Boost cultural ties to tap diaspora potential – 30th July 2019


Article by Joseph Waithaka, Head of diaspora banking, ABC Bank Kenya
This article was featured in the Business Daily here

A long-time friend who lives and works in the United States of America once called me with a rather peculiar request. His son was coming back to Kenya from the US and my friend wanted me to pick him up from the airport on his arrival. My friend was worried that since his son had spent ten continuous years in the US, he might have lost his bearing and would need help to find his way around once he jetted back into Kenya.

Having personally spent 16 years in the US, I could easily understand where my friend was coming from but a number of my colleagues could not fathom the fact that someone can ‘forget’ or lose touch with their home country no matter how long they stay away. Decades ago, Kenyans typically left the country for a limited time, either to work or study, with the intention of returning to Kenya to settle. In recent years, this scenario has changed, with more in the diaspora staying away for tens of years and building a life away from Kenya.

This state of affairs has had a significant toll on what can be referred to as the second generation diaspora who might have left the country while too young thereby forming completely new identities while abroad. This generation tends to assimilate to the host country’s culture making it difficult for the parents to leave the host country for home.

The fact that Kenyans in the diaspora play a significant role in propping up our economy cannot be understated. Recent data from the World Bank shows that Kenyans working abroad sent home Sh 280 billion in remittances in 2018, outpacing earnings from tourism, tea, coffee and horticulture exports.

The report that was prepared by Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development, a World Bank unit, shows that remittances from Kenyans in the diaspora were also higher than those sent to the other East African countries combined.

As laudable as this is, it might be too early to uncork the champagne in celebration and here is why.

Whereas the hundreds of billions of shillings are critical in supporting relatives back home in meeting obligations like paying school fees, hospital bills and food as well as making long-term investments such as building homes, over the years I have noted that many Kenyans working abroad are increasingly opting to make long-term investments abroad rather than home.

A cursory inquiry into this new trend quickly reveals that this gradual shift has more to do with the aspirations of the second-generation Kenyans in the diaspora which may not tally with those of their parents.For their parents, the staying abroad is a temporary phase that will eventually end with their return back home once they have done their best in fending for their kin.

For the second generation however, abroad feels like home since they assimilate to the new culture in order to get in sync with their peers.

The early 2000s brought with it an economic boom in Kenya that coincided with economic boom in western countries. Home ownership became really easy due to easy access to mortgage financing and low interest rates. At the same time increased economic opportunities in the Kenyan capital and real estate markets attracted many in the Diaspora to invest back home.

The result has been a unique situation, where many Kenyans living abroad have significant investments in both countries.

These are the Kenyans that can loosely be described as the “sandwich generation”, with roots anchored in the immediate family and a strong attachment to the home country. However, in many cases these Kenyans are bringing up children who do not share the same attachment for Kenya and hence have other roots abroad.

As they grow older, they are grappling with the issue of ensuring a smooth transition in matters succession especially for investments made in Kenya.

Lack of enough exposure to the Kenyan culture and way of life additionally poses a significant challenge in re-integrating the children back into the country. As such, these children often lack a strong Kenyan identity and may struggle with the idea of returning to a ‘home’ they can barely relate to.

To spur interest in investments made back home parents should keep their Kenyan ties alive by making sure that their children visit their ancestral homes frequently, and for extended periods of time. While in Kenya, let these children mingle with their grandparents and extended family.

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