Outward migration from Ghana has long been an established norm of the country’s socio-economic set up. Many crave the opportunity and the advantages, real or perceived that living in Europe, America and other parts of the developed world – so called – bestows.

S Ebow Quainoo, Professor of Political Science at the East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania in the United States of America and himself and emigrant, believes that jobs and the attendant opportunities are the major driving force for outbound migration.

Naturally, the local economy is poorly served by some of its most enterprising and ambitious potential participants leaving for other places, often in the prime of their productive lives. Brain drain, as it is referred to, often means the Ghanaian tax payer losing the services of its dependants soon after their largely subsidized education.

In recent times however, another trend seems to be taking shape. A number of Ghanaian emigrants are returning home to live and work in Ghana. Exact details are not readily available and anecdotal evidence varies as to the significance but there has been an undeniable increase in the number of active economic types who have chosen to once again make a home in the country of their birth.

This is a departure from previous trends where many would only voluntarily repatriate after retirement to enjoy the attention of family and presumably a more hospitable environment in the evening of their lives.

Rudolph Ayertey, Resourcing and Talent Manager at Vodafone Ghana, one of the country’s biggest telecommunications companies, says the trend is visible.

“Over the last two years we have had quite a number of returnees or hopeful returnees approach us and express an interest in coming back to work in Ghana,” he says.

One of such successful returnees is Akwasi Nuamah. After leaving from the University of Cape Coast with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, he travelled to the United Kingdom where he picked up a Masters in Business Administration and a CIMA qualification, worked for blue chip firms such as Eon, lectured at the Coventry University and is now back in Ghana, working at Vodafone as Commercial Solutions Manager.

For Mr Nuamah, this was the path that he always wanted. And it is the path he believes many of his generation aim for.

“Most of the Ghanaians I know, go abroad fully intending to come back. Some go with the intention of enhancing their educational credentials while others seek to amass capital with the intention of setting up businesses back home. The key question is when they will come back; whether they will be willing to stay here. For instance I have a couple of mortgages and so was naturally concerned about how I would pay them on a salary I would be earning here. So there are financial considerations for example. Some would want their kids to get an education over there, etc. So the preparation matters. And the longer you stay, the more integrated you become and the more difficult it will be to leave,” he says.

There are other considerations. Since many leave because of the lack of jobs, it must take some convincing that jobs are now available. Despite much vaunted economic growth, the pace of job creation has not experienced anything near a turbo boost and many potential returnees worry that they may not be able to immediately – or even eventually – secure meaningful and adequate employment.

For some, recruitment can come even before they finally pack their bags and board the plane. For others, it can mean reintegrating into an uncertain environment in which their lack of local experience might count against them. Some have to wait for between six months to a year to find jobs.

While Mr Nuamah agrees that this can be an unsettling challenge, he says it is no different to the initial challenges that many face when they first travel outside of Ghana.

“It’s only a matter of time. It might take some time but you will get something and that’s not too different from the experience of someone who leaves Ghana for abroad. The only challenge is that while you are waiting, you will be spending and you need to have the financial reserves for this wait.”

Mr Ayertey explains that a combination of assessment tools and previous work experience are used in the selection process to establish who is best fit for available roles.

When returnees do get to the workplace, the general consensus is that they exert an overall positive influence.
Professor Quainoo believes these are in the areas of professional ethics, resources and skills. Mr Ayertey says returnees are able to share and implement best practices learnt from elsewhere, specific technical or systems knowledge and their work ethic positively impacts on efficiency and productivity.

To Mr Nuamah, the greatest impact is in how the returnee himself approaches things.  He says what has changed most about him is his “work ethic and the way [I] look at things; the desire to get things done right. I believe finishing is equally as important as how you start the task. I believe over there, I got that sharp edge in not only initiating something but seeing it through.”

The hope is that this attitude will percolate through the workplace and rub off those without the experience of working outside. However, this is not always easy. The wrong approach by the returnee may arouse the obstructive instincts of the notoriously conservative Ghanaian system.

Otema Yirenkyi, who was born in the United Kingdom but is now one of those leading IBM’s geographical expansion into Africa after an earlier stint with PriceWaterhouse Coopers, is well aware of the challenge of reforming the Ghanaian workplace.

While optimistic of the country’s potential, Ms Yirenkyi is realistic about the difficulties.

“It’s difficult in the environment. It’s not that you cannot transform Ghana but it is that the drivers for change don’t seem to exist. So how do you motivate the people to change at the top and at the middle levels? At the universities, for example, you get a lot of fresh and innovative ideas but by the time you get to the work situation, it’s gone. What has happened, I think, is an environment that doesn’t allow for creativity but rewards conformity.”

