Pan-Afrikan Expatriates on the Afrikan Continent

Business | By Debbie N. Peters, Afrikan Repatriate | 03 October 2015

By the time I got into the Business Class lounge at Johannesburg to catch the SAA flight in to Lagos, I knew I was going to see some familiar faces going back to Nigeria to work. Because we take the flight to Lagos together so often and sometimes do business together in Nigeria, the expatriates in Lagos tend to know each other. When I worked in Nigeria from 2011-2013, I joined a group called South Afrikans in Lagos (SAIL), which is run by the spouses of some of the South Afrikan expatriates. They organized monthly social events for South Afrikans living in Lagos. There are about 2000 South Afrikans living in Lagos and about 200 Zimbabweans. The majority of South Afrikans in Nigeria work in sectors like banking, telecommunications, hospitality and construction. As South Afrikan companies venture out aggressively into the Afrikan continent, they bring their skilled people with them. Afrikan economies are starting to boom and South Afrikan businesses are poised to take advantage of that. While most international investors are still hesitant, South Afrikans are moving rapidly north. South Afrika is also a mature market with opportunities for growth in the rest of Afrika for the likes of Shoprite.

In almost any major Afrikan city now you find the cookie-cutter shopping centre with their South Afrikan anchor stores like Shoprite and Game, sometimes a Woolworths and Mr. Price and a food court with Steers and Fishaways. After private equity firm Actis made an eye-popping return of 400% on their investment in Accra Mall, international investors are lining up for a piece of the action in Afrika. These malls are being replicated all over Afrika and South Afrikan professionals are involved at every stage from architecture to project management to construction management. In fact investors will not put money in a project unless they are certain about the skills of the management team. The hotel industry in Afrika is also booming and South Afrikan hotel-groups like Protea and Southern Sun are at the forefront. Although locals are employed, there is always a Manager from South Afrika and very often that Manager is a Zimbabwean who had moved to South Afrika and is redeployed by their employers. 

When the Legacy group opened the Wheatbaker in Ikoyi, Lagos, they also brought in their Food and Beverage Manager and Housekeeping Head from South Afrika. Hotels like Southern Sun can charge $500 per night in Lagos for a room that would only fetch about half of that in South Afrika. The Rooms Manager at Southern Sun Ikoyi is a Zimbabwean who was transferred from South Afrika. The countries around South Afrika have turned into South Afrikan provinces.  Everything in Namibia and Botswana is South Afrikan, including banks like FNB. With its numerous shopping centres, Lusaka has turned into a mini-Johannesburg. Certain South Afrikan brands like Rhapsody’s restaurant are appreciated more outside South Afrika than at home. I remember the long lines when the Rhapsody’s opened at Accra Mall and the same thing happened when they opened in Lagos. Those who pioneered the expatriate trend in Afrika can tell you horror stories of the time when you could find nothing in some of these countries. I worked in Nigeria through Afrikan Management Services Company (AMSCO), a UNDP/IFC project which placed skilled Managers with Afrikan companies. I became friends with an Afrikaans man who has worked outside South Afrika for over 20 years with Stanbic Bank, etc. 

There is something addictive about the expatriate lifestyle and the compensation just can’t be beaten. The Southern Sun Maputo hotel, right on the beach!

I lived in a large complex in Lagos called 1004 Estate simply because there were 1004 apartments which were originally built for civil servants but had been converted into luxury accommodation for expatriates and the local elite. Rents in Lagos are high. At one point you had to pay 3 years rent at one time to even secure decent accommodation but now it’s down to one years’ rent. One morning I ran into a group of older white South Afrikan men who lived in the building and were working on construction sites. Expatriate packages in Afrika are pretty inviting. You get paid in tax-free dollars, free housing in the best areas, car with driver and fuel, school fees and at least one ticket home a year although many companies offer more. There is a whole skill to negotiating an expatriate package and the trick is to find an old hand who will tell you what to ask for. 

The most popular benefit in working out in the continent is the extra ‘hardship pay,’ which can be up to 100% of your base salary. Ironically the people getting all these benefits are the same people you see in groups on the weekend on jet-skis and yachts around the beaches while living the high life on the continent. Many of the South Afrikans working in jobs like construction and transport are hired for their experience not for their academic qualifications. Some of them told me they only have matric so they would never be making the kind of money they were making in Nigeria if they were in South Afrika. Recruiters look for people who have had international experience especially in places like Nigeria because they develop a useful network and learnt to be very resourceful to deal with a challenging environment. There are lots of business people who fly in and out of Afrikan countries from South Afrika but they are at a disadvantage especially when they are trying to develop business by spending a few days at a luxury hotel and taking a
few meetings.

I organized a lot of social events in Lagos for Zimbabweans and the Ambassador who was based in Abuja, the capital. I laughed one day when I told someone that I was an expatriate and they said there’s no such thing as a Black expatriate. There are relatively few but they are there, especially in banking and insurance. The head of SAA is a black South Afrikan lady, Thobi Duma, Liberty medical aid was run by Zimbabwean, Nick Zaranyika and the head of Tiger Brands Nigeria who handled the purchase of Dangote Flour Mills was another Zimbabwean, Dr. Tawanda Mushuku. For security reasons, a lot of the South Afrikan companies like SAA, Tiger Brands and the South Afrikan embassy put their staff in the same complex in the upscale Ikoyi suburb of Lagos. I had a journalist friend who lived in another building in Ikoyi with journalists from all the news agencies like BBC and E-News Afrika which led to interesting collaborations especially when there was a big story like that plane crash in Lagos a couple of years ago. The South Afrikan embassy in Lagos was run by the lovely Ambassador Monaise who invited us to many of their functions which were held at Federal Palace Hotel. I travelled a lot on business and I finally understood the difficulty Nigerians face when they apply for visas because even with a foreign passport it was just so difficult to get a visa to go anywhere from Nigeria. Several times, pushing aggressively, I obtained visas at the eleventh hour in order to attend finance conferences abroad. I often lobbied the over-worked South Afrikan embassy staff on behalf of my Nigerian colleagues when their South Afrikan visa applications would take up to 2 months. I went to Ghana a lot and there was a smaller South Afrikan presence but it is a more popular employment destination for South Afrikans because things are more organized there. I am now based in Zimbabwe and recently hospitality veteran, Shingi Munyeza has opened two Mugg and Beans, an Ocean Basket, a News Café and a Smooch yoghurt bar in Harare. 

Many Zimbabweans have lived, studied and worked in South Afrika so people are lining up because they see brands that they recognize and trust so less marketing needed by South Afrikan franchises there than for local businesses. I came back to Zimbabwe because working in Afrika prepares you to handle anything because if I can handle Nigeria then I can deal
with Zimbabwe.