Kenya’s diaspora is a force to reckon with in planning the country’s future


Kenya’s new economic diplomacy is working. This was evident at the Kenya Diaspora Conference held in Washington, DC, from October 7 to 9.

Until then, the three million Kenyans in the diaspora were known mostly for their remittances, estimated at $642 million in 2010.

What emerged from the conference organised by the Kenyan Embassy in the US was a clear determination by the diaspora to “go beyond remittances” and focus on long-term economic transformation as exalted by the conference host, ambassador Elkanah Odembo.

The energy and sense of purpose exhibited by the 500 participants led Karachuonyo MP James Rege to observe that “the diaspora represent a new Kenyan tribe”. He used the term in its most positive sense.

This was not a conference about the diaspora but one on how professionals and entrepreneurs can contribute to Kenya’s long-term economic transformation.

Its theme aptly read: “Identifying Opportunities for Diaspora under Vision 2030”. It was elaborated by the director of the Vision 2030 office, Mr Mugo Kibati.

The conference confirmed four important lessons about diasporas from around the world.

First, they are most effective when they are responding to a national programme of work.

Kenya’s Vision 2030 provided a reference point for this national sense of purpose.

Secondly, countries that are not able to effectively utilise local expertise cannot make good use of their diasporas.

Kenya sent some of its most talented civil servants with proven records in helping to modernise the country’s infrastructure.

Third, countries that value their experts and entrepreneurs will not only attract their diasporas, they will also tap into their global networks irrespective of their nationality.

Finally, diasporas respond to professional incentives. They are more likely to answer a call to contribute to a grand vision than to respond to appeals to nationality.

The conference also helped to demolish misconceptions about the so-called “brain drain”.

The best refutation was a vivid account by Prof Ali Mazrui, who said he was not a particularly good high school student until exposed to higher standards of intellectual pursuit at Makerere University


The logic of Prof Mazrui’s account is that international mobility and the associated upgrading of human competence serve all humanity.

Migration is not necessarily a zero-sum game. Global mobility may, indeed, be the tide that raises all boats. Most benefits accrue to those who have good docking facilities.

The conference provided a glimpse of Kenya’s emerging economic diplomacy. First, there is a clear focus on rethinking conventional approaches to diaspora engagement.

The majority of the presentations were about investment opportunities in Kenya.

The stress on the role of the private sector marked a significant departure from traditional diplomatic efforts focusing on development cooperation.

Major firms such as General Electric are already locating their regional headquarters in Kenya.

GE Africa has recruited Thomas Konditi from the diaspora to join the team that will serve eight countries and oversee $2 billion worth of investment.

The conference emphasised the role of science, technology and higher education as critical sources of economic transformation.

More importantly, Kenya has a lot to learn from India, China and Taiwan on how to engage its scientific and technical diasporas.

The conference came at a time when Kenya is seeking to reposition itself as an economic hub for the Horn of Africa.

Details provided by the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Transport, Dr Cyrus Njiru, on the Lamu Port/ South Sudan/ Ethiopia Corridor revealed the bold scale at which Kenya is seeking to engage its diaspora.

The linkages between governance and development became evident when participants raised concerns about corruption and other risks associated with mega-projects.

But equally important are the opportunities for expanding higher technical training by linking new science and technology to such engineering-based projects.

Prof Juma teaches at Harvard Kennedy School and is author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (OUP, 2011) Twitter: Calestous






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