Strengthening Linkages Between the African Diaspora in the US to Benefit Africa’s Development

By Michael Sudarkasa, CEO, Africa Business Group
August 2021
America and Africa have a 500-year-plus long history of engagement. The US Library of Congress notes that as early as the 1500s, Africans were involved in the Age of Exploration and traveled widely. Africans traversed Ecuador, Mexico and Peru, joined the Coronado when he conquered Mexico and sailed with Ferdinand de Balboa across the Pacific Ocean. Estevanico, a noted African explorer, traveled with the De Vaca and Coronado Spanish expeditions that opened up the current-day region known as the South-western United States. Other Africans traveled with the French Jesuit missionaries as they explored the northern reaches of North America. In the 17th century, when the Age of Colonization accelerated, Africans sstarted settling in the US. The first visitors were indentured servants who came to the Jamestown colony in 1619, a year before English pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Within a decade of this landing the indentured servants had become caught up in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and were enslaved. This period lasted until January 1, 1808, when importing slaves was banned. Fifty-seven years later, on December 18, 1865 the 13th Amendment officially ended slavery in the US. Ninety-nine years later in 1964, the US Congress passed Public Law 88-352 (78 Stat. 241), also known as The Civil Rights Act of 1964, to end discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Provisions of this civil rights act forbade discrimination based on sex, and race in hiring, promoting, and firing employees.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, around the same time the Civil Rights Act was promulgated, the Age of the End of Colonialization was also gathering steam. Over 35 African countries gained their independence between the late 1950s and the end of the 1960s. Although there had been African-born immigrants coming to the US from near the turn of the 20th century to study in African-American Historically Black Colleges and Universities (including the first President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah and Nigerian Nnamdi Azikwe who both attended Lincoln University, PA), the numbers of Africans voluntarily coming to the US began to increase after the Civil Rights era in the 1970s; it accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. By 2018, there were more than 2.4 million immigrants in the US from Africa (2 million from sub-Saharan Africa and 400,000 from North Africa) and between 2010 and 2018 the population increased by 52 percent, significantly outpacing the 12 percent growth rate for the overall foreign-born population during that same period. In 1980 there were approximately 150,000 sub-Saharan Africans in the US but over the next roughly 30 years, it has increased 13 fold.
Sub-Saharan African Immigration Population in the United States, 1980 – 2018

Source: Data from US Census Bureau 2006, 2010, 2015 and 2018 American Community Surveys (ACS), and Campbell J. Gibson and Kay Jung, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-2000” (Working Paper no. 81, US Census Bureau, Washington, DC, February 2006), available online.
Source: Migration Policy Institute, 2018
In 2018, the top five sending countries, accounting for 54% of all sub-Saharan Africans residing in the United States, were Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Somalia. The rationale of immigrants for coming to the US was as diverse as the countries from which the new American-Africans (a term coined by the late Prof. Ali Mazrui) hailed and included refugees from conflict-challenged countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo; highly skilled immigrants and foreign students from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa; diversity lottery visa recipients from countries such as Liberia and Cameroon, and more recently, family members reuniting with immigrants already living in the US.

     Source: US Census

Geographically, while African immigrants in the US are spread across the country, the states with the largest communities of sub-Saharan Africans were Texas (11%), New York (9%), Maryland (8%), California (8%) and Minnesota (6%). The top five counties by concentration of sub-Saharan Africans, which accounted for about 15% of the population, were Harris Country, TX; Bronx County, NY; Montgomery County, MD; Prince George’s County, MD; and Hennepin County, MN. Greater New York City and Washington, DC were the two cities with the largest population of sub-Saharan African immigrants between 2013-2017, followed by Minneapolis, Minnesota; Dallas, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia. These cities are home to roughly 36 % of all sub-Saharan Africans in the US.

    Top Metropolitan Destinations for Sub-Saharan Africans in the United States 2013-2017

   Source: Migration Policy Institute tabulation of US Census Bureau Data, 2018

The top concentrations of Sub-Saharan African Immigrants by US metropolitan area, are thus found in the following 10 communities:
Top 10 Concentrations of Sub-Saharan African Immigrants to the US by Metropolitan Area

Source: Migration Policy Institute tabulation of US Census Bureau Data, 2018

The sub-Saharan African immigrant community tends to be better educated than the overall US immigrant population and native US citizens. In 2017, 40% of sub-Saharan Africans (age 25 and over) held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 31 percent of the total foreign-born population and 32 percent of the U.S.-born population. Among the sub-Saharan African immigrant population, Nigerians and South Africans were the most highly educated, with 61% and 58%, having a bachelor’s degree respectively. Kenyans (50%), Ghanaians (39%), Liberians (31 percent) and Ethiopians (30 percent) followed.
As the population of African immigrants in the US has grown, so has the volume of remittances sent to family, friends, and investments in their countries of origin. According to the World Bank, from 2000 to 2018, there was a more than 13-fold increase in formal remittances to sub-Saharan African countries, reaching $45.7 billion in 2018.
Annual Remittance Flows to Sub-Saharan African Countries, 1980 – 2018

           Source: Migration Policy Institute tabulations of World Bank Data, 2018

The value of noting these demographic developments in the US and recognizing where the African immigrant communities are clustered is that the US has made an effort to reinvigorate the country’s engagement with the African continent. This will occur through institutions such as the recently created successor to the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the US International Development Finance Corporation, and the new US Agency for International Development Program, economic development, trade and investment-focused Prosper Africa program. There is a potentially strategic role that the African immigrant community living in the US can play in supporting projects that arise from these and other US-Africa trade and investment initiatives.
At the same time, as the African Union and individual African countries seek to leverage the expertise and financial resources of the African diaspora in the US, it is also strategic for the continent to consider how to strengthen their ties with these communities. African countries serve as ombudsmen to promote pro-Africa US policy and are catalysts for increased two-way trade with Africa, and promoters of direct and portfolio investment in Africa. Africans living in the US are also potential creators of greater market opportunities for African exporters and to facilitate African initiatives that would benefit from US technology, machinery, and other inputs.
Neilsen notes that in 2020 there were 48.2 African-Americans in the US, and that between 2020 to 2060, they will contribute to more than 20% of the total US population growth. Furthermore, African-Americans are significantly younger (median age of 32) than the national average and 11 years younger than non-hispanic whites. In 2019, consumer expenditures by African-American households totalled approximately $835 billion. Combined spending by all Black households has increased 5 percent annually over the past two decades and has outpaced the growth rate in combined expenditures by White households (3 percent), driven mostly by faster population growth. This community represents a significant potential market for made-in Africa products and a prospective investment community for well-packaged bankable projects.
There are some communities where American-Africans and African-Americans are engaging more. Still, they live parallel and lead unconnected lives, ultimately to Africa’s detriment. The combined influence of these two communities would be much more significant than they are at present, with each operating independently of the other.
Institutions such as the American Association of Blacks in Energy, the National Association of Securities Professionals and the National Bar Association, have all pursued initiatives in Africa that have had some successes. Arguably, they could have been even more impactful if they had involved diasporic communities in America in their implementation.
As the US forges ahead during the Biden Administration with rekindling ties with Africa, there is an opportunity to leverage people-to-people ties and the historic ties that bind the US and Africa to accelerate and deepen linkages. These ties also have the potential of giving the US a competitive and comparative advantage across Africa. The African Continental Free Trade Agreement enhances the continent’s allure among other global powers keen to engage with and benefit from a market that in the next 30 years, will be more than 2.5 billion citizens strong with a GDP of nearly US$30 trillion.