Compounding Africa’s struggles with an inadequate healthcare system, the continent is dealing with a scientific brain drain problem that demands attention.

In January, Tulio de Oliveira and Cheryl Baxter published an article in Science magazine titled “Investing in Africa’s scientific future.” In it the authors described the fact that Africa currently bears a disproportionate burden of infectious diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis, and cholera, and 25% of the global disease burden, yet “African-led research has contributed less than 1% of the scientific literature.” 

A big part of the problem is the dearth of African scientists to conduct research necessary to significantly improve the prevalence of disease on the continent. Despite the continent ramping up on training of scientists, many are leaving. Christian Happi, the director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases, notes “We’re dealing with all these brain drain… as we are training they are leaving and it is difficult to replace.”

What’s the continent to do? Perhaps it’s a good idea to suggest what African countries and organizations shouldn’t do. 

First, they shouldn’t force people to stay. If individuals possess sought-after skills needed in wealthier nations, it would be impractical for the continent to compel those who wish to depart to stay. 

Second, they shouldn’t blame those who leave the continent to take advantage of better opportunities for themselves and their families. As we described in our book, The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty, the average person wants to make progress. This force to make progress is so strong that people do all sorts of things to migrate to wealthier countries to grasp at the opportunity for progress and prosperity. 

Third, while it may be challenging, it’s crucial not to view the departure of scientists solely through a negative lens. Although the loss of scientific talent is detrimental to the continent’s progress in building its healthcare infrastructure, working to understand the phenomenon can offer insights into enhancing Africa’s healthcare system.

Here are two thoughts for leaders in this space to consider. 

1. Understand why people leave and why some stay

One of the most important lessons I learned from the late Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, is that fighting with gravity is a losing battle. Instead of fighting with gravity, we should seek to understand the phenomenon, and then use that understanding for good. The same idea applies with the scientific brain drain. We must treat it as gravity. It is going to happen, especially as the world becomes more globalized. But understanding why people leave in exit interviews and surveys of those who have left can offer insight into how to build a program that mitigates loss.

For example, asking questions such as the following can help an organization get a deeper sense for how to build an environment where more people stay: Are some positions prone to leaving more than others? How long do staff in a particular position typically stay with the organization before leaving? How many staff do we have to hire or train before we find the one that stays? Why do people stay? If people leave for educational opportunities, should these African organizations offer tuition reimbursement or educational assistance programs? How can these organizations make the experience of working at an African scientific research organization similar to or more prestigious than working at a European or American institution? 

Leaning into these questions and others can help leaders develop employment experiences that match the importance of the work these African scientists are doing. 

2. Build migration into your business model

How can African scientific organizations take advantage of the shortage of scientists and healthcare workers globally? Although the shortage is most pronounced in Africa, it presents an opportunity to train individuals with the expectation that they will likely migrate to other countries. Thus, organizations can develop paid training programs, establish relationships with entities in wealthier nations, and position themselves as addressing the global workforce shortage in this sector. 

The Philippines seems to have taken advantage of the migration phenomenon. Since 1960 more than 150,000 Filipino nurses have emigrated to the United States. Although the country represents just 1% of the U.S. population, it accounts for approximately 5% of its nursing workforce. In fact, outsourcing in the Philippines adds around $30 billion to the country’s economy annually according to Prime Outsourcing, a business outsourcing firm.

As Tulio de Oliveira notes, “Aspiring scientists frequently seek educational and career opportunities abroad, leading to a substantial loss of talent and expertise from the continent. This talent migration, referred to as ‘brain drain,’ exacerbates the existing training gaps and hampers the sustainability of research within Africa.” 

The migration is already happening. The question is, how can these organizations take advantage of the phenomenon?


  • Efosa Ojomo
    Efosa Ojomo

    Efosa Ojomo is a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and co-author of The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty. Efosa researches, writes, and speaks about ways in which innovation can transform organizations and create inclusive prosperity for many in emerging markets.