African countries: the underutilized source of STEM talent

September 19, 2023

African continent

Africa, known as the most ethnically diverse continent in the world with 3000 distinct ethnic groups speaking over 2000 languages, arguably holds the highest percentage of untapped and unsung tech talent. As the late Ivan Van Sertima, an associate professor at Rutgers University, once wrote, “the nerve of the world has been deadened for centuries to the vibrations of the African genius.” Below, we explore some of the ways both the U.S. and African counties can benefit from Africa’s talent.

Why the U.S. Needs Foreign Tech Talent

Although the Biden-Harris administration established a President’s Advisory Council in December 2022 recognizing that it needs to strengthen the dialogue between the government and the African Diaspora in the U.S., there are steps, including with respect to U.S. immigration policies, that the U.S. government can take to advance the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and benefit economic growth in both places. Generally, foreign-born STEM workers make important contributions to the U.S. economy in terms of productivity and innovation. Reports indicate that in recent years, every additional 100 foreign-born workers with an advanced degree working in a STEM occupation creates roughly 86 jobs for U.S. workers. With the U.S. expected to lose $162 billion worth of revenue annually unless it finds more tech talent, an update of its immigration and foreign policies with respect to Africans may provide the U.S. with the tech talent it needs and simultaneously stimulate African economies.

About Africa

The diverse continent of Africa, famous, in part, for its excellence in athletics (e.g., in the last 21 years, all winners of the men’s category of the London Marathon have been Kenyans and Ethiopians); its poignant national anthems highlighting independence from colonialism; its world famous politicians and statesmen (e.g., Nelson Mandela and Jomo Kenyatta); its wildlife and scenic beauty (including national parks such as Masai Mara and Serengeti (home to the largest mammalian migration in the world); its famous landmarks (e.g., Nile River, Sahara Desert, and Mount Kilimanjaro); its natural resources (copper, diamonds, gold, oil reserves, natural gas, coffee, cocoa, and more), its world famous literary giants (e.g., Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart,” the most widely studied, translated, and read African novel, and Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature); and its diverse musical offerings able to tell the history of its people and evoke emotion and thoughtful conversation), has so much more to offer on the global stage, including in STEM.

Africa’s Ground-Breaking Inventions, Innovations, and Contributions in STEM

Africa has made great achievements in STEM over the centuries, including ground-breaking medical procedures and architectural and engineering marvels such as the Egyptian pyramids built between 2630 B.C - 2325 B.C. and impressive cities (e.g., Timbuktu, Mali) built in the 12th – 15th centuries. Recent achievements include:

  • 1967: The world’s very first heart transplant was performed in South Africa led by cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard (surgically trained in South Africa and partly in the U.S.).
  • 2007: With respect to financial technology, years before Google and Apple launched their mobile wallets, Kenya launched M-PESA (M being for "Mobile" and Pesa being the Kiswahili word for money). M-PESA has been lauded by publications such as the British Broadcasting Corporation as the World's most successful mobile payments service.
  • 2015: As reported by the World Federation of Science Journalists, Wilfred Ndifon of Cameroon solved a 70-year-old immunology conundrum, i.e., how to stop recurring infectious diseases.
  • 2022: Ms. Kate Kallot, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in AI, 2023, founded a Kenyan based AI (Artificial Intelligence) startup, Amini (the Kiswahili word for believe). The startup uses satellite imaging and AI to collect and crunch environmental data. This is aimed at helping farmers improve productivity and attracting foreign investors who will be able to confidently track what is on the ground.
  • 2023: Former American Chief Automotive Designer, Mr. Jelani Aliyu Dogon Daji, received the Nigerian Distinguished Merit Award in recognition of his significant contributions to development of the engineering and automobile sector in Nigeria. (This is a testament as to how immigration plays a key role in creating economic growth in both places because Mr. Daji, a graduate of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, who designed vehicles for General Motors in the U.S. such as the Chevrolet Volt Electric Car, a high-tech Renewable Energy vehicle that revolutionized the global automotive industry, parlayed his experience and skills by returning to Nigeria to contribute to the development of the automobile industry.)

As a cross-section of the above achievements show, collaborating with African talent and creating non-immigrant or immigrant opportunities for Africans in the U.S. benefits economies in both places.

What the U.S. Can do to Build and Enhance its Relationship with African Countries with Respect to STEM

  • Approve more qualified F-1 (student) visas particularly for graduate students. It is documented that denial rates for African countries, excluding South Africa, remained the highest over the last eight years arguably leading to less African students obtaining visas to study in the U.S. and contributing to the decline of black graduates in STEM in the U.S. Indeed, between 2018-2022, a reported estimated 92,051 "potentially qualified" African students were denied U.S visas.
  • Build relationships with more African countries that will allow for STEM-based student exchange programs akin to the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program. (The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs indicates that exchange programs impact cross-cultural diplomacy, research, leadership, and education.)
  • Grant proportionate benefits for Africans already in the U.S. which will in turn allow them to invest in education for their children who in turn may be innovators in STEM fields that will create jobs in the U.S. and African countries. (Note that factors affecting proportionate benefits for African immigrants are arguably rooted in laws that disproportionally affect the black population in the U.S.)
  • Collaborate with African innovators with respect to areas such as agriculture (the quintessential STEM project because Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics are woven into every component of agriculture) and the continent’s growing renewable electricity sector.
  • Set up taskforces to foster proper regulatory environments in both locations to attract investors and allow for remote work.
  • Effectively implement initiatives such as the newly launched Digital Transformation with Africa Initiative (DTA) by creating targeted tasks and timelines. (The DTA is just one of the signature initiatives resulting from the Biden-Harris Administration’s August 2022 U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa.)
  • Have the government and local leaders support activities of local organizations by the African Diaspora in the U.S. in identifying areas where immigration reform is required.

As discussed above, fostering its relationships with African countries and partnering with African countries in Africa’s advancement of technology, while preserving the continent’s natural resources, its diverse cultural heritages, and its inherent sense of community, can benefit the U.S. in its quest for collaborative tech talent and at the same time, grow the economy in both places.

To learn more about nonimmigrant and immigrant options for foreign talent in STEM, please schedule a consultation with us.

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