In March 2020, I became a digital nomad. As Covid-19 broke out in China — where I had been living and working for several years — my family and I found ourselves in Malaysia. Recognising the travel challenges, Malaysia rolled over visitor visas for more than a year, enabling us to get a taste of real life in the country. From our Airbnb flat, my husband and I began working remotely, effectively as “digital nomads”. We enrolled our son in a fantastic school, made friends, enjoyed a high standard of life, and our relationships and mental health improved. 

Much to the boredom of our friends at dinner parties now, we became ‘Malaysia fans’. For Malaysia, as white-collar, middle-class workers, we were spending money, paying taxes and investing in the local economy. It was a win for Malaysia as much as it was for us.

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Our story is not unique. We have family friends that found themselves in a similar situation in Barbados. And our story would not have happened but for four related factors: Covid-19 itself; the rapid improvement of remote working tools due to the pandemic; excellent internet access; and Malaysia’s open immigration policy.

Despite building a company that had remote working as a core part of its business model prior to Covid-19, I had never taken seriously the idea of moving country for a better standard of life while doing the same work, or working for the same employer.

Yet, as an African, I should have.

The arbitrariness of African borders, due to the ‘Scramble for Africa’, are well known. Moreover, the concept of being nomadic is central to many African and Arab societies. From the Borana, Fulani, Maasai, Bedouin, Moorish, Tuareg and Herero — from north to south and east to west in our regions — pastoralist, nomadic societies have grown and moved with the climate for centuries. 

Trade by travelling business-people has also been a staple of these regions. How else can the links between the Swahili and Arabic languages be explained?

The problem is that the concept of hard national borders has become so ingrained in our societies that making them more porous has been an uphill struggle. The African Union passport was launched in 2016, but rollout is still pending. Many African and Arab countries retain incredibly restrictive visa policies towards others.

Are digital nomads the answer? It seems not yet.

So far, a paltry four countries in the two regions have official digital nomad visas — Mauritius, Seychelles, Cape Verde and the UAE (Dubai). Their requirements differ, with Cape Verde being the least attractive with just six months validity. Some require proof of employment and income above certain thresholds as well. Kenya and South Africa (Cape Town especially) are reported to be considering such visas too. 

But so many more African countries stand to benefit, especially those with good internet access. There are already an estimated 35 million digital nomads globally. In contrast, many African and Arab tourist destinations are still struggling to attract short-term visitors, especially with slashed marketing budgets due to Covid-19 spending, coupled with inflation in key source markets.

As my family and I experienced in Malaysia, in a post-pandemic world, there is no doubt that digital nomad visas offer a win–win opportunity for a wide range of low- and middle-income countries. But for African and Arab nations they offer something deeper: an opportunity to return to our history and reshape our borders, albeit digitally.

Hannah Wanjie Ryder is the CEO of consultancy Development Reimagined and senior associate at the Center for Strategic International Studies Africa Program.

E-mail: hannahryder@developmentreimagined.com

This article first appeared in the August/September 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.