Which is why, perhaps, Ms Yirenkyi is looking to impact the next generation as well.

“I’m doing a lot with the universities,” she says. “With our Airtel colleagues, for example, we held an innovation competition at the University of Ghana to help build the guys develop their skills. We wanted to get them thinking creatively so we set up an ideas lab. It was very successful and the young student who won will be coming with me to Nairobi for an Africa-wide innovation session; the first time he’s ever travelled outside Ghana.”

Mr Nuamah is doing similar. “Teaching is my passion so recently, I visited the MBA students at the University of Ghana Business School as a guest lecturer on Financial Management. To me, those are some of the small things that we can do to contribute as an example, in moulding the next generation of leaders.”

In the face of the challenges, it is clear that the missionary zeal demonstrated by these two outreaches, for example, is necessary for the greatest impact. Otherwise, one would be easily daunted.

Ms Yirenkyi says “the environment is still a challenge for those who have wealth. You are not protected from environmental challenges, the lack of mobility in the workplace and the infrastructural challenges. So it takes a certain type of person. I see myself as pioneering. You have to say to yourself that whatever it is that you are used to may not exist here in Ghana. But your desire is transformational, to make some kind of impact. There has to be another reason. You have to believe in something else because the lifestyle or money will not be enough.”

Being “home” can also be helpful. Mr Nuamah says the proximity of family is a big boost. Even in the workplace, some comfort can be derived from being in the land of your birth. “To me, being able to interact with my colleagues in a local language is a bonus. There is a physical, emotional and mental advantage. Your gestures and facial expressions can be correctly interpreted by your colleagues.”

While there are clear advantages for the Ghanaian economy and arguably for the returnee as well, not many have taken the one way flight back. While some may be desirous and preparing, others have decided not to, perhaps unwilling to challenge the very difficulties that drove them away.

Ms Yirenkyi believes it will be a good thing if more people return.

“One of the reasons that I think America has had a lot of innovation is that there are many people coming from different environments that come together. In a typical American workplace you have many types of views and ideas and I think that stimulates learning and also generates new ways of resolving things. So I think returnees coming back can offer alternative ways of looking at things. That is not to say that these new ways are better or worse but it brings some new ideas and hopefully, these can have an impact and help resolve whatever the challenges are that we face in Ghana.”

Often, the greatest challenge is in bringing those new ways to bear. Faced with an unwilling system, many despair and conform. Or go back to their adopted countries.

For Mr Nuamah, this is unfortunate. He expects more from those with the varied experience that travel brings.

“If you are a consultant for example, you look at your situation and resolve it. So for the guys who come back, if they are the quality that the Ghanaian economy requires, then they should be able to come back, look at the current gaps and try to fix them. If you are worth your calibre, you should be able to adapt and make do with the limited resources and other issues. So it’s more about the individual than about the system. The difference that someone from abroad can make is to help change the culture, the mindset, the system and that’s a gradual process. We need people who will come to offer solutions.”

Ms Yirenkyi adds that some personal adjustment can also go a long way to smoothen the process of change.

“Sometimes when you are a returnee, people think you think your way is better and that can lead to them being a little standoffish. What I do is I try to tell them that it’s not necessarily better, it’s a different way. And I think if your approach in the Ghanaian workplace that you want to share these new perspectives to see if they will work, they will be more receptive.”

Such different perspectives are undoubtedly required in the Ghanaian workplace. This will mean that some factors will need to come together to attract those with the skills, mindset and experience to effect the needed changes.

Professor Quainoo says government must take some steps. “Government has to be serious about its rhetoric of wanting its citizens back and there should be a program to attract and re-settle citizens back home,” he says.

The Ghanaian corporate system must also have a deliberate programme. Mr Ayertey advocates “a comprehensive induction for returnees once they start work which covers the cross-cultural aspects of working in Ghana, and also speaks to issues around how the family adjusts to Ghana. Stay interviews are another good tool that can be used but they should be integrated into the HR process and should help shape the way the returnee’s career is managed.”

Great effort must come from the prospective returnee, too. Ms Yirenkyi’s recommendation is “you must come with a different mindset. You must be realistic about where you are and with that realism ask “can I bring some new ideas and share some new insights that can help us move forward?” Also, you must not do that in a combative way. “

Mr Nuamah’s advice is altogether more cryptic: close your eyes and jump, making sure your parachute is well fastened.

And if a critical mass of returnees is to come in and help improve the Ghanaian workplace, one hopes that many more will take the advice.