Wildebeests aren't the only things migrating across the plains of the Serengeti this season.
Summer's arrived in America, Kenya's long rainy season has finally come to an end, and as predictable as the seasons the annual migration of young American expatriates into and out of Africa is well under way. This year, entering stage right: summer interns and recent college graduates looking for experience. Exiting stage left: Harvard, Wharton, and MIT's MBA Classes of 2014, looking for whatever's next.
Things weren't always this streamlined. For decades, the great continent of Africa was slotted into fulfilling two roles for America's young and restless: As a place to "find yourself," the pinnacle of soul-searching to be attained in some mud hut drinking cow blood with a Maasai tribe (or something equally and equivocally cultural), or as a place to repent sins and/or selflessly serve the rest of humanity -- perhaps educate, clothe, feed, or "civilize" those very same Maasai.
Africa was a temporary settlement camp for America's young agents of virtue and wayfaring soldiers of the backpacker's army, intent on dirt-cheap exploration or humanitarian salvation. It was not the kind of place Americans came to build a resume -- until now.
Today, the continent is taking on a surprising new role for some American Gen-Y circles: As a jumping point -- a place to actually "make yourself" rather than "find yourself."
Regional hubs have sprouted up where young entrepreneurs, promising careers, and business school applications are being born, crafted, and polished. From a place of career escapism to a place of strategic career creation, young American engagement in Africa has come a long way.
As I've watched the droves of eager young Americans come and go from the communal houses and hazy watering holes of Nairobi's finer neighborhoods, I've begun to notice a pattern, and it goes a little something like this:
They arrive fresh out of college, demoralized by the state of U.S. economy and the perceived lack of opportunity for a chance to prove their worth, while invigorated by the social innovation revolution which promises ground-level experience in start-ups that achieve the precarious balance of financial and social impact -- a true Generation Y trait.
During the first six months to a year, they gain tremendously valuable business experience in a developing world context. They run businesses in the slums, tinker with new technologies, develop mobile applications, and refine business models with CEO's and impact investors in an unpredictable, untapped market. It's like an international MBA crash-course.
Then, usually at about the one-year mark, something happens.
Home beckons. MBA applications are accepted. The next rung on the ladder of life awaits. Africa is a place of opportunity and experience, yes, but for most young Americans, ultimately, it's not a permanent investment. It's a stepping-stone.
While there's no need to delve into beyond a simple mention the irony of young Americans flocking to Africa in search of opportunity (as many of their African counterparts wait humbly outside their nearest U.S. Embassy for a green card), this modern day 'African Social Enterprise Safari' could be perceived as a new form of young entrepreneurial colonialism, if you may.
Americans using Africa as an exotic playground to experiment with products and technologies they think they can sell to help 'Africans' help themselves, or using the continent as a place to pad business school applications, or simply a good location to kill a year somewhat productively -- seems like self-serving motives tied to a humanitarian-ish agenda.
Well, maybe. But I think there's more to it. Compared to the aid-driven 'salvation safaris' of the past, this generation's intentions and motivations are clearer, their paths less ambiguous and impulsive, and their impacts more lasting.
Historically, individual-centric aid projects in African countries have been often rightly criticized for creating cycles of dependency, broken promises, and abandoned relationships. The typical "I'm here to bring (insert good thing here) to your village!" followed by the "I just can't stay... I'm so sorry!" may bring short-term benefits but long-term failures. Yet the shift to business-minded travel and exploration is something that leaves a little more than a portfolio of failed good intentions.
In any environment, foreigners bring a different perspective, a diverse background of experiences and new ideas. For Kenyans (though I can't entirely speak for a country of 40 million), the American social enterprise safari may be resulting in a unique knowledge transfer and foreign impulse that is inspiring a new generation of Kenyan entrepreneurs to think about business differently.
To be honest, in some cases social enterprise appears to be a luxury form of business -- for those who can afford to sacrifice financial profits for social gains. They typically take more investment, effort, and support to get started. With most of the money funding Kenya's young entrepreneurs coming from relatively newly accumulated wealth, no one wants to see it disappear because a business was too "social." They want profit. There may be a social impact to their business, but that's secondary.
Instead of creating a product because it will be 'good,' most developing world entrepreneurs are focused on creating products because there is a demand to reduce market inefficiencies or fill important gaps. They hope their companies generate hefty profits, and grow to employ the vast sea of unemployed. And employment -- jobs created, income secured -- is the most powerful social impact of all.
So, when the young Americans finally leave -- after a year, five years, whatever it may be -- whether they attempted and failed to start a company or simply worked with someone else's, their impact remains. Perhaps they are using Kenya as a stepping stone to a better future, or quickly abandoning all they've invested in, selfishly turning their back on lifted spirits and promises to head home or to business school. Or, perhaps they are simply leaving a framework, a roadmap of ideas, a more social edge to traditional entrepreneurship, and more opportunities for Kenyans to build things themselves.
Across the Atlantic lies another significant change worth noting. The fact that there is this great American migration in the first place reflects a true paradigm shift of young American perception, which ultimately will serve to benefit places like Kenya. They have gone from viewing the African continent as a place to find themselves or save others, to now a place with immense opportunity for growth -- for them and their peers. In doing so, they are leaving behind more than just a trail of money spent, experiences had, and friendships made. They are leaving an open channel of communication, exchange of ideas, partnerships, and even greater prospects for the future.
Most notably, they return home with stories not (just) of starving children, mud huts, and drinking cow blood in a Maasai village, but of technology, entrepreneurship, and economic opportunity.