Diaspora in business: Beyond aid, towards partnerships

Development Policy,Diaspora Inclusion15 Feb 2021Yannicke Goris, Kiza Magendane, Marina Diboma

As a member of the Cameroonian diaspora in The Netherlands, Marina Diboma is a well-known figure within the Dutch and African business community – both because of her position as Deputy Managing Director of the Netherlands-African Business Council (NABC) and her public appearances as an advocate for improved business relations between The Netherlands and African countries. Over the past 12 years, Marina has organised a wide range of trade missions and business events that facilitated exchange between the Dutch and African private sector. “My work is about making a business case for Africa within The Netherlands.” This article is a reflection of a conversation The Broker had with Marina about her work and vision regarding the role and future of African diaspora entrepreneurs in The Netherlands. 

Tapping into the diaspora potential: a two-way street

“The African continent is still associated with negative images such as poverty and illness,” Marina begins. Correcting this image has been one of her key drivers over the past decade. “As leader of the NABC, I see it as my role to bring a new perspective and tell the untold stories of the African continent here in The Netherlands. A changed perception of Africa helps ensure that the Dutch private sector will see the many opportunities available on the continent.” Within her role, Marina also makes a business case for The Netherlands within Africa. This means that she works on convincing various African governments and companies to do business with The Netherlands. The NABC-leader believes that in order to realise sustainable and inclusive development, African countries need to improve their partnerships with international actors, including (the Dutch) private sector. “We need a strategy that combines aid and trade. Aid should facilitate trade and empower the private sector in Africa.  I don’t believe in aid when it is money being given as charity. [I believe in aid] when it takes the form of a collaboration between institutions and knowledge exchange,” Marina argues. “Both African and Western partners need to know how to work with one another. That is my perception of development cooperation; it goes both ways. I believe that if you have strong partners on both sides, there is room for long-term collaboration.” To illustrate her argument, Marina refers to the cooperation within the European Union, where the Netherlands conducts business with other member states. “[In such arrangements] The Netherlands is not helping Germany, nor is Germany helping the Netherlands. These countries collaborate based on common interests. I hope that at some point, The Netherlands-Africa cooperation can move beyond aid as well,” Marina concludes.

“Both African and Western partners need to know how to work with one another. That is my perception of development cooperation; it goes both ways.”

In order to establish long-term relationships between the Dutch and African private sector, Marina sees an important role for the African diaspora in The Netherlands. “It is already known that the diaspora sends money back home, but I don’t believe that this is where change will come from. I see the diaspora as key players who bring new perspectives to Dutch organisations that are operating in their countries of origin,” Marina states. For members of the diaspora who embark on the journey of entrepreneurship, Marina argues that their understanding of both the Dutch and African context creates an opportunity – an argument similar to the one made by Saskia Kloezeman, Georgina Kwakye and other authors in this dossier. Diaspora entrepreneurs, Marina suggests, could be highly valuable for Dutch companies to help them set up daughter organisations in Africa. “There is a great number of ambitious diaspora entrepreneurs in various business sectors, including healthcare, real estate and agribusiness. While some Dutch companies have discovered the importance of engaging with the diaspora for establishing local relations in African countries, I think that the Dutch private sector can still do more to tap into this pool of African professionals in The Netherlands.” She further argues that the current Covid-19 pandemic underlines the importance of the diaspora. Thanks to their ability to speak local languages and willingness to stay in their country of origin despite the changing circumstances, diaspora professionals are enabling companies to stay connected with their local branches, despite lockdowns, travel-bans and other measures to combat the pandemic.  


Standing out in the business crowd

Because of her work, Marina Diboma has been described as a ‘relationship therapist’ for Dutch and African businesses. As Marina is intimately familiar with the very different frameworks both actors are operating from, she manages to build bridges between the Dutch and African business communities. “When I started leading business delegations in various Africa countries, I noticed that many partners were not expecting someone like me. They were used to having a white person leading such business delegations, and mostly a white male person.” 

Being a young woman, with both African and Dutch backgrounds, Marina may stand out, but she does not regard this as something negative. “Over the past years, I have noticed that my position creates a certain trust among our African partners,” she explains. This trust is generated by the fact that the African business partners get the impression that Marina can relate to both the Dutch and African perspective, which makes her a unique character in such business communities. “As an individual, I find it important that wherever partnership is discussed, it should lead to win-win outcomes. I have found myself in situations where such outcomes were hampered by mutual misunderstandings between Dutch and African business partners. In such situations, I tried to make sure that both partners did come to understand one another. That is why I like describing myself as a bridge-builder between the two worlds.”  

