How “repats” can successfully prepare their return to Africa

Posted by Fed Africa in Career advice
Posted at 07/02/2022
How “repats” can successfully prepare their return to Africa
(Interview) Thirty-four-year-old Tunisian and top manager working in the digital and e-commerce industries, Fares Belghith, made a choice in 2018 that marked a turning point in his professional career. Having expatriated to Europe then to Kenya and Nigeria, he decided at that time to return to Tunisia, his country of origin. 

More and more African talents are following in Mr. Belghith’s footsteps, returning home to pursue their career and contribute to the economic expansion in their native land and across the African continent. He hereafter shares his experience with top and middle management candidates who are thinking of moving back to Africa. Besides offering advice, he more importantly talks about the right questions to ask oneself before taking the plunge. 

FedAfrica: Having moved back to your country after spending many years abroad, what are your thoughts on repatriation? How did it go for you, especially from a professional viewpoint, and what difficulties did you encounter?

Fares Belghith: I really think repatriation is worthwhile. It depends on the context because there are many different situations in Africa but, in the main, the African continent is overflowing with markets with huge potential and interesting new developments. It’s just important to be psychologically prepared given that some things will be harder than elsewhere. I’m thinking of local management in particular: if you previously expatriated to Europe or the United States, you’ll need to adapt as working in Tunisia and certain African countries can be quite different. If I were to describe it in a nutshell, I’d say it’s often vertical and hierarchical but doesn’t work if it’s too authoritarian. In Tunisia, for example, a manager must be close to his/her teams in order to get the best out of them. But participative management is sometimes lacking. 

There’s also a need to adapt to different levels of professional ethics. I had to deal with departures with no handover, which is something I’d never seen abroad. Then there’s the time clock system, which tends to strip employees of their sense of responsibility, especially when you’re a top management senior. All these things need to be adapted to.

FedAfrica: Let’s talk about an essential matter for middle and top management candidates who have decided to return to their country of origin after a period of expatriation: salary negotiation. How did that go for you and what advice would you give?

FB: Salary negotiation is one of the most delicate aspects of repatriation and may require certain sacrifices: I personally agreed to a wage that is 2 to 3 and a half times less than what I was getting abroad. Despite that, I was still receiving a top tier wage for my profile by local market standards. However, I was happy to give back to the country that had given me so much. In return for lower wages, corporations offer their staff attractive perks such as a company car and great healthcare coverage; they sometimes even provide housing for top management staff. 

My advice with regards to negotiating one’s pay within the local job market is to emphasize things the company hasn’t yet really started developing. With certain tech positions, for example, such as data scientist, big data expert or machine-learning specialist, or in the areas of fintech or e-commerce, everything remains to be done. Therefore, if you have any of these skills, you have good leverage for negotiation.

Aside from that, it really depends on what you want. In general, if you choose to work for a family business, your wage won’t increase much but you’ll have a certain stability. I personally think it’s better to go for new structures such as start-ups or scale-ups as they tend to offer a more advantageous work environment and better pay.

Last but not least, you also have big multinationals that practice a corporate approach for middle and top management that’s pretty similar to what you find in other geographical zones. They offer slightly higher wages than family businesses but they definitely won’t promote you to a key Supply Chain post, for example, unless you have substantial experience in a similar area. 

FedAfrica: How did you go about looking for a job when you returned to your country? What advice would you give to middle and top management candidates who have chosen this option?

FB: It was almost entirely a cooption in my case - a contact of mine who had heard about a vacant position. Sometimes the job offer isn’t even made public, or it might be sent to head-hunters by a recruitment agency or via the various managers. My main piece of advice would be to build one’s network. If you’re planning on returning to your country of origin after a period of expatriation, it’s important to advertise it to people around you or people you know who are already established in that country. 

Job offers for posts in multinational corporations will be a little easier to find – on career websites or professional social networks like LinkedIn, which is still the go-to network for start-ups. You can also find opportunities on websites or online recruitment agencies that are more or less selective and that specialize in middle & top management recruitment. But I personally think that networking is the best method for job-hunting at a middle and top management level. 

FedAfrica : Est-ce que le retour au pays doit se préparer longtemps à l’avance ? Quelles sont les bonnes questions à se poser ? Y a-t-il un moment idéal pour la repatriation ?

FB: My answer to the first two questions is definitely “yes!” You need to give yourself enough time to prepare for it as recruitment processes can sometimes be long. The main issue is knowing if one is truly ready to take the plunge and return to one’s homeland. One needs to take the time to ponder the question: Am I really ready to experience this change? Because one of the risks one might come up against is the phenomenon of reverse culture shock. Often, when we leave our country of origin, we tend to idealize it thereafter. Nostalgia can cloud our judgment, making us forget the more negative aspects of our homeland.
To anyone who is thinking of going back home to live, I advise them to do a kind of “soft landing.” In other words, don’t just move back abruptly, don’t totally cut yourself off from the situation you’ve established abroad. If you can find a way to work part-time in your country of origin, spending 3 or 4 months there in a row, it’s the best way to get a grip on what it’s like to live there currently and all the aspects of daily life. These are things one can’t really gauge when going back there just for vacations. 

Also, as far as repatriation is concerned, there’ll be a naturally right time in one’s personal and professional life to go ahead and do it. There’ll also be a right time from the viewpoint of the country in question’s socio-economic context. Many African countries, such as Morocco, Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt currently have very good momentum. The ”right time” for middle and top management candidates depends on their own career path. One mustn’t wait too long or one can become too expensive to hire! In this case scenario, specialized senior top managers with a substantial background may not be able to find a suitable position. As for the ideal age for returning to one’s homeland, I’d say it’s between 28 and 32. Returning before then may lead to some frustration and moving back after that age may be risky in terms of being able to adapt.

Repats: abbreviation of “repatriates”, as opposed to “expatriates” or expats.