NAIROBI — When Nyokabi Waweru returned home to Kenya after graduating from Jilin University in Changchun, northeast China, she expected to have improved her opportunities in the local job market with a degree from an international university and the ability to now speak fluent Chinese.
But there weren’t as many options as she hoped.
“I went for an interview at an embassy and was dismissed as they said I lacked Kenyan experience,” she told Semafor Africa. Waweru, 30, now works as a translator for a Chinese company and said many other Kenya students with whom she graduated ended up working as translators for Chinese clients in Nairobi and other cities. Some had studied engineering and had other technical skills usually sought after in Kenya’s job market.
Vivian Weiwei, 26, a political science graduate from Kenya who studied at Donghua University in Shanghai, said it was only easy finding a job by applying to Chinese firms in Kenya after she returned home in 2021. She soon landed a job at the Kenyan subsidiary of the Chinese mobile handset brand, Oppo. “With the lack of employment opportunities in the country, the secret is in knowing where to look. I knew exactly where I could use my skills,” she said.
There has been a surge in African students moving to China to study over the past two decades encouraged and enabled with affordable tuition fees, scholarships, and a more straightforward student visa process than many Western countries in recent years.
But C. Geraud Byamungu, a lead researcher and the Francophone Africa Editor at media publication China Global South Project, said his recent research showed that over 77% of those who graduated from Chinese universities returned to their home countries immediately afterwards due to “stringent” rules for Chinese work visas making it an “uphill task” for foreigners.
Returning African graduates are often “not channeled into Africa–China projects and they are also unable to compete in the job market,” according to research published by China International Strategy Review in 2021. “Returning African graduates are labeled “orphans of Chinese education” in their home countries as they remain unemployed for long periods.”
Exposure to the world’s second-largest economy should, in theory, open doors for graduates when they return to African countries. But many return to unemployment and skepticism about the quality of their education, with some employers preferring graduates from Western universities. It’s a missed opportunity for African governments for whom partnering and negotiating with China has become essential to their economic development.
George Kiptum, who graduated with an economics degree from Capital University in Beijing in 2016, told me his prospects of finding a government job since he returned home to Kenya, had proven to be something of a “mirage“.
The problems are not unique to Kenya, say the experts I spoke with. It points to a disconnect in the way many African countries view their human capital, argues Dr. Tobi Oshodi, a researcher at Lagos State University in Nigeria. “There lacks any clear strategy to hire Africans who return after their studies to utilize their expertise and knowledge in advancing Africa-China relations in their countries,” he told Semafor Africa.
Having graduates in more key government ministries and working with local African companies trying to export to China would be valuable for both sides, with the biggest beneficiaries likely to be African nations who have long been in a lopsided relationship with their Chinese counterparts. Countries that invest in understanding the relationship with Africa’s largest trading partner more holistically stand to gain a great deal in the long term.
Room for Disagreement
When it comes to job opportunities, “the issue for most African students is not where they got their degree but the lack of jobs at home,” said Hannah Wanjie Ryder, the CEO of Development Reimagined, a global development consultancy. She also noted that more African embassies in China are retaining former students as junior diplomats. “So students are not just going home to work for Chinese companies or forgetting their China experience. They’re also working for governments,” Ryder told Semafor Africa. “This helps for example with translation but also appropriate cultural communications and networking.”
The View From SHANGHAI
“There is an increasing demand for Africans with knowledge of the Chinese language as more investors from China settle in the continent for economic or other reasons,” Wei Qunshan, an associate professor at Donghua University, told Semafor Africa. He said Beijing would continue to provide opportunities for African students to study and work in Chinese institutions and companies on the continent.
- “The African continent has cornered the market on 18- to 23-year-olds for the next 25 years,” Lydiah Kemunto Bosire, the founder of an educational technology platform told U.S. publication the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article exploring exploring whether the continent is “the next big thing” in international university admissions.