Relocating to Africa during the 2020 pandemic

ERA General Manager, Rene Webster, answers the question: Is there still a market for relocation to Africa amidst a global health crisis with hard-felt economic effects?

People are certainly still relocating to Africa, or rather, wanting to relocate. Indeed, our biggest challenge has not been that corporates have stopped placing assignees – although many have put assignments on hold – it is that national borders remain closed. In many cases, even though the origin country has opened its borders, the destination country will not allow the assignee to enter, or vice versa.

It is true that when the pandemic took hold on the continent in April and May, we saw an increase in departures without corresponding new arrivals, but we also experienced a significant rise in the number of requests to assist with lease extensions as corporates looked to extend the contracts of expats already in place.

As an ex-corporate and ex-expat myself, this makes perfect sense. In a time of crisis management, it is prudent to keep a team together that has already adapted culturally, knows the nuances of the country and understands each other’s strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, I believe that many planned expat replacements will be postponed until Q1 2021, particularly in cases where the corporate has not already expatriated the predecessor or if a project has been placed on hold.

That being said, there has been a steady uptick in the number of new initiations since the last week of June, a trend I believe will continue through August. We are also assisting many corporates who have specialist assignees they desperately need to place as soon as borders reopen. These companies appear eager to get back into markets to mitigate the financial effects of COVID-19, and Africa has the potential to still deliver a relatively reasonable year thanks to higher economic growth rates than in Europe.

How will COVID-19 affect relocation to Africa going forward?

While I certainly foresee a preference for virtual assignments and increased business travel in Europe and the USA, Africa will need a more traditional relocation approach for a number of reasons.

Air travel
Where in other parts of the world assignees can work remotely, travelling to their assignment countries at regular intervals, the cost, scarcity and long-haul nature of flights to Africa form a barrier to this type working of arrangement on the continent. Moreover, as the pandemic persists, airlines are reducing routes and increasing costs, further impeding the virtual assignment movement.

Company culture
Culturally, most African countries are accustomed to direct supervision, so remote management would necessitate a period of adjustment for local staff. Add to this variable internet access and connectivity and suddenly virtual assignments are not ideal, with onboarding and integration being especially complicated.

Job profile
The nature of the roles that expats fill in Africa tend to be those that require a hands-on presence, making remote work an unsatisfactory substitute. Think of your specialist production line engineer who would be ineffectual via video conference.

What I do envisage is that corporates will start to explore local plus assignments, actively seeking locals who have the necessary skills but are working abroad, and bringing them home. There will also be in an increase in inter-Africa moves.

Has the pandemic affected relocations to Africa?

In the short term, yes. The shrinking global economy has directly impacted local and expatriate hires, and we are unlikely to see the volumes of the last two years repeated in 2020 and 2021.

Can we still add value? Absolutely. The coronavirus has highlighted the critical role we play in duty of care, and overnight we have transformed the way we deliver services to increase our focus on this important function. Tied to that, flexibility and the ability to adapt to rapidly changing situations on the ground has proved crucial.

Because ultimately this is the essence of relocation: being able to make a difference in people’s lives where and when they need us to. This is more relevant than ever on a continent that can take you out of your comfort zone, at a time when the world feels a little upside down.