Every month, Chinwe Ohajuruka sends money back home to her family in Nigeria. An architect, project manager, and sustainability consultant, she is part of a community of more than 30 million African diaspora spread across the globe.
The West African country is the largest recipient of migrant remittance in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank, Nigerians contribute a total of US $11 billion annually, while collectively, the African diaspora sends more than US$40 billion.
Sending funds home is not cheap, especially in the region, with costs nearly 30 percent higher than the global average—another reason why it’s near impossible to give an accurate figure on exactly how much money flows into the continent, as it is cheaper to transfer through informal undocumented channels. What is accurate is the important role remittance plays. Not only is it a key foreign exchange earner, it also helps support the livelihood of countless families. But sending money home is one thing—transferring expertise is another. It’s something Ohajuruka is well aware of. In January 2009, she started Comprehensive Design Services, a company committed to sustainable design solutions for Nigeria and Africa. Her vision is to build affordable housing using renewable energy sources such as solar thermal power and harvested rainwater.
Ohajuruka, who has lived in the United States for nearly a decade, is one example of the “African diaspora-led task force,” a community of Africans living in the U.S. who continue to contribute to their countries of origin. While addressing more than 500 U.S.-based African diaspora leaders from the private sector to civil society at the second annual Global Diaspora Forum, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for continued partnerships between these leaders and the U.S. Government, saying “the fact is that the United States has always benefited from the influx of talent and dynamism that diasporas of all kinds bring to our shores.” She adds that they’re also the ones most willing to take risks to empower and improve their country of origin. As the country with the most global diaspora, U.S. involvement is strategic.
But it’s firstly about celebration, says Thomas Debass, the director for Global Partnerships in the Global Partnership Initiative. An Ethiopian native, he says “we must celebrate the diversity the diaspora brings. In parts of the world it is considered a liability. We see it as an asset, we need them, we need their voice”.
Panel discussions were held at the forum to address ways to amplify that voice by providing a platform to facilitate engagement. The “Innovations to Affect Change” panel for one, addressed how to raise awareness about issues relevant to the diaspora and in turn educate others on how to make a meaningful contribution. The Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN) is an example of self-organization. Already in its fifth year, they’re on a mission to develop and support talented women and girls of the African diaspora. More than 200 members-strong from 28 African countries, the network connects these individuals while providing leadership and promoting community service.
Funding, however, remains a stumbling block. For Chinwe Ohajuruka, the African Diaspora Marketplace competition was a perfect opportunity to seek both financial and technical assistance. Sponsored by USAID and Western Union Company, applicants are invited to submit full business plans before presenting their idea to a panel of judges. Ohajuruka did just that, and was one of the 17 recipients of this years’ award. She says the money will be used to set up an office and launch a pilot housing project in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, that can accommodate 16 families.
It’s exactly that sort of thinking that sparked the theme for this years Global Diaspora Forum—“Moving Forward by Giving Back”. Ohajuruka says the moment she arrived in the U.S. she connected with other Africans, asking how they would use their experience abroad to help develop the continent. “As diaspora it’s my responsibility to go beyond remittance and find additional ways to contribute.” She’s already hired two local staff members in Nigeria, and arranged for them to undergo skills training. “I’ll continue to send money home”, she says, “but I’ll be sending money to build capacity.”