Economic transformation requires highly skilled, innovative and entrepreneurial forces to promote trade and investment and drive the growth of key sectors such as banking, resources and information & communication technology. Yet a 2013 study found that Africa’s visa requirements and immigration laws were among the most restrictive in the world. African needed visas to visit 60% of African countries, and only five African countries at the time — Seychelles, Mozambique, Rwanda, Comoros and Madagascar — allowed visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to all Africans.

Since the publication of that study, several countries have relaxed their visa requirements. Today, Africans need visas to visit 55% of African countries, and eight additional countries — Uganda, Burundi, Somalia, Togo, Cape Verde, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, and Mauritania — offer liberal access, raising the total to 13.

Despite this, African countries remain largely closed to one another. The main reasons are: security; the impact of the influx of foreigners on the local economy; and the potential loss of revenue, as visa fees are in many cases the sole source of revenue for African embassies.

Restrictive visa requirements prevent the pooling of skills . The private sector is unable to acquire, move or retain skills at the levels or speed it requires .

Wealthier countries have higher levels of emigration as highly skilled Africans often leave the continent in search of greater opportunities.

Africa could start by introducing the following:

  • Visa reciprocity: Ensure that citizens of countries with relaxed visa requirements benefit from similar agreements. It is often easier for non-Africans to travel to African destinations than for Africans themselves. An American citizen, for example, needs visas for only 42% of African countries. African citizens do not generally enjoy the same benefits when travelling to countries whose citizens travel freely in Africa.
  • Visa-free regional blocs: Encourage blocs to follow the example of the Economic Community of West African States, which allows free movement between member countries with limitations or stricter controls for non-members.
  • Visas on arrival: Allow visas to be obtained on arrival by citizens of other African countries. To boost trade and tourism, Rwanda grants visas to Africans at its borders and has one of the continent’s most liberal migration policies. It was the first African country to offer an online visa service. It manages border controls using a biometric system that registers facial images and fingerprints.
  • Regional bloc visas: Institute a bloc visa valid for visits to all countries in the region (similar to the Schengen visa).
  • Long-term visas for vetted applications (the US and the UK offer 10-year visitor visas).
  • Simpler application processes — starting with business visas — including documents required, fees, time to issue and online applications.
  • A single passport valid for all Africans who meet a set of key requirements (such as business people who travel extensively across the continent).

McKinsey, the African Development Bank and the World Economic Forum plan to publish a yearly “Welcome to Africa” report, showing progress at country, region and continental level in facilitating the free flow of talent.

Africa is one of the most closed regions in the world. Its visa situation poses a formidable obstacle to tourism and business travel, access to health care and education, and migration to open up new markets and opportunities. Most of all, it limits the mobility of its own people and talent and is thus a huge barrier to economic progress.

Some governments have started to take action to open up their borders. This process has accelerated over the past 18 months, showing that speedy change is possible. It is now time for other countries to follow their lead.

This article is published in collaboration with Financial Mail. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Acha Leke is a director at McKinsey & Co in Johannesburg.

Image: A member of Daallo Airlines ground crew walks down an aisle inside their airline at Aden Abdule International Airport in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. REUTERS/Feisal Omar