How to bring Zimbabwe’s talent back

The other day, I met two lovely young ladies who had just come back to Zimbabwe after graduating from college abroad and they were telling me that they had only one friend who is still here, out of all their school friends from junior school and high school. Nowadays everyone who can afford to leave Zimbabwe for foreign universities never comes back.

Deborah Peters,consultant

At least during my days, the University of Zimbabwe was considered world-class so most of us only left for graduate school after our undergraduate degrees. Today there are so many universities in Zimbabwe that it is hard to gauge the quality of the education offered but many are just churning out graduates to add to the numbers of the unemployed.

Anyhow, there is a large demographic of people missing in the middle in this country.

We have the very young who are still attending our excellent schools and the older parents who remained behind while many moved to the Diaspora. This country is a large training ground for global talent as Zimbabweans continue to leave during their most productive years. There is a global war for talent and the rest of the world does not hesitate to pay for the best people, no matter where they come from. The miracle of Dubai’s modernisation would not have taken place without the use of expatriates and Dubai pays top dollar for the talent that has turned the small emirate into the financial, tourism, health and knowledge powerhouse that it is today. Zimbabwe is actually lucky that its citizens are now scattered all over the world where they are getting the best experience so all the country has to do is lure back its citizens where other countries have to find expatriates.

Most Zimbabweans who have settled abroad do not want to get old in a foreign country. During the eight years that I lived in New York City, I enjoyed the experience but I did not want to get old there. The winters can last eight long months and nobody wants to be climbing subway stairs in their old age in the cold of winter. Remittances from the Diaspora make up a large part of Zimbabwe’s economy but the country stands to gain more by bringing back its best minds to build the economy from within the country. I never set out to leave the country per se. I just went to study then I found a job at the same time that the economy in Zimbabwe was unravelling. After graduation it was actually a shock to my system to come home and have family members advising me to remain in the US.

In the US you get 15 days leave a year and I used that to come home. Like most Zimbabweans in the Diaspora, I still had fond memories of life back home but during my visits I could not comprehend the masses of weird new banknotes I found circulating during hyperinflation and I was traumatised when there were power cuts or water shortages. One time after arriving from 24-hour flights from New York to Harare I remember screaming that I just wanted a shower, while my mother heated water on a gas stove in her house in Borrowdale Brooke like we lived in a village. I wanted to move back to Africa but I knew I was not ready for the challenges facing Zimbabwe.

The next logical choice was to settle in South Africa, so from 2004 to 2008 I was actively looking for jobs there and I would travel from the US for interviews.
The right opportunity came along in May 2008 when I was recruited by Eskom at a career fair in New York. They used a recruiting company called CareerNation to line up as many candidates as possible that they interviewed over a weekend in New York and in Houston.

That was the time when they needed a lot of engineers to increase capacity when load-shedding began in early 2008. They also used a company called Careers in Africa to recruit professionals from the United Kingdom. The great thing about that Eskom opportunity was that it offered a full relocation package where they shipped all your belongings, they provided housing for six months and a rental vehicle for two months. It was the kind of soft landing most Africans are looking for in order to return to the continent and it gave me enough time to buy a house and a car.

The salaries were not exactly on par with the US but houses cost less in Johannesburg than New York and I believe in owning your house, not renting. By 2010 I was encouraged by dollarisation, so I decided to give Zimbabwe another try but I could not stay more than a month at a time because the job market was almost non-existent. I moved between Harare and Johannesburg running a business and consulting for about a year until an attractive expatriate opportunity came from Nigeria.

I was recruited by the African Management Services Company (AMSCO), a United Nations/International Finance Corporation agency to work as a fund manager for a real estate private equity fund in Lagos. They paid in dollars, it was tax free, I was given a fully furnished three-bedroomed duplex on Victoria Island, I had a car with a driver and lots of international travel. Expatriates in Nigeria are well-taken care of to compensate for the challenging environment so I spent two of the best years of my life working in Lagos. The hardest part of relocating is the emotional toll it takes on you each time you move.

When I was studying for my international MBA at Pepperdine in California, the last semester of the programme was a study abroad in France followed by an internship. I was supposed to do a three-month internship with Roche but with my pharmacy background they insisted on keeping me for six months. I spent a great year in France where I really got along with my French co-workers. When I finally had to leave Paris, I missed my flight, probably on purpose and when I did leave I cried all the way across the Atlantic on the flight to New York. I spent eight years in New York and really put down roots there.

After I got the Eskom offer, even though it was what I had been looking for, I put the letter aside for two months while I agonised over the decision to make yet another move.

I had been preparing my partner that the day would come whenI would return to Africa but leaving New York was painful and I still have a bond with that city. I have more friends there than anywhere else in the world. Nigeria was similarly hard to leave. I wrote a blog while I was there called the African Gist blog and it had a large following.

My last post was about how I could not stop crying when I was coming to the end of my Lagos assignment. I am a resilient woman so my male friends, colleagues and partner were surprised at how emotional I became. When I finally returned to Zimbabwe I told myself I was not going to move again because I get too attached to every place I live in. The challenge for Zimbabwean professionals in the Diaspora is how to get a soft landing when they return home. There are many Zimbabweans who are excelling all over the world wishing for the right opportunities to allow them to move back home. Last year, I went to a dinner hosted by Deloitte at Rockefeller Centre where they had 1 000 accountants from Zimbabwe and South Africa. When the US needed auditors after the Sarbanes-Oaxley Law was passed, they simply brought dozens of accountants from Africa on internal transfers.
The head of McKinsey in San Francisco is James Manyika, a Zimbabwean and he has loads of Silicon Valley billionaire friends on speed-dial. Imagine bringing a guy like that into our government. The constitution of Zimbabwe needs to be changed to allow the president to appoint as many technocrats as possible to be ministers. Ministers need to come from business and industry.

Look at how Trump filled his cabinet with billionaires and generals. Kenyan ministers are all technocrats leaving the parliament to deal with with politics. Even if the government pay is not that great many Zimbabweans who have made their fortunes elsewhere would be happy to give back to the country.

When you look at the top private equity firms in New York and London like KKR and Carlyle Group you find Zimbabweans like Michael Sakupwanya and Marlon Chigwede. These professionals need the right opportunities at home and the freedom to implement change when they come back. I have seen many people come back from the Diaspora and pack up again to leave because of lack of opportunities here.

When they do find work, standards are very low, underachievers get high salaries and productivity is poor. Zimbabwean workers rarely work until 6pm but workers in finance abroad burn the midnight oil. I suffered more from reverse culture shock when I returned Zimbabwe than the culture shock of moving to the US. That repatriation process needs to be carefully managed if we are going to bring our Zimbabwean talent back to make meaningful changes to our economy. Let us actively bring our Diaspora back for the good of Zimbabwe.

Peters is a business and investment consultant. She can be contacted on Twitter @debbienpeters and email: deb.n.peters@gmail.com