Nigeria’s diaspora is a source of money, markets, skills and ideas

Agbo Jedi Jedi is a Nigerian herbal preparation that claims to treat just about anything from back pain and haemorrhoids to impotence, for a bargain £4 ($6). It is on sale in the shops of south London’s “little Lagos”, in Peckham, along with many other Nigerian products including yam, pepper soup, paw-paw and spicy jollof rice. This area has the largest concentration of Nigerians in Britain. But just as there are question marks over how many Nigerians live in Nigeria, nobody is sure about the number living abroad. Some Nigerians like to claim a diaspora some 17m strong, which would suggest that about one in ten Nigerians lives overseas, but that is surely fanciful.

Yet official statistics probably greatly underestimate the size of the diaspora, since they are not likely to include illegal immigrants. What is certain, though, is that the number of Nigerians living abroad has increased rapidly in recent decades. Census figures in Britain show that the number of British residents born in Nigeria more than doubled in the decade to 2011, to 191,000, making this the immigrant population with the second-fastest growth, after Poles. A census in America estimated the country’s Nigerian-born population at 221,000. Add in their children, and the diaspora in America swells to just under 400,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The UN reckons that some 1.2m Nigerian-born people currently live abroad.Whatever the exact numbers, that diaspora is an important source of money, markets and skills for its home country. The World Bank estimates that Nigerians abroad sent back some $21 billion in remittances in 2013. That adds up to a quarter of their country’s earnings from oil exports, and more now that the price of oil has fallen. Nigerian expats also buy a lot of stuff made back home. For example, they enjoy films produced in Nollywood, as well as familiar packaged foods, including Maggi condiment cubes. The ones made in Nigeria contain fermented soya, which is reminiscent of Hausa cooking in the country’s north, and are sold in British supermarkets.

Nigerians abroad are generally keen on education; in Britain their children achieve considerably higher marks than white British ones and those of many other immigrant groups. And some American studies suggest that Nigerians are the best-educated ethnic group there. Happily for their home country, many of its young expatriates return after a while, often to start a business. Lagos is awash with bright young graduates of foreign universities who during their stay abroad have acquired an intolerance for corruption and higher expectations of public service. Their impact is pervasive.

Take Amy Jadesimi, the managing director of Ladol, which is building a new dry dock and port. She studied medicine at Oxford, went on to do business studies at Stanford and worked for Goldman Sachs in London before returning home, filled with optimism. “There are very few places in the world where the opportunities are as great, especially because the arbitrage between perceptions and reality is so wide,” she says.

In an airy fashion store and spa, L’Espace, in a smart part of Lagos started by a former expat, a small group of fellow entrepreneurs swap stories about power cuts, shakedowns by officials and the city’s dire fuel shortages. All met through the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance, a network that encourages and supports young Africans who are trying to start businesses. The place may be frustrating, but there are big compensations. Oluwasoga Oni, who returned just a few months ago after studying and working in America, is now trying to start up a medical-devices business. He sums up the feeling: “I just feel alive in Lagos.”

The Economist, June 20th, 2015

 
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