The issue of the usefulness of African academics in the diaspora to African universities is no longer in doubt for two main reasons. First, many African universities are short of teachers and researchers with doctoral and post-doctoral qualifications and expertise. According to several studies, most African countries are currently facing a shortage of highly qualified personnel in the fields of natural, applied, and medical sciences, technology and engineering, as well as agriculture and health.1Adama Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso – International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (2ie): P108791 – Implementation Status Results Report: Sequence 11 (English), World Bank Group, 2013; Claudio E. Montenegro and Harry Anthony Patrinos, Returns to Schooling around the World: Background Paper for the World Development Report, 2013; World Bank, World Development Report 2007 : Development and the Next Generation, 2006. In Senegal, the largest university in the country is facing shortages in teaching staff due to large numbers of retiring professors, while in Kenya, universities are facing a shortage of professors, and low numbers of qualified lecturers and PhD students in public and privates universities. In addition to the deficit in the availability of teaching faculty, the massive numbers of students coupled with the lack or poor state of amenities such as regular water supply, electricity, accommodation, and well-equipped libraries, place a lot of pressure on institutions of higher education on the continent.

Paradoxically, there has been explosive growth in enrollment in institutions of higher education in Africa. According to the 2017 World Bank report Sharing higher education’s promise beyond the few in Sub-Saharan Africa, enrollment figures in sub-Saharan African universities rose from two hundred thousand to ten million between 1970 and 2013. In response to the increased demand for university education some African countries, in partnership with donor organizations, are trying to get some of their highly skilled scholars in the diaspora to return home to strengthen teaching and research in local universities. International programs such as the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program (CADFP) support accredited universities in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda to host a visiting fellowship program for highly skilled African scholars in the diaspora based in the United States and Canada.

While some African doctoral graduates choose not to return home to Africa to support higher education efforts, another group of African PhD graduates is beginning to return to African universities. These include experienced scholars returning to Africa to teach in universities who were already well-established in European and North American universities.

What is the rationale behind this kind of decision? One might imagine that behind this choice lies a question of ethics or sense of national commitment; the feeling of some African scholars that they have a moral obligation to give back to the continent.

To seek an answer to the foregoing question, a survey was conducted at the University of Lomé, Togo, with ten scholars participating (six at the Faculty of Law and four at the Faculty of Economics and Management) who had held positions overseas and decided to return home to teach in Togo. The average age of those interviewed was thirty-two years. They all had to answer the same questionnaire. Of the ten participants, two had returned home from Canada, two from the United States, and six from France.

Among the participants, the four economists had been working full-time at financial institutions in France and part-time at universities. As for the law professors, two were already scholars, two were lawyers and part-time lecturers, and the other two worked in the private sector after obtaining their PhDs in law.

The reasons for returning home

Without going into details for each person, four essential reasons explain the decision to return to Togo:

  1. Homesickness

It may seem trivial, but it is difficult to return and settle in one’s home country from abroad if the strong desire to return home is not present. Homesickness, however, is not enough and it is always accompanied by other reasons.

2. A desire to be useful

Overall, everyone interviewed felt that even if they strived to exceed expectations in their workplaces in North America and Europe, they would not receive the expected recognition or acknowledgment. The participants underlined that it is not about being in the spotlight, but rather the satisfaction of contributing something valuable to society and being recognized for such contributions.

3. Limited prospects (glass ceiling)

Some participants indicated that they had reached the invisible upper limit that prevents, or makes it more difficult, for women and minorities to rise to the highest ranks in western societies. As a result, they felt they needed more space to grow and achieve their full leadership potential.

4. A better environment for children

The only woman among the participants, who returned to Togo from the United States, included as a reason for returning home the desire to see her children grow up in a calmer and more serene environment.

Some challenges faced by African academics returning home from the diaspora

“The hardest thing is not to return, but to stay”

Participants reported facing several challenges:

There were reports of unsuccessful returns. Some (who are not included the study) preferred to leave again and return to North America or Europe. According to an unofficial count, at the University of Lomé, out of the five scholars who returned to Togo, at least one ended up leaving.

Reasons for leaving

Low wages were considered a disincentive to pursuing a career at a university, but this was not the foremost reason for the failure to reintegrate into the society they left long ago. The determining factor was the difficulty of adapting.

Those who had stayed in the West for long—and sometimes their families as well—find some difficulty in adjusting to people’s mindset once they return home. There were also the difficulties of doing research in an environment with inadequate infrastructure, which involved the risk of “unlearning” or losing touch with mainstream academic discourse and international networks.

Based on the results of this study, steps should be taken to help African universities attract and retain experienced and valuable African academics who have returned from the diaspora.

African governments and philanthropists should invest in university infrastructure and technology (amphitheaters, laboratories, libraries, and IT facilities) to give researchers a conducive environment to apply and develop their skills. This should be complemented by on-the-job capacity building opportunities, access to information and online resources, travel support for participation in international professional/academic meetings, merit-based packages of incentives, and the development of a robust academic and learning culture.

African scholars and high-level professionals in the diaspora who plan to return home to teach in universities should, at least for the first few years, avoid getting bogged down in administrative roles that may make it difficult for them to effectively carry out their teaching and research responsibilities. They should also avoid cutting off their connections with research networks and ecosystems in other African and Western universities, even as they seek to immerse themselves into the academic communities at home.

Another important suggestion is for African scholars and high-level professionals in the diaspora who return home to accord priority to training doctoral students and actively mentoring mid-career and junior faculty in African universities. Of particulate note is the provision of support to younger and junior colleagues to improve their academic writing and research skills, and develop research proposals. Returning scholars can also share information with them about research and professional development opportunities such as international grants, fellowships, and international conferences. They should also involve colleagues in collaborative projects and research working groups that help develop their skills and attract resources to their universities.

In conclusion, academics returning to Africa have to be committed to making the necessary sacrifices to reintegrate themselves and adapt to the working conditions in African universities. While this may take some time, it opens up opportunities for such scholars to contribute meaningfully to the development of their home country’s’ universities and societies.