Feature Article of Sunday, 6 March 2005

Columnist: Boston Globe

Africa luring back many expatriates

Professionals returning home help fuel boom

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- After 23 years of living abroad, Tadiwos Belete left Boston five years ago to return to his native Ethiopia. He hoped to cash in on what he sees as an untapped market here: one-stop, full-service beauty salons and day spas.

The venture might seem risky considering that most Ethiopians earn less than $2 a day, nearly a sixth of its population teeters on the edge of hunger, and the country is consistently ranked among the world's poorest. But Belete and others see promise in this Horn of Africa nation, which is experiencing a boom of sorts, with its economy for the past two years expanding faster than China's.

''I'm not here doing charity work. I'm a businessman," Belete, 40, said recently, his voice rising above the hectic sparkle of his hair salon as he straightened a woman's black locks between his fingers to snip off the ends. ''Ethiopia is growing, and I want to be part of its development."

The road to wealth rarely leads back to Africa. But even as millions of Africans line up at foreign embassies for visas to the West, another trend is developing: Thousands of Africans and those with African roots in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean are returning each year to their ancestral homeland.

Not since the early 1960s, as one African nation after another gained its independence from European nations, has there been such a fervent interest among expatriate Africans in returning home.

Government officials in Ghana and Ethiopia, apparently the two countries most attractive to returnees, have estimated the number of returning Africans to be in the thousands.

Business leaders in Ghana and Ethiopia have launched their own ''back to Africa" campaigns to retrieve the more successful among their diaspora and attract black urban professionals from the United States and Europe.

In some cases, they are lured to Africa with promises of easy citizenship, inexpensive real estate, and tax breaks, helping to reverse the westward migration of its best educated and most talented.

Ghana, once a hub for the West African slave trade, is reaching back centuries to woo US blacks to the land of their forefathers.

Similar to Israel's granting of automatic citizenship to Jews, black Americans can claim their ''right of abode" in Ghana, allowing them to work and own land. Citizenship is all but guaranteed after they reside in the country for seven years.

Several African embassies in the United States and Europe have started recruiting top entrepreneurs from among the diaspora, appealing to their sense of patriotism and duty to persuade them to start businesses and develop home-grown talent.

Ethiopia's success in attracting its own citizens living abroad is largely responsible for the boom in Addis Ababa, its capital.

''You don't see many Congolese or Liberian expatriates returning to their countries; it's because those countries are not ready for them," said Kinfe Abraham, chief adviser for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the economic bloc for eastern Africa. ''Ethiopia is ready for her people to come back."

With Ethiopia's latest peace only five years old -- after a brutal two-year border war with Eritrea -- the country's president, Meles Zenawi, quickly turned his attention to development, initiating major road-building projects and construction of a bigger airport, as well as more hotels, hospitals, and schools.

''I started coming back here to inspire Ethiopians to invent because I believe invention is the engine of any society," said Tessema Dosho Shifferaw, 51, a native Ethiopian who moved to the United States in 1973 and made his fortune by inventing the Bowflex exercise machine before returning here part time three years ago.

Shifferaw, who lives most of the year in San Jose, Calif., finds himself spending more and more time in Ethiopia, taking long trips to the countryside where donkey carts are the dominant mode of transportation and the agrarian life of most Ethiopians has not changed for centuries.

''It's not like driving to Napa Valley. Here, you see that life can be hard, and that's one of the reasons I want to be here," said Shifferaw, whose mentoring of young Ethiopian inventors and engineers has brought a few promising leads, including a new odor-eating insole and several toys that he considers ''highly marketable."

At the Addis Sheraton -- the Ethiopian capital's only five-star hotel, though two others are being built -- Shifferaw and a half-dozen repatriates lounge at the Office Bar with glasses of whiskey and thick cigars. They are the captains of Ethiopia's progress.

''It's hard to know what's bringing people back, whether it's the good economy or a love of Ethiopia," said Danny Davis, 37, who was adopted by an Atlanta couple 29 years ago and dropped his Ethiopian surname, Seyoum, for an easy-to-pronounce name that sounds less ethnic. ''For me, it's personal. I want to make a difference in my own country."

Davis, who started returning to Ethiopia two years ago, owns a restaurant in Washington, a city with the highest concentration of expatriated Ethiopians.

Ethiopians are among the most successful immigrants in the United States, sending millions of dollars every year to relatives back home. Their remittances, estimated at more than $400 million last year, surpassed coffee as Ethiopia's biggest source of foreign exchange.

But not everyone is excited about the country's economic plan and the returning Ethiopians who are fueling it. Many Ethiopians bristle at the construction of several luxury hotels and the new $150 million international airport in the capital. The country, they say, should focus on grass-roots development, especially in the farming areas where more than 80 percent of Ethiopians live.

For some repatriates, the return to Africa is part of a movement inspired by Jamaican-born pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, who saw the 1930 coronation of Ethiopia's last emperor, Haile Selassie, as the beginning of a long-awaited African renaissance, drawing in blacks from all over the world.

Hundreds of African intellectuals, scholars, and artists gathered earlier this month in Addis Ababa for a three-day symposium dubbed ''Africa Unite," part of a tribute for what would have been singer Bob Marley's 60th birthday. One of the emotional highlights of the symposium was a speech by Kenyan lawyer Dudley Thompson, who defended Jomo Kenyatta in the 1950s Mau Mau trials in which British colonials sought to crush an uprising by Kenyan activists and farmers.

''Fifty years ago, none of us would have been sitting here. Fifty years ago, our grandparents would not have thought that we would be returning to Africa with a message in our hearts that Africa is our home," he said as the auditorium exploded with applause.

In their exodus to Africa, the returnees are not exactly shedding their Western accruals.

Belete, formerly one of the owners of Konjo Salon of Elegance on Newbury Street, imported from Boston nearly all the furnishings for his new venture, the Boston Day Spa, on one of the neon-lit boulevards of Ethiopia's capital.

''As someone who has lived in Boston for a long time, I wanted to bring back to my fellow Ethiopians the experience of being in a Boston salon," he said.

''They might not be able to visit the US, but for a day, they will hardly notice that they're in Addis."