Marina recalls her efforts over the past years to convince Dutch partners that, despite grave security challenges in the area, the Sahel is an interesting region to invest in. Eventually, she succeeded in fostering a collaboration between Dutch embassies and the private sector in the Sahel region. “At the end of the process, the feedback I received from local partners was: ‘the way you collaborated with us is very different from what we have known in the past with other western organisations. You always recognised our values and our strengths, and despite our differences you gave us the space to have a say’. They felt respected and valued. Not only in the process, but also in the outcome,” Marina recalls. “I was not conscious of my approach back then, but I think it is a big compliment to receive from an African organisation that you work with. Even though I came from The Netherlands, they still felt that I understood them that I was working towards a partnership from which both the Dutch and local partners would benefit.”

A job cut out

To ensure the potential of the African diaspora is harnessed more effectively, Marina points to several conditions that both sides need to meet. For members of the African diaspora to become successful – as entrepreneurs or employees – it is important that they understand the business culture of The Netherlands and that of their country of origin. This includes, among others, mastering the language of their country of origin as well as the Dutch language. Marina also argues that having a long-term perspective on working in Africa is a critical precondition for the ambitious members of the African diaspora. This means that, if they are to have a real impact and create a successful business, their endeavours should go beyond a short adventure but rather be built on a vision for the future and include efforts to build an extensive network with local partners.   

Dutch enterprises also have their work cut out for them if they want to successfully tap into the available pool of diaspora entrepreneurs and professionals. Marina argues that these businesses should adopt recruitment policies that take the specific position of diaspora professionals into account. “Most of the times I hear companies saying that they do not know where to find talents with a migrant background.” One option to address this, Marina suggests, is to organise in-house days aimed specifically at African talents in The Netherlands, allowing the diaspora professionals to get to know the companies. “I see that a lot of diaspora talents are very critical and want to understand the vision of the company before they consider working for it. That is why it is important that companies communicate about their vision and how they facilitate diversity within their organisations,” Marina explains. This vision on diversity, Marina emphasizes, should not be so-called ‘window dressing’. Instead, companies should develop a clear strategic plan on how to accommodate people from various backgrounds within their organisation. “Only with such a genuine and open approach will Dutch companies operating in Africa become more attractive for the rich pool of diaspora talents.” 

Although Marina recognises a trend where companies increasingly employ members of the diaspora to successfully conduct their business activities in Africa, she warns that diversity is still lagging behind when it comes to higher positions. “I would like to see more diversity on the executive level within those companies. Both on the continent and here in The Netherlands. True change takes place when various perspectives are included in the decision-making process.” Marina hopes that the trend she observes will soon extend to the executive level and more companies will recruit members of the diaspora for their senior positions. 

As a final key task for Dutch companies, Marina stresses the importance of investing in the individual growth of diaspora talents. “I am not saying that everyone will be a success story. But as a company, if you are lucky enough to have recruited a diaspora talent who is really ambitious and wants to grow with you, you have the responsibility to invest in the growth of this individual.” Stimulating such individual growth, Marina believes, can be part of a company’s overall growth strategy in Africa: By fostering the development of the talents in your organisation, the organisation will grow along with them. 

“I would like to see more diversity on the executive level within those companies. Both on the continent and here in The Netherlands. True change takes place when various perspectives are included in the decision-making process.”

Image via Marina Diboma

Where the magic happens 

Based on her experience, Marina has come to believe that circular migration is a valuable mechanism for both African communities and the Dutch private sector. In addition to working with diaspora talent living in The Netherlands, Marina argues, Dutch companies could greatly benefit from hiring African talent to fulfil specific sectoral shortages. That is why the NABC, in partnership with IOM The Netherlands, is implementing MATCH, a three year pilot project that supports Dutch companies to capitalise on African professionals for job positions that are difficult to fill locally or even at the European level. Simultaneously, the project aims to promote existing legal pathways for highly skilled candidates from Nigeria and Senegal to work temporarily in Dutch companies. It is a form of circular migration that is beneficial for the hiring companies and at the same time allows African job seekers to upgrade their skills in Europe and increase their employability upon return to their home countries. 

