenyans don’t like working and how water or power can be provided cheaply and efficiently to the poor.

What has fascinated me most is not their research but the fact that some are undergraduates, who have left the comfort of their homes to explore Africa, the once dark continent.

Why the sudden interest in Africa among the younger generation from developed nations? They seem to know that Africa is the place to be and the earlier you get there the better. They seem to know one or two things about the first mover advantage.

Think of Africa’s mineral wealth and fertile land. Think of her greatest resource, the youth, which is a big market and labour force. There is another strange attraction - African problems.

Their solutions are great intellectual fodder. How do we provide internet to the rural areas?

What of clean water and sanitation?  What of road network? How do we create harmony among the various ethnic groups?  How do eradicate malaria? How do store food in tropical heat?

How can we exploit the youth bulge?  Interestingly, the 2009   economics Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom did part of her research among the Maasai of East Africa.  

It does not matter your intellectual background, there is a problem you can help solve in Africa and believe it or not make money!

The young students seem to know that and have been proactive. We prefer to talk about problems and get emotional about it.

When Africa finally takes off, these students and their countries will benefit from insights into the continent and make money by providing solutions to our problems.

Being outsiders, they are likely to be more objective and less tied to our stereotypes and idiosyncrasies.  Leaving the comfort of their homes makes them more confident in school work and in their lives.

That also makes them more realistic. They see the real Africa not as portrayed in the media.

They see Africa as full of opportunities, not a basket case. Interestingly, entrepreneurs from developed countries also see Africa as the land of opportunities.

They have been investing money and their time. How many firms from the developed world have presence in Africa? Some like IBM had left but eventually returned.  IBM now has a big presence trying to solve our national problems including traffic jams.

What of our students? How much traveling to they do? How much exposure to the world do they get beyond movies and TV? With university in every county almost a reality, many students will school in their counties from kindergarten to university.

That narrows their worldview and perspectives. You can’t get an equivalence to experience no matter how many textbooks you read.

The convenience students get from lower costs and nearness to their parents will be expensive to the country’s competitiveness in the long run. Surprisingly even interacting with students from neighbouring countries like Uganda and Tanzania is rare despite the East African Community. Interaction among local universities is also rare. Exposure to different people, cultures, and environment could be more important than the knowledge you read from textbooks which are often outdated.

That is why immigrants tend to be more entrepreneurial. Beyond classrooms, our students’ research is also localised; am yet to see students traveling to Uganda, Tanzania or Rwanda for their research projects. Most prefer to hang around, some basing their research in the firms they work for.

Even PhDs students prefer to do their research around.

Convenience is preferred over adventure or boldness. The student exposure is narrowed by their tendency to remain in one university for their undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

The faculty or lecturers also add to narrowing of student exposure. How exposed are we? In the past, lecturers left the comfort of their homes to study abroad which gave them 36 new perspectives.

That is becoming rare. What of continues research?  Is it funded? Do we interact with faculty from other universities? Good universities in the west do not hire their graduates as lecturers to reduce inbreeding; we love that.

We can bring new experiences to students. How many visiting professors do we have in our universities? In a country where joblessness is so high, such positions are seen as an expensive luxury.

The university should be about the students, other issues are peripheral. If we don’t expose the students at that formative age to new ideas and perspectives, we risk losing their minds.

The whole country will be the loser. It is not accidental that Microsoft, Google or Yahoo, and many other companies were started by students and immigrants.

Students should have enriched experiences beyond tests, exams and other social problems like inadequate accommodation.

It is the experiences beyond the classroom that make students from top rated universities competitive. After all, students from top to low rated universities often study using the same textbooks.

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi