Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

Brain Drain
from the African Continent

The Flight of African Professionals


Email exchange between Emeagwali and British Broadcasting Corporation in preparation for an interview on Brain Drain of African professionals which was aired in June 1999.


BBC Radio Producer: - That "brain drain" is a historic as well as a recent phenomenon (taking into account the forced removal of Africa's youngest and brightest to the Americas over the centuries)

EMEAGWALI: The brain drain from Africa to the Americas is a four-century-old problem that began with the Atlantic slave trading. The slave ships dropped of 20 million of the most able Africans in the United States, Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America. The United States is a nation that was developed with slave labor. The son of an African slave, Benjamin Banneker, was one of the people that planned and designed the city of Washington, D.C. Today we have 200 million Africans in the Diaspora with expertise that could be tapped to develop the continent.


BBC Radio Producer: - The problem from a more African perspective - I'd like to ask you whether you feel there is the political will, or the political interest, in making science a priority. (My own thought is that it didn't used to be but it's increasingly being seen as more important, especially in some countries e.g. Zimbabwe and Tanzania both have programmes to attract indigenous scientists home from the west)

EMEAGWALI: The degree of interest in science depends on the political and economic stability of each nation. Countries like Zaire, Sierra Leone and Somalia are more interested in winning their ongoing wars than in developing their indigenous technologies. Scientists that are trapped in refugee camps are not contributing to their nation's technological development.

Stable nations like Zimbabwe and Tanzania would like to attract indigenous scientists living in industrialized nations. There are about 20,000 scientists and engineers in Africa. Africa needs one million scientists. There are more African-born scientists and engineers working in the United States than there are in Africa. One reason for few scientists in Africa is that government spending in research and development is 0.2 percent of the gross national product. This is the lowest in the world. Instead, one percent of African gross national product should be spent on scientific and technological development.

We are now in a different age. The Information Age. Knowledge is the most valuable commodity of the Information Age. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is more powerful than jet fighters and bombers. Education must have priority over military spending. My primary school teacher use to tell us: "The pen is mightier than the sword."


BBC Radio Producer: The important question is: How do we stop brain drain?

EMEAGWALI: It will be difficult to legislate against it without encroaching on human rights of the affected individuals. Some of these scientists are fleeing civil wars in Sierra Leone or Zaire, and it does not make sense to tell them to stay and be killed.

To reduce brain drain requires that the developed and developing nations reach a mutual agreement on how to reduce the pull and push factors that make scientists to flee Africa and Asia to Europe and America. The United States should stop using its special visas to lure talented professionals from their native countries. Also, African nations should try and understand the contributions of scientists by improving their working conditions.

Africa could also reduce its internal brain drain by updating its school curricula to reflect its needs for the 21st century. African schools produce more graduates in the arts and humanities than in science and engineering. It does not come as a surprise that there are only 20,000 scientists and engineers in Africa. Since science and technology can increase the standard of living, it makes more sense to produce more scientists and engineers.

Also important is that scientists should be employed as scientists. The deteriorating economy in Africa has forced some professors, medical doctors and scientists to drive taxicabs and operate beer parlors. It is an internal brain drain to have many architects, accountants and pharmacists unemployed.

How can we reverse brain drain. We must admit that African children born and raised in the United States are not likely to return to Africa. They will be willing to visit Africa for a few months. However, those that are underemployed in the United States will consider going back to Africa. The typical taxicab driver in large American cities is an African or Asian with a university degree. Racial discrimination and underemployment is actually a push factor that is constantly pushing Africans and Asians to return to their fatherland.


BBC Radio Producer:

- You started this project, "Africa One" a couple of years ago. How have you progressed, how has it helped the countries where you've got it up and running, and what remains yet to be achieved with it? Do you know of similar projects run by your peers in the US (or other Western countries) in Africa?

EMEAGWALI: I did not start the Africa ONE project. I believe in the importance of telecommunication to Africa and have, therefore, taken it upon myself to promote the Africa ONE project.

Making a telephone call from one African nation to another is very difficult. It is easier for a businessperson in Lagos, Nigeria to make a telephone call to London than it is to make a call to Nairobi, Kenya. The reason is that telephone calls from one African nation to another is first routed through Europe. The Africa ONE project will use fiber optic networks to directly interconnect African nations and make calls between African cities cheaper than international calls.

Africa ONE is a project to loop the entire Africa continent with 30,000 kilometers of submarine fiber optic cable lines. It will have 32 coastal landing points. With the Africa ONE project, Cape Town, South Africa will be directly connected to Alexandria, Egypt. Lagos, Nigeria will be directly connected to Mombassa, Kenya.