In the long run, Marina argues, this circular migration leads to win-win situations for both the migrants and the hiring company. “I am aware that taking the step to establish a local presence in an African country can be a great challenge for Dutch companies,” Marina notes. However, if a company has employed African talents to develop their skills in The Netherlands, they can thereafter operate as bridging agents. An exchange period in The Netherlands enables the African talent to learn about the company, its objectives and working culture. “If you tap into the pool of young talent in Africa and let them work in The Netherlands, […] there is a high chance that these talents will be highly successful in representing your business interests in their home country afterwards.” This bridging function applies specifically, Marina argues, to marketing and sales. Having worked in The Netherlands, African talent has an understanding of both ‘business worlds’, and as such can help Dutch companies to market their products and services in a way that fits the specific context of the African country they are operating in. “The way that marketing and sales strategy is set up in The Netherlands is very different from the way you would do it in Ghana, Cameroon or Ivory Coast,” Marina explains. “You need to be aware of local sensitivities and tell the story of your product in a way your local clients can relate to. Who can do this better than someone who is from there and also understands the Dutch company?” Marina asks. “When you have an understanding of both the Dutch situation and of the specific market conditions in the particular African country – that is where the magic happens.”

The government’s turn

While both diaspora talents and the Dutch private sector have a role to play in strengthening Dutch business activities in Africa, Marina underlines that the responsibility of the Dutch government should not be overlooked. “For quite some time, I have been observing the Dutch government arguing that there is no added value in funds that specifically target diaspora entrepreneurs. But I do not think that the current ‘one size fits all’ solution for entrepreneurship work. In my opinion, we need to look at the background of various entrepreneurs,” Marina argues. With less social and financial capital, diaspora entrepreneurs usually have a relatively lower starting position than their Dutch counterparts. This limits their ability to conduct effective business activities in their countries of origin and in the Netherlands, despite their ambitious business plans. “When we look at crowdfunding initiatives where Dutch entrepreneurs announce their start-ups and products, you see that their friends and family often put in a lot of money. That is not always the case with the African diaspora, due to this lack of financial and social capital,” Marina notes. That is why she argues that there is a “serious need for instruments that allow the upcoming generation of diaspora entrepreneurs to do business in their home country.” More concretely, Marina suggests, this would mean the creation of a special diaspora investment fund. 

To engage with and support diaspora entrepreneurs, the Dutch government and other actors do not need to reinvent the wheel, Marina points out. Activities in other countries organised to engage with entrepreneurs from minority communities can offer huge inspiration. Marina has seen some great examples in Canada. In collaboration with local financial institutions, black-led organisations and various research institutions, the Canadian government launched the Black Entrepreneurship Program (BEP) last year. This 221-million-dollar investment programme aims to help black Canadian business owners to successfully conduct and grow their businesses. Within the BEP, the Black Entrepreneurship Loan Fund provides loans up to $250,000 to black business owners and entrepreneurs across Canada. Additionally, through its Black Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, the BEP will facilitate research on challenges that black Canadian entrepreneurs face and the opportunities that can contribute to their business successes. “The collaboration between the Canadian government, black-led organisations and local banks and knowledge institutions for this programme is a good example of how synergies can be employed to empower vulnerable groups,” Marina observes. That is why she hopes that the Dutch government will also look for collaborations with other relevant actors to develop a similar programme in which diaspora entrepreneurs and other marginalised groups are supported in their business journeys. 

A matter of time

With her plea for a governmental support programme, Marina by no means suggests creating a situation of dependency. “Being dependent on the government is not the way forward,” she explains. “Rather, the government’s role is one of facilitation.” Marina is convinced, however, that African diaspora entrepreneurs will find their way to move forward within the private sector, even without the support of the Dutch government. “There is a vast amount of creativity and innovation within the African diaspora,” Marina continues. “That fire is kept blazing by the fact that every member of the African diaspora with family in their home country is aware of the challenges [they face] and feel responsible to contribute to the betterment of their lives.” This fire has also instigated the creation of various initiatives within the African diaspora to start their own investment platforms because existing (governmental) financial instruments are not accessible to them. “It is unfortunate that they [the Dutch government] do not see the potential of the African diaspora from the very beginning,” Marina states. “But I am sure that the diaspora will take the lead and succeed to provide alternative solutions.” And when such alternative solutions succeed, Marina believes, the Dutch government and business partners will be standing in line to support and join the diaspora entrepreneurs and their initiatives. The way forward is clear. “It is only a matter of time.”