Tayo Akinyemi

Can Members of the Diaspora Work Effectively at the Base of the Pyramid?

Three years ago I took part in my first Nollywood marathon. It was a bit of a reunion actually; one of my friends was in town from Nigeria while I was visiting another friend in DC. One of the movies, called Dangerous Twins, struck a chord. The story is about two businessmen; one lives in the UK and the other in Nigeria. Eventually a plan is hatched to switch places. Drama quickly ensues as the UK-based brother destroys his twin’s business and personal life by insisting on “proper” protocol irrespective of the local (and sometimes harsh) reality. Meanwhile, things go swimmingly for brother #2 as he boosts business and woos his twin’s wife. The plotline becomes increasingly labyrinthine, but you get the gist.

Why bring this up in a post about the BoP? Because the movie raises interesting questions about who “belongs” where and under what circumstances, a consideration that is central to business development at the BoP. The assumption is that embedded community knowledge is essential for BoP ventures specifically, and for development generally. Who better to provide this context than locals? Unfortunately, the question of who is local can be extremely complex.

For example, what does local mean in a country as large and diverse as Nigeria?
If someone of Yoruba descent (Yorubas are primarily from the Westen part of the country) visits Ibo-land in the East, he is hardly a local. (Sometimes this applies even if he was born and raised there). However, even an Ibo-man in Ibo-land may not be considered a local if he’s from another state. None of this is surprising; the dynamic is similar (although perhaps less contentious and painful) in the US. However, I’ve been told that Nigerians often identify with their villages first, ethnic origins second, and national identities last, particularly when football is involved. If that’s the case, then what are the practical implications for members of the Diaspora- those who are born, educated, or work outside of their country of origin? Can they ever be truly ’local’? Should they be? If not, what roles can they play in their countries’ economic development?

While I don’t have definitive conclusions, I have witnessed the answers that a few of my counterparts have created for themselves. When I was in Nigeria, I encountered a cadre of young, well-educated, upwardly mobile women who had been educated in the US, but had decided to return “home” to make positive change. One started an organization-she’s actually on her third now-called LEAP Africa, a Lagos-based NGO that focuses on promoting leadership development and entrepreneurship. Another launched Friends of the Global Fund Africa, which aims to “mobilize strategic political and financial support for the fight against AIDS, TB and Malaria through education, multisectoral advocacy and documentation.” These women are prime examples of the power of reverse brain drain, particularly when the links to the country of origin remain strong. These success stories teach us that Africans of the Diaspora can act as connectors between two worlds.

Nonetheless, the road home can be long and bumpy, fueling the genesis of organizations like the Move-Back Club (MBC). I have certainly heard my fair share of third party accounts detailing the challenges of acclimatization and have told several of my own. It’s funny how easy it is to take language, cultural norms, style of dress, food, and transportation for granted until you’re required to adjust to a new set. Trust is also a big issue. Being an honest broker to multiple parties is a very difficult task to do well. Inevitably, both sides will question where one’s loyalty lies and each might feel betrayed and disappointed. However, there is no good substitute for the first-hand acquisition of local context, as confusing and painful as it can be, because it garners a more reality-tinged perspective.

Case in point-a friend, a returned Peace Corps volunteer and fellow business school classmate, remarked that one of her Kenyan colleagues had the uncanny ability to frame local problems meaningfully, an ability that far surpassed her own. Why? Because she’d lived them; her insight was not the result of high-minded, theoretical exploration. (Of course it’s not that simple; living an experience does not guarantee one’s ability to extrapolate from it. But it’s certainly a start.) So perhaps the next best thing to being local is finding people like this woman, and bringing their voices to the fore, both literally and figuratively. As with anything, people need to do the work to which they are best suited.

Perhaps not all members of the Diaspora have truly local contexts, but they certainly have skills that can be wielded in service of the countries of their fathers.