As one of the leaders of our Public and Social Sector Practices in Africa, Acha Leke spends a lot of time applying for visas. From his home in South Africa, he travels widely across the continent, visiting not only the six other African countries in which we have offices but also an additional dozen or so in which we serve clients regularly. What’s more, he does it all on a Cameroonian passport, which, as he says ruefully, “doesn’t help me very much at all” when it comes to visa-free travel across African borders.
Such headaches are familiar to most Africans doing international business on the continent. For all the talk of a pan-African passport, free movement for Africans within Africa remains a distant prospect. One finding from a recent African Development Bank Group (AfDB) report: It is easier for North Americans to travel within Africa than it is for Africans themselves. What’s more, only 13 out of 55 African countries offer liberal access—defined as visa free or visa on arrival—to all Africans. That’s bad news for a continent aiming for closer economic integration as a spur to trade, tourism, and economic growth.
The AfDB report, produced with the help of McKinsey and the World Economic Forum, is the first to rank African countries according to the openness (or not) of their visa regulations for African citizens. At the top of the Africa Visa Openness Index are the Seychelles, Mali, Uganda, Cape Verde, and Togo. These countries have instituted either visa-free or visa-on-arrival policies for citizens of all African countries. “You can see the positive impact on the number of visitors to those countries,” says Acha. “Over time, you’ll also see it in the trade figures.”
So why don’t more African countries open up? Security is one concern, despite evidence that visas aren’t a powerful deterrent to international terrorists. (More effective measures include biometric screening at points of entry and joining IT systems with other countries.) A more prosaic reason is that many embassies depend on visa fees for income. While this is surmountable—visa fees can be collected from visitors on arrival and channeled back to the relevant embassies—the potential hit to cash flow is a very real cause of resistance to change in the diplomatic corps. Perhaps most important of all, many governments fear that loosening visa restrictions will lead to an influx of cheap migrant labor. This helps explain why economic heavyweights such as South Africa and Morocco are in the bottom half of the openness index.
Still, the African Development Bank hopes that tracking and ranking countries will stimulate constructive debate about the benefits of greater openness. The report highlights the example of Rwanda, where the reform-minded government implemented a visa-on-arrival policy for all Africans and halved the price of a visa to $30. Other bright spots include the Economic Community of West African States, which has a policy of open reciprocity among the 15 member states, which include Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal. If you hail from elsewhere in Africa, however, bad luck. National rules still apply.
McKinsey as a whole has an enlightened self-interest in the topic. With more than 300 consultants based in our African offices—and a further 100 or so flying in regularly—it takes administrative heroics and hundreds of embassy visits every year to assemble the best teams on the ground for our clients. Says Acha: “Multiply this by millions to get a sense of why Africa has a problem.”