As Africa’s middle class starts to emerge, propelled by growth and urbanisation, many diaspora Africans are choosing to return to the continent.
Many of these returnees, known as ‘repats’, are highly educated and skilled, and while they choose to take a chance on new opportunities back ‘home’, the process of adjusting to mentalities and business practices can be brutal.
Each Friday, for six weeks, I will share the story of a young, female, West African ‘repat’. Whether these women are operating on the not-for-profit side, or serving artists, or launching creative businesses, or venturing into public service, or just opting for non-traditional corporate careers, the momentum is real, leading to the future construction of open nations in the continent.
This week I speak to Nneka Ezeigwe who is based in Nigeria.
There are more and more young Africans trying to address African challenges in appropriate, innovative ways. Many of them happen to be Western-educated Nigerians, and if you go to any top business school in the United States, you will find students named Ola, Ade, Femi or Nnenna who talk a lot about improving the state of Africa by going beyond their parents’ original post-Independence endeavours.
Some may misunderstand how to go about gathering proper insight into ‘what works’ on the continent but mostly their heart is in their right place, because they turn down well paid consulting or investment banking jobs in New York and Chicago, choosing instead to venture back to the ‘motherland’.
‘My dad believed in encouraging all his children to be ambitious and successful, regardless of gender.’
27-year-old Harvard Business School graduate Nneka Ezeigwe is one of those ambitious Nigerians who are comfortable with the risks attached with repatriation. Nneka grew up in Lagos and Abuja in a family of four children. Typical for upwardly mobile Nigerians, her mother was a doctor and her father was an entrepreneur.
‘My family was a fairly typical Nigerian family,’ she remembers, ‘although with less of the gender norms that are sometimes too prevalent in African families. My dad believed in encouraging all his children to be ambitious and successful, regardless of gender. I was relatively protected from the reality that women in Nigeria really do struggle to be heard, seen and respected.’
She began secondary school in a boarding school in Abuja, and then moved to the UK in 2004 to complete her A levels. ‘It was quite a culture shock moving from a very homogeneous black environment to a more diverse, predominantly white environment. For the first time, I became aware of my race.’ After finishing her A Levels, she moved to London in 2006 to study at Imperial College where she had a ‘fantastic’ experience.
In London, she met some of the people who would become her closest friends, and really grew to love the city and its vibrant cultural scene. Although her mind worked in a structured, almost mathematical way, with engineering and science puzzles to tackle head-on at university, she found that she was drawn to the possibility of, one day, working with skilled practitioners from the creative industries.
So quietly, even though she managed to secure a stable job as a process engineer at Shell after her undergraduate studies, working in the energy sector in Texas, she began to attend concerts and exhibitions, reading up on cultural luminaries, and meeting people who could help her develop her future capacities in this regard.
Pretty soon, she decided, as many Nigerians do, to pursue advanced studies in management, and enrolled at HBS. Life on the Harvard campus – and in the Boston area – was all about learning from professors, business leaders, and fellow students. This is where she began to build solid relationships with entrepreneurs from the cultural space.
I met Nneka in the Spring of 2014, when I was invited to speak in the ‘Power & Influence’ class she was attending in her second year of the MBA programme. We bonded over West African culture, and started discussing her future, and all those job offers she was getting. A month after our first meeting in class, she informed me that she had made up her mind. She had decided to move back to Nigeria after graduation.
She feels that this is the right time to add the African experience to her portfolio of life experiences.
‘After HBS,’ she said in an email interview earlier this week, ‘I decided it was time to return to Africa for two main reasons. First of all, I felt a strong urge to contribute something back to the community that raised me.’ She admits that she found it quite disheartening that the hope for a good life for many Africans involved moving to more developed countries, often leading to splintered families and a sense of not really belonging anywhere. ‘I wanted to contribute to making it possible for people to find hope for good economic prospects and a stable social existence closer to home, if they chose to.’
‘Secondly, apart from an MBA summer internship, I hadn’t worked in Africa prior to my move back to Nigeria.’ Having lived in Europe and America, she now sees herself as a global citizen. She feels that this is the right time to add the African experience to her portfolio of life experiences. Right after graduation she briefly worked as an associate consultant in McKinsey’s Lagos office, adjusting to a familiar— but in many ways new—environment.
‘The most difficult thing to adjusting to working life in Lagos for me was having to plan around a lot of inefficiencies in public services that add up to take time out of your day.’ For instance, she had to deal with the recurrent fuel scarcity in the metropolis, which means long queues for petrol at the gas stations, increasing her commute time. And then there is the issue of road rage from stressed commuters. ‘There are a lot of little things that I used to take for granted that all of a sudden, require planning around.’
These days, Nneka is employed by Flint Atlantic Capital Partners, an early stage social impact investment and advisory firm focused on healthcare. It’s a typical start-up experience with very fast-paced days and some slower days. She wears many hats and enjoys the fact that there is no typical day. ‘We are a lean team and so I do a bit of everything. I’ve designed the company website, attended events to network with entrepreneurs and investors, developed financial models, worked with medical directors of different hospitals in Nigeria, screened investment opportunities, and much more.’
Even though she is very grateful for the opportunity to have a wide variety of experiences in an important sector, she wants to reconnect with creativity, and the experiences that had inspired her when she discovered ‘the scene’ in London. In 2015, she found a way to ‘upgrade’ her professional life, while bringing African creativity and site specificity to a new project, a Lagos-based cultural entrepreneurship hub called OmenaLab. (Full disclosure: I am a board member at OmenaLab, helping to connect Nneka and her co-founders with partners that can be helpful in fundraising, expertise and implementation.)
Right now, it seems as though Nneka’s life plans are going forward smoothly, and she is finding new ways to keep the momentum going for an upgraded African experience – and Omena could be part of that – but as a highly educated African woman in her twenties, she knows that, with the valuable skills she is now equipped with – and the global network she is tapping into – there will always be new opportunities to bounce back if things don’t work out as expected in Nigeria. Nneka is well aware that there are many other possibilities elsewhere.