EAC should ease labour mobility

A couple of years ago, I was having drinks in Accra with a Nigerian friend and a couple of his buddies
A teacher and a pupil: Rwanda has been proactive in attracting qualified labour from other EAC countries.  The New Times / File.
A teacher and a pupil: Rwanda has been proactive in attracting qualified labour from other EAC countries. The New Times / File.

A couple of years ago, I was having drinks in Accra with a Nigerian friend and a couple of his buddies. The conversation turned to a mobile company in Nigeria and one of the guys complained about the corporation – a foreign investor – having brought in a ‘small white boy’ to run it. Then they looked at me sheepishly for a second. I shrugged my shoulders: I’m obviously neither small nor a boy. I remembered this when a friend emailed me last week asking for my thoughts on local content policies and labour mobility.

We often think about labour mobility in the north-south context: Multinationals bringing in their own staff, giving preference to imported labour at the expense of local expertise. This can result in just bad PR, but of course it can also mean that a company that doesn’t sufficiently appreciate local professionals runs the risk of not fully understanding its new market. The fear that imported labour will take away job opportunities from citizens translates into more restrictive immigration policy: When they want to recruit foreigners, employers are often made to jump through hoops, having to prove that they tried, and failed, to recruit a national for a position they are seeking to fill. I think that in principle, any investor should have the right to bring their people along with their money, products, services and expertise. More generally, any company should have the right to recruit the most suitable people for the job, not matter where they find them in the world.

This is an issue that will be relevant in the nascent oil industries in the region. Governments –Uganda, and possibly Kenya – have a lot to figure out, especially when faced with the enormous expectations of their citizens. Cold hard cash is one of those, and even under Kenya’s transition to devolved government where counties can raise their own revenues, I suspect this has considerable potential for conflict. Another expectation is that of jobs: If oil is going to be such a massive, important sector of the economy, then surely people will get employed, too, no? Well, probably not much: Oil exploration is capital intense and requires a very specialist expertise. Since both Kenya and Uganda are only just beginning to develop their oil sector, they have very little domestic human resources who have the right qualifications. In Uganda, Tullow Oil have made it part of their CSR activities to help develop this through scholarships, some of which are explicitly reserved for students from Buliisa and Hoima districts
where the oil reserves are.

But then it struck me that labour mobility has another dimension in East Africa, one that has very little to do with Western multinationals of varying degrees of predatory, neo-colonial evil. It is, in fact, very much a local issue. More and more companies, especially Kenyan ones, are looking to build a regional footprint and then expand throughout the rest of the continent: Look at Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), Nation Media Group, UAP Insurance, Commercial Bank of Africa, Fina Bank, Bidco, or Serena Hotels. Kenya Airways of course already has a franchise across and beyond Africa.

On a regional level, Kenya has some of the best human resources: well trained, competent, often internationally experienced. Kenyan companies naturally want to take their own professionals along. But Kenyans also work across the EAC for other companies and are sought-after managers and professionals. Rwanda and Tanzania, for example, both face shortages in qualified human resources, but the two countries have taken a very different approach to dealing with this: Rwanda has been very proactive and worked to eliminate the restrictions that non-nationals from the EAC face (and Kenya has reciprocated this). But then Rwanda is generally very proactive in doing its part in the regional EAC integration process. Tanzania, in contrast, is digging in its heels: Latently suspicious of both capitalism and foreigners, the country often makes it very difficult for any outsider to acquire work permits, which is not just a source of frustration for Kenyan investors in Tanzania. In Tanzania, the mindset is not ‘the more, the
merrier’ when it comes to qualified labour. As far as EAC labour mobility goes, Kenya and Rwanda seem to prioritise competence (although for Kenya, which still takes the lead in overall qualifications, this is relatively easier to do on a political level).

So there are some positive developments in the EAC. And I’m curious to see if these lessons will translate into a more global approach. Ultimately, each company, whether local or international, will have to assess this question on its own: who is the best person for the job? How much technical, how much local market knowledge do we need? In a market economy, companies can (in principle – don’t chuck US banks in there for now) only make mistakes for so long until they go bankrupt, and this will ultimately serve as a corrective in HR and immigration policy decisions.

I wonder: Will Kenya, with its ambitious plans in non-traditional sectors like ICT, overall services, its role as a regional finance and transport hub, its overall potential, just become easier to import people to? Or will it take things up a notch and actively start courting the best people in the global labour market?

Andrea Bohnstedt is the publisher of Ratio Magazine, an East Africa online business magazine, and works as an independent country risk analyst for several international firms.

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