For expatriates who take up a position in Africa, the limited or lack of spousal employment opportunity is an issue that affects both employees and employers. For the expatriate employee, a non working spouse or partner can result in decreased family income. In addition, the lack of employment opportunities for spouses is more often, a source of spousal dissatisfaction which has been known to be the biggest reason that assignments fail (even in cases where the dual career couple remains in the country, there is evidence that the assignee’s productivity suffers as the spouse struggles to adjust to not working and its effects on their sense of worth and identity). In recent years and in large part due to the increase in the number of dual career couples, companies have started to design strategies and policies to enhance their recruitment and retention strategies focusing o how best to support dual career couples. Notwithstanding a company’s commitment to formulating an effective spousal employment and support strategy and policy, the job market in Africa presents unique challenges to dual career couples. Unlike in North America, Europe, or even Asia, the local job market in Africa offers fewer opportunities. One only has to look no further than the unemployment rate on the continent and youth unemployment for evidence of a very tight job market. Even so, there are differences in opportunities between the countries ranging from abysmal in places such as Niger and Chad to promising in countries such as Kenya and Nigeria. And before any company rushes to hire and spend money (something I do not recommend!) on a consulting firm to help secure a job for a spouse they need to understand what are some of the givens and where they can have the most significant impact.
The best places
Your best bet for spousal employment opportunities are in countries with large multinationals and international organizations- including embassies. The ideal countries also have strong service sectors and favorable local employment laws. Using the number of international NGOs and international multinationals in each countries, the size and quality of the service sector as measured by the number of tourists, the quality and depth size of the international schools, quality of internet connectivity -an important element for self employment or telecommuting, and local laws as pertain to the hiring of non nationals, I have identified the following countries as presenting the best opportunities for spousal employment: Kenya; Ethiopia; Accra; Mauritius; South Africa; Botswana; Morocco; Gabon; Senegal; Tunisia; and Nigeria. Of these Kenya and Ethiopia seem to offer the strongest potential given the large number of international organizations in these two countries. Kenya for instance is home to the 4thlargest UN office with a few thousand employees while Ethiopia is host to several regional African organizations, all of which are potential sources of employment. In spite of its large multinational corporations and vibrant economy, South Africa has relatively limited opportunities in large part due to its very protective labor laws that favors employment of nationals over expatriates.
Irrespective of your destination, most jobs in the private sectors in Africa are created by the mining, extractive and oil industries. While these hold a promise of a job, it is important to also be reminded that they most likely will require specialized academic degrees or technical training in these areas. In the second tier countries, the national and international NGOs as well as the international schools hold some employment potential for spouses and partners. This is because the schools and NGOs have high turn-over and are always happy to have the services of qualified spouses or partners. If you choose to explore employment with the local NGOs you should be aware that the pay will be based on local salaries and in some cases-you will be required to work in a language other than English.
Organizations which have been the most successful n securing employment for spouses and partners are those which have identified such employment opportunities from within their own organizations. True, there are risks of abuse -conflict of interest and cronyism, but that is precisely what good policies can and should address. Companies looking for successful models can look at US, French and Canadian embassies as well as aid agencies which set aside or designate some jobs for spouses only. The advantage of this is that companies take matters into their own hands and are not subjected to the local economy or labor laws. The obvious drawback is that there might not be enough jobs for all eligible spouses, hence the necessity to have a well crafted spousal employment policy to ensure fairness and avoid abuses.
Making the Best of your lack of Employment
Volunteer- If you find yourself unemployed, you should seek volunteering opportunities that will allow you to learn new skills or maintain your professional competencies. The best places to seek such opportunities are the hundreds of NGOs that are found in all of the countries. They would be glad to have someone who can help with marketing, use of new technologies, communication, and networking. In addition, hundreds of technical schools and the international schools are ideal places to network and lend ones expertise. Volunteering can make the spouse feel part of the community and can help speed up the pace of adjustment and integration into the local culture. One should be careful to verify whether volunteering requires a permit as is the case in several countries in Africa.
Learn a new skill – whether it is drumming, basket weaving, jewelry making, the local language, batik making, pottery, this would be the best investment of your time overseas and possibly even a good investment for your future freelance jobs if you get good at whatever you are learning. In fact, I recommend this even if you are employed. There are a couple of reasons for this, generally, the fees for the sessions are incredibly affordable compared to what they would cost in Europe or the US and you could even have private (or very small group) lessons at your home. While in Benin, a colleague and I paid the equivalent of 5 dollars each for an hour long drumming lesson. The drummer came to our home and with only 2 students we learned fast. Today, I can impress my friends drumming. I have even drummed in public events and my only regret, a big one is that I should done it for the entire five years I was there to ensure that I could make a decent living drumming after retirement!
Of course, another good use of your time could be to take classes to get or complete a degree – depending on availability of courses in the country and or reliable and effective technology to enroll in on-line courses.
Below are resources which can be used to help strategize for spousal or partner employment in Africa.