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The African Factor: Census Shows Economic Divide


Monday, January 8, 2007
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As the number of Africans in the Diaspora increases, their economic impact both in Africa and in their newly adopted homes continues to rise profoundly. This impact can be felt throughout the global marketplace and directly affects the communities they inhabit. In Minnesota, African-born immigrants are establishing their clout, effecting change in everything from local politics to economic trends.  

What socioeconomic trends and changes might 2007 bring for the African Diaspora in Minnesota? The probable answers seem limitless; however, the latest figures from the 2006 American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau has experts and ordinary people alike pondering the many current and future challenges for Africans across the state.  

According to the recently released survey, the median household income for African immigrants, including those of sub-Saharan ancestry born in the U.S., stood at only $21,000. That is less than half that of White and Asian households, which both average approximately $54,000, and still well below the $35,700 average for Hispanic households.

The survey, which was conducted in 2005, made headlines in the Star Tribune and other major media in Minnesota mainly due to two facts: incomes of Asians nearly equal those of Whites, and the income gap between African immigrants and other groups has further widened.

But what are the socio-economic forces behind these numbers? What analysis needs to accompany such data? What are the challenges that African immigrants have to face, before this income gap can even start to close? And what success stories are possibly left out of such figures and headlines?

With approximately 5,000 immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa having arrived in the state each year since 2000, the importance and magnitude of those questions will only rise. Mshale recently interviewed some new African business owners, professionals and community leaders about the survey and those questions and challenges.

Raising One African Bird at a Time
“It takes time to learn how to survive in this country,” said Peter Mwaura, who first came to Minnesota from Kenya in 1999. “It is not just about education. You have to stay focused on self-improvement. You can’t be afraid to try new things. You can’t be afraid even to fail.”

In June of 2006, Mwaura opened Simba Craftware, a shop retailing African crafts, artwork, and accessories, in the new Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. Just 27 years old, Mwaura did not have any extensive background in business before opening Simba Craftware.

“I took my daughter to Kenya earlier in the year, and I was struck by the beautiful hand-carved bird figures I saw,” he said. “That’s when the idea of opening a store in Minnesota came to me.”

At the time, Mwaura had been studying music production at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and he has since taken time off to get the store off the ground. Among the rows of kiosks and food courts at the Midtown Global Market, his store stands out with hundreds of brightly-colored birds hanging from mobiles around the kiosk. The birds have remained his best selling product beside handmade handbags, sandals, batik art, and other goods familiar to anyone who has lived or traveled in East Africa.

During slow business hours, Mwaura can often be found stooped over one of the store’s wooden chess tables, engaged in an intense game of wits with a neighboring store owner or with a passerby who might want to challenge him.   
 
“Many Africans come here and just end up working in nursing homes or as parking attendants,” he said. “We all need to start somewhere, but, at some point, you just have to reach out for the light. Nobody else is going to do it for you.”

Simba Craftware had its start eased thanks in part to financing from the African Development Center (ADC), which, since it opened its doors in April 2004, has been a gateway to financial success for many African immigrants.

Hussein Samatar, the founder and executive director of ADC says, “Entrepreneurship is not a new thing for the African community. The only way they know how to survive, is to start a business. If you look at the big picture, you will find that overall the African community has improved themselves. There is a sense of hope and also of concern.”

Samatar noted that some of the economic gains made by the African immigrant remain largely unnoticed because of the sheer amount of new African arrivals to the state, especially from Somalia and Ethiopia, who have to start earning their livelihood from scratch.

“The numbers reflect how we are getting more and more people from Africa in Minnesota,” he said. “Many come in as refugees. They have to start fresh. They have to learn the language, and it may take many years for some to get settled.”  

If one looks at some of the city-specific data, the figures tell a somewhat different story. For example, Asians households in Brooklyn Park have a median average income of $59,210, while Asian households in Minneapolis and St. Paul have a significantly lower average of $34,281 and $38,676 respectively. Median household incomes for Africans and Hispanics in Brooklyn Park are also higher than those in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Community experts like Samatar have interpreted such numbers as directly rated to how much longer many Asian immigrant families have been in the state, such as Hmong families who started coming in significant numbers over 20 years ago, and have become homeowners in the suburbs.

“For African businesses that have been here longer, they are starting to enter the second stage of development,” he said. “Many are starting to wholesale their goods – not only selling to their own ethnic groups, but to the mainstream.”

Samatar went on to illustrate two other critical indicators of development for immigrant communities: higher education and homeownership. He stated that many African immigrant students are enrolled in Minnesota college campuses. As their economic status rises Africans have started becoming homeowners.

Other African community members have questioned the accuracy of the figures both in terms of Minnesota’s African population (68,096 according to the Census), and of the median household income data, which they consider in part inaccurate due to some traditional African economic practices, such as bartering which is unconventional in mainstream America.  

“Help, not handouts, is needed because of the rising numbers. But the future is still bright,” said Samatar.

Just down the street from the ADC on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis, Stephen Kaggwa works behind the counter at Tam Tam’s African Restaurant, which he opened July 2006. Kaggwa, a chef and new business owner, said that he underwent an immense struggle in order to come to Minnesota from Uganda. He is also a beneficiary of financing from ADC which he used to open the restaurant in Minneapolis.

“It’s a challenging journey, but I know many African immigrants who are doing extremely well and making more than $100,000 per year,” said Kaggwa. “We do have a big gap to cover. Those of us who have found some success, we have to get into our communities and educate our people.”

Kaggwa also cited the large number of new African arrivals in the state as an explanation for the low median household income numbers.

“Probably, in the next generation, African immigrants will rise up and so will these numbers,” he said.

It is clear that the African Diaspora in Minnesota has had a significantly lower impression on the economy than other longer established immigrant groups. Most are employed in jobs that do not require strong English skills in the service sector or other African-owned businesses. However, more African-born immigrants are enrolling in postsecondary institutions allowing them an opportunity to further integrate into the professional community and establish deeper economic roots. As more African students graduate from Minnesotan colleges and universities and merge into the workforce there is bound to be an economic shift in the African immigrant community. For the African community in Minnesota, 2007 will undoubtedly be a year to pay close attention to.

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