Does increased entrepreneurship in the South imply less migration?

“Migrants are the biggest entrepreneurs”

We mustn’t kid ourselves, migration is here to stay, and will likely even increase, but it also presents an opportunity. Promoting local entrepreneurship is a must to achieve more prosperity, better healthcare and education. That was the general tenor of the debate at the OVO conference: ‘Does increased entrepreneurship in the South imply less migration?’

OVO chairperson Luc Bonte puts things in perspective: “Migration from south to north will not reduce in the decades ahead, but is bound to increase.” Studies show the exodus will only decline when the average annual income reaches USD 8,000 to USD 10,000. “Until such time, richer countries will remain much more attractive”.  Voka managing director Hans Maertens is of the same opinion: “‘Economic migration is as old as the hills. People have always moved to places where things are better.” What is more, ‘Migrants are the biggest entrepreneurs’, according to Eugenio Ambrosio, regional director of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

High degree of digitalization

VUB professor Jonathan Holslag is of the opinion that encouraging entrepreneurship won’t make such a big difference. “The problem is that there is hardly any industrialization in Africa. Compared to the rest of the world, the whole continent boasts about 900 robots.” Since 2012 the gross national income has even declined every year to USD 2,100. “Many have smartphones, so the level of digitalization is high, but it has to be accompanied by traditional connectivity: good roads and transport systems.” Jonathan Holslag puts the migration issue in perspective too: “Only a small fraction of the 1.4 billion Africans move away.” Laura Palatini, IOM chief of mission Belux, found the same. “We hear too much about tragedies and too little about facts.” Migration involves 3% of the world population, but generates 10% of the gross national income. A huge amount of money flows back to home countries via the Diaspora every year.

Brain drain

“Economic support will not stem the flow of migration, but it is necessary for a country to develop, to prevent brain drain,” says Jean-François Maystadt, associate professor at the University of Antwerp. Hans Maertens pointed out that we actually need those brains: “In the next five years 350,000 Belgians will retire, while there is only an influx of 250,000.” He acknowledged at the same time that “entrepreneurship will certainly help Africa”. It may be too little, too late, but we must certainly make the effort. Education, political stability and transparency are critical. Assita Kanko, founder of Polin, pointed out the disparities between men and women, but “there is tremendous potential in Africa. We just need to show the other side of Africa.” But she wonders whether entrepreneurship will actually lead to more respect, more deference.

Education and development

The story of the Belgian business Denys from Wondelgem, that is particularly active in Africa, warmed the heart. This specialist in pipelines and infrastructure has a turnover of EUR 370 million and employs 2,500 people, of which a third are from Africa. “We have to train African managers and give them the opportunity to develop. Europeans are too expensive and there is no reason whatsoever why properly trained and formed Africans cannot do the work of our expats. It is already the case for 50% of the higher functions, said general manager Bruno Geltmeyer.
“Both host and home countries must make work of managing the economic migration. It is incredibly important to encourage local entrepreneurship and will also help create a middle class that will hold governments accountable for proper governance and less corruption,” moderator and OVO employee Freddy De Mulder summarized. “Knowledge sharing and financing as handled by Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs can certainly help with this.”
The OVO conference took place in the BNP Paribas Fortis auditorium in Brussels, where more than 200 attendees turned up.
A numerous turnout. (Photos: Peter Mockers)