When banks started to fail and protesters began filling the streets in 2019, Moussa Khoury resisted the temptation to leave his native Lebanon. After a massive explosion flattened part of Beirut, the capital, last year, he fixed his broken windows and stayed put. But in the end he could not withstand the collapse of Lebanon’s currency. Mr Khoury runs a startup selling vegetables grown in hydroponic planters. His customers paid him in liras, while his suppliers demanded hard currency. So in April he accepted an offer from an acquaintance who promised to invest in the business—if Mr Khoury moved it to Ghana. More than 250,000 Lebanese probably live in west Africa. It is impossible to know how many have moved there since Lebanon’s economic crisis began in 2019, but the evidence suggests the number is large. A pilot of Lebanese descent living in Togo says Lebanese pack his flights to west Africa. Lebanon’s embassy in Nigeria reports a “noticeable increase” in Lebanese moving to the country. Guita Hourani, who leads a centre that studies migration at Notre Dame University-Louaize in Lebanon, says her office is flooded with calls from locals who want advice on how to track down relatives abroad, including in Africa. Many Lebanese came to west Africa in the 19th century, disembarking (some say by mistake) from ships heading for America. The new arrivals proved remarkably successful, first as middlemen between locals and colonising powers, later as business owners and commodity traders. Today, for example, Lebanese reportedly control many of the companies in Ivory Coast that handle exports of coffee or cocoa.
Over a century of conflict, crisis and famine have scattered Lebanese all over the world. But these days Lebanese find it much easier to obtain visas from west African destinations than from America or European countries. Jobs are easier to get hold of, too. Someone always knows someone who has an opening, says Karim Maky, a Senegalese of Lebanese descent. Skilled workers are paid well. And most west African countries already have Lebanese churches, mosques and schools.
Some newcomers plan to stay for a while. Take Ibrahim Chahine, a young mechanical engineer who left Lebanon last year. Canada’s visa process was too cumbersome, he says. His applications to Gulf countries went unanswered. So when he got a job at a company run by Lebanese in Nigeria, he didn’t think twice. Within two weeks he had moved to Abuja, the capital. He expects to stay for ten years.
Mr Khoury is not so sure. He had hoped to use his startup to boost agricultural production in Lebanon, which currently imports nearly all of its food. Instead he is building a greenhouse in Accra, the capital of Ghana, with the aim of selling baskets of kale, leeks and lettuce to local supermarkets, restaurants and hotels. He plans to spend at least a year there. But his extended family is back in Lebanon. And he’s kept his operation there open. That’s because of nostalgia, he says, not profits.
The Economist, Jun. 12th, 2021