Understanding the complexity of the African diaspora

Diaspora Inclusion,Migration08 Jun 2020Kemo Camara

Partnering with the African diaspora as a bridge between The Netherlands and Africa could be a major advantage in building an effective African policy strategy for both the public and private sectors. The key to harnessing the potential of the more than 700,000 people with African roots living in the Netherlands is two-fold: First, to understand and recognise the diversity and complexity of the diaspora community; and second, to design an entrepreneurial engagement approach that emphasizes the shared needs and values within this diverse community. At Omek, a new digital platform dedicated to the social and professional advancement of the African diaspora community, these two lessons are at the very heart of the organisation.

Introducing Omek

Omek is a community-centric platform designed to make connection and collaboration simple for African diaspora professionals, their allies, and to promote their social and professional advancement. Our vision is to create a strong network of empowered professionals who are meaningful contributors to the economies and cultures of their country of origin as well as the country where they live. Omek is the result of my personal and academic experience. As an African diaspora professional who’s lived, studied and worked in Africa, the U.S. and Europe, I have had the unique privilege to not only experience what it is to be a member of the diaspora in these continents, but also to study the dynamics through surveys, interviews, and countless discussions with other diaspora professionals across the United States and Europe. The result of these studies could be summarized into two main takeaways: The first is the growing desire in the African diaspora community to connect with other like-minded professionals and to be a part of something bigger than oneself. The second is promoting inclusion, equality, representation and participation of the diaspora in business and society. 

Learning from the U.S.-India Relationship

What we sought to realise with Omek is to provide an entrepreneurial bridge for the African diaspora. To that end, much can be learned from the relationship between the U.S. and India relationship. An integrated network of cross-cultural diaspora-lead community organisations, angel investors and educational strategies currently underpins the intimate ties between the start-up worlds of these two nations. In 2018, India invested $9.62 billion into the U.S.; 25% of start-ups in Silicon Valley are run by the Indian diaspora; and at the same time, Bangalore is the third largest start-up city globally. The successful bridge-building between India and the Indian diaspora in the U.S. can largely be attributed to a specific Indian policy. In 2000 the Indian government mandated a High-Level Committee to make a comprehensive study of the global Indian diaspora and to recommend measures for a constructive relationship with them. The commission produced a 300- page document with recommendations for an effective ‘engagement policy’. For developing an effective engagement approach at Omek, however, the U.S.-Indian example was insufficient. What distinguishes the African diaspora is its great diversity and complexity. In order to harness the potential of this community, therefore, recognising and understanding these dynamics is key. 

Complexity within the African Diaspora 

Africa is home to 54 different countries and some of the most ethnically diverse communities in the world. Many of these communities speak different dialects and have various cultures, traditions, and religious beliefs. Nigeria alone is home to more than 200 different ethnical groups. This diversity is also reflected in the African diaspora communities. Very often you will find these communities either organized along geographical boundaries like countries, state, town, and village, or by their ethical, political, educational, or religious affiliation. Additionally, there are strong divisions within  the African diaspora communities along generational lines.  The first-generation diaspora -those who migrated from Africa- and the second generation -those born or brought at a young age-, represent two totally different sets of diaspora groups in terms of  mindset, experience, and values. The second-generation diaspora are bicultural, highly educated, and more integrated into their host society while their parents (the first generation) are more culturally and emotionally connected with their country of origin. 

I believe the biggest mistake and reason why so many African diaspora organisations or engagement policies fail is that they try to group the diaspora communities based on their geographical origin. This approach alone is problematic for two reasons. First, it emphasizes the differences already existing within the diaspora community; and second, it leads to overly simplistic policy approaches that fail to do justice to the realities of a complex and dynamic community. 

The Omek strategy

Contrary to the geographical segmentation, at Omek we use a so-called psychographic segmentation of the African diaspora community to inform our entrepreneurial approach. We have grouped the community into four categories, based on common passion, shared values, vision, and beliefs. This segmentation was inspired by a Harvard Business Review article on diaspora marketing. In the article, the authors make the case for how companies from the developing world can overcome the obstacles to entering Western markets by using a smart strategy of leveraging their diasporas as their springboards for gaining brand recognition before breaking out into the mainstream. While resulting in separate categories, in practice the psychographic approach highlights what the African diaspora communities have in common, not what divides them. It inspires possibilities and a new way of thinking. It helps cut across physical, ethnic, political, and religious boundaries as well as alleviates the noise associated with these characteristics. The four different categories (summarized for the purpose of this article) we have identified at Omek are as follows:    

  1. The Cultural Advocates — First generation, low income with a low degree of formal education. They are usually members of the religious and local community associations and are very keen on creating a social support system for members within the community. They are still very connected and versed in the African culture and traditions. 
  2. The Ethnic Affirmers — First generation, come from low to medium income backgrounds. They are well educated professionals or business owners. They are very conscious about preserving their African cultural identity through their kids and activities. They are leaders in their local community associations – professional or social. 
  3. The Biculturals — Second generation, highly educated, maintain a sense of belonging to both home and host cultures without compromising their identity. They are tech-savvy, entrepreneurs, and social media influencers. Cultural identity, social justice, equality, success, climate change, and changing the African narrative are amongst their key priorities. 
  4. The Assimilators — First and second generation. Medium to high income, well educated, and career-focused. They are successful professionals and business owners. They are well integrated in their host societies and usually don’t associate with their African culture or community in general. Although they are not much involved in the community, the assimilators are still keen on giving back and providing opportunities to younger generation Africans. It’s important to also point out that the assimilators are a very small segment of the African diaspora community.

After identifying these categories, at Omek we decided to focus on the bicultural people of all African descent including Surinamese, Caribbeans, and African Americans. Due to their unique cultural and hyphenated identity, we believe biculturals represent the future of the new global workforce. They have good social awareness with the ability to navigate complex and uncharted social and professional situations. They have the ability to bridge cultural, societal, and generational gaps. We believe by empowering and harnessing the potential of these biculturals, we not only create a strong network of empowered professionals who are meaningful contributors to the economy and culture; we also create a more equal and inclusive society where everyone is given the opportunity to participate in value creation. 

A way forward 

Much like the Indian diaspora in the U.S., African diaspora professionals in The Netherlands can be an important partner in shaping the African policy strategy for both the public and private sector. The key to realising such success will be through a concerted effort of various stakeholders, including the Dutch government, to understand the dynamic and complexity within the diaspora community, and then design a new and entrepreneurial engagement approach. The Omek team is happy to share our expertise and collaborate with new partners to support any innovative diaspora engagement effort. By working together and looking beyond geographical divisions and long-standing assumptions, The Netherlands can harness the social, human, financial, cultural, and philanthropic capital of the African diasporas for more effective and inclusive development programming.