Angel Jones’s office at Homecoming Revolution is neat, professional and as tranquil as the surface of a pond. The mid-morning sun floods through the windows, adding a shimmer to an eye-catching fixture mounted to the wall – a pair of bronzed angel wings.
It’s the room next door that reveals the frenzied work below the surface. Jones and her staff are busy finalising the first Homecoming Expo in four years, set for London on 15 and 16 March. Papers cascade off the table in what she calls the “sweat room”. Newsprint pasted to all four walls are a riot of lists and columns and colour, helping the staff keep track and make sense of the task ahead of them.
Fifteen years ago, after seven years working in London, Jones felt the tug of home when she heard Nelson Mandela speak in Trafalgar Square. She came back to South Africa and, in 2003, set up Homecoming Revolution as a non-profit organisation to encourage expatriates to return to the country and smooth their trip home.
Watch: Homecoming Revolution Africa – It’s time to come home:
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With just over a month to go to the London Expo there are still details to be finalised. For the first time, Homecoming Revolution is targeting not just South Africans but people from all across Africa who want to return.
“We are expecting 2 000 delegates over the two days who want to hear from people who have returned and who are able to speak about the opportunities in Africa,” says Jones. “There are micro details that need to get sorted. Do we have corporates from across the continent? Is everyone able to make their speaking slot? For the first time we are bringing together Africans to celebrate the continent – it’s not just South Africans or Nigerians or Ugandans interested in their own part of the continent.”
At the expo, corporations will showcase opportunities across sub-Saharan Africa. The focus is on getting the talent of the diaspora to return to Africa – but not necessarily to their own countries. “We want South Africans to consider opportunities in Lagos,” she says. “Or a Kenyan who wants to work in South Africa. We are there to provide assistance. It is important at this point in time that we celebrate the wider Africa.”
“The global slowdown has made Africa attractive, but the fact that Africa is on the rise is the reason so many educated Africans are looking to return. They see that Africa offers them a chance to be innovative and entrepreneurial in their careers.”
The Homecoming Revolution message is simple: Africa needs the skills its citizens in the diaspora have acquired. The continent is on the cusp of greater prosperity, and it will take the talents of all of its people to grow it. As more expat Africans want to give back, the expo, taking place at the Olympia Conference Centre in London, will showcase opportunities and to provide assistance to those ready to return.
Jones says Africa stays in your blood, and it is simply the role of initiatives like Homecoming Revolution to engage with people who want to return and to smooth the path home. “We began as an NGO and are stilled underpinned by the idea that Africa deserves its skills back. People are mobilising around that idea. They want to play their part, whether it’s by returning or investing or using their skills to mentor while on holiday.”
The wave of immigration will benefit the continent, Jones says. While a significant minority are Europeans looking for an escape from an economy in the doldrums, the fact that the majority are successful Africans returning home is good news. For the most part they are Africans with skills in finance, engineering and construction, nursing and even retail. “These are people who have developed global relationships and, most important, they are people who know how to apply them in an African context.”
Being part of something bigger
The decision to return is a personal one and, for those who make the leap, career advancement is the least important factor. Jones has found that those who haggle over an employment package are not ready to return and will leave as soon as a better offer comes along.
“Africans choose to return because they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. For me the trigger was hearing Mandela speak in Trafalgar Square. For others it is marriage or the birth of a child.”
Being close to family and friends becomes important once you begin a family, she says. Also, she chuckles, don’t underestimate the lure of the lifestyle. You may have pictures of yourself in front of the Eiffel Tower to show off, but your friends who stayed behind own their home, have cars and house help.
Going home isn’t easy
On a cold snowy day in London returning to sunny Africa may seem like the perfect dream, but there are snags to overcome once you are back. Not hiding these has helped the staff at Homecoming Revolution ease the path for returnees. “We don’t pretend everything will be perfect, we tell people it will be hard to settle. We tell them there will be frustrations to manage their expectations. Little things like opening a bank account or choosing a school or where to get fresh vegetables … there are people who have dealt with these annoyances and you can talk to them.”
Africa may be full of problems, but six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world over the past decade have been African. By 2015 the African middle class – people with an income of $3 000 a year – will number around 100-million. For every entrepreneur who returns and starts a business there are nine people, in both the formal and informal economy, who benefit.
Jones realises that bureaucratic red tape is a stumbling block that adds to the stress of rebuilding a life in Africa. Homecoming Revolution helps with the little annoyances like applying for visas for a spouse and children or with the transfer of funds into the country. “The biggest concern for a lot of people who come to us is a work visa for a foreign spouse,” she says.
“We are looking for ways to build a stronger relationship with the government. People want their kids to grow up barefoot on the grass, they want to feel like they are building their own nation, but they need help with the practical things. We fill this crazy void to help fast-track their return.”
Written by Sulaiman Philip for SouthAfrica.info