Africa ONE is financed by a private group of investors and African nations. The total cost is about 1.6 billion dollars. It is expected to handle 4 billion minutes of telephone calls in the year 2000. We expect it to handle 28 billion minutes by the year 2014.


BBC Radio Producer: - Your discovery of the Connection Machine led directly to the US oil industry benefiting by billions of dollars. How do you feel about your work generating income for the United States and not for Nigeria?

EMEAGWALI: In 1989, I programmed the 65,000 processors of the Connection Machine supercomputer to perform the world's fastest computation of 3.1 billion calculations per second. This technology helps American oil companies discover and recover more oil. However, it has applications in many other fields.

My work illustrates how immigrants are contributing to the technological development of the United States. One in ten Americans were born abroad. America is a nation of immigrants.

My contribution is an example of brain drain from Africa. Nigeria's brain drain is United State's brain gain. Race hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan has called for a limit on non-white immigration to the United States. The KKK described the growing number of immigrants as a "death sentence for America."

The significance of my work is that it proves that immigrants are bringing more to America than they are taking from America. Albert Einstein was a German immigrant of Jewish heritage who fled Nazi Germany to come to the United States. His work and that of immigrant European scientists were used to develop the nuclear weapons that made the United States a military superpower. Similarly, German rocket scientists that were captured at the end of the second world war that developed the technology that enabled the United States land man on the moon.

My work demonstrated a new way of building supercomputers, which are the world's most powerful computers. The supercomputer of today is the computer of tomorrow. Since computers are the most essential tool for entering the Information Age, my work in supercomputing is seen as a critical technology.


BBC Radio Producer: - what are some of the reasons for scientists leaving Africa (including: political instability, civil war, lack of economic infrastructure or research financing, etc).

EMEAGWALI: We have what is called the pull and push factors. United States is using special visas and higher salaries to pull African professionals. Last year, the United States issued 115,000 HB-1 visas to professional with technical expertise. The United States economy gains about 100,000 dollars a year from each HB-1 visa immigrant. In effect, Third World countries are giving technological aid to the United States that has a monetary value of 12 billion dollars a year. Africa and Asia are investing in the development of the United States.

One in ten Americans were born abroad. Two thousand Nigerian doctors practice in the United States. There are more Sierra Leonean doctors in Chicago than in Sierra Leone.

The push factors include political instability, low wages and unemployment. Sixty percent of Ghanaian-trained medical doctors are practicing outside Ghana.

The rich nations get richer while the poor nations get poorer.


BBC Radio Producer: What do you personally feel needs to happen in African countries in order to stop, or even reverse, brain drain? In your interview with Peter Mwaura you mentioned a number of solutions - getting the US to pay indemnities for imported labour, paying people of African descent to teach or do some research in Africa each year, etc.

EMEAGWALI: Some Africans abroad will never return home but will like to retire in Africa. African nations should encourage Africans abroad to invest their savings and retirement income back home. As an incentive, the government should create a special high-interest account for Africans abroad. The government should also guarantee the depositors that it will refund their money if they become victimized by bank fraud or foreclosures.

Africans living abroad are also making the brain drain problem worse when returning home to marry. An unmarried man that visits Nigeria with a green card will receive marriage proposals by female professionals who will like to live and work in the United States. When she leaves Nigeria to join her husband, she might be quitting her job as a medical doctor Nigeria to practice in the United States. This is brain drain by marriage.


BBC Radio Producer: What do you think about African-Americans returning home to Africa.

EMEAGWALI: African-Americans are Africans born in America. It is a homecoming trip to their motherland. A trip to Africa is spiritual pilgrimage that I recommend for people of Africans heritage living in the Caribbean, United States and South America. The reggae singer, Peter Tosh, said it quite well in his famous 1980s song. He said: "No matter where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African!"

Many African-American tourists are interested in visiting sacred places such as the slave dungeons and Goree Island, the last places their paternal maternal ancestors were shipped to the Americas.

The challenge is luring the 200 million people of African heritage whose ancestors left Africa 200 years ago to permanently return home. Among the one billion people of African descent, African-Americans have the highest level of education and affluence. They can contribute immeasurable to the development of Africa.


Emeagwali dropped out of school at the age of 12, served in the Biafran army at the age of 14 and came to the United States on scholarship in March 1974. Emeagwali won the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, computation's Nobel Prize, for inventing a formula that lets computers perform their fastest computations, work that led to the reinvention of supercomputers. He has been extolled by Bill Clinton as "one of the great minds of the Information Age," described by CNN as "A Father of the Internet," and is the world's most searched-for scientist on the Internet.

Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

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